In Arizona, immigration politics clash with reality on the border In Nogales, Ariz., immigration and casual border crossings are a way of life. But the pressure is mounting as asylum seekers strain local resources and the economy depends on border traffic.

How immigration politics clash with reality in the swing state of Arizona

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Immigration is a top campaign topic for both President Biden and former President Trump. But amid the rallying cries to voters, border communities are feeling left behind. NPR's Ximena Bustillo reports from the swing state of Arizona.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: La Cinderella has been in Evan Kory's family for nearly 80 years.

EVAN KORY: Yeah, so we do two seasons. Like, so then the spring just started.

BUSTILLO: Boxes are piled high with multicolored shoes and everything from bows to tiaras to bracelets, sparkles.

KORY: That's a picture of my grandfather. And that's the year it opened, La Cinderella. And that's the block we just walked over there.

BUSTILLO: The store sits at the edge of Morley Avenue, also known as El Centro to those on both the U.S. and Mexico sides of the border. People cross for food, dates and art on both sides. La Cinderella is just feet away from the fence that separates Nogales, USA, from Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico.

KORY: We're very used to starting sentences in English and then finishing in Spanish, right? I think that duality that exists is something we're very proud of. It's a part of our identity.

BUSTILLO: Kory has seen border politics play out firsthand. Throughout the decades, he's seen it become more restrictive to cross the border and, most recently, the impacts of border closures.

KORY: Well, during COVID, the border was closed to Mexican nationals, and most of the stores on Morley Avenue did close. But really, we saw what happens when you cut that off, and it means that we cease to exist ultimately.

BUSTILLO: Then in December, the Biden administration closed the port in Lukeville, Ariz., so port officers could help process migrants arriving elsewhere.

KORY: We really, really were worried about, you know, what other ports are going to close next.

BUSTILLO: Over the last few months, southeastern Arizona has been one of the busiest parts of the border for asylum-seekers.

ADELITA GRIJALVA: If you just look at every other border community and every other sector, we are exceeding the number of people coming through every day by, you know, a thousand at least.

BUSTILLO: That's Adelita Grijalva, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Using a federal program first funded by the Trump administration, the county and city of Tucson partnered with a Casa Alitas, a charity group, to shelter thousands of asylum-seekers. But reliance on the federal government has its downsides. In March, Casa Alitas and border towns braced for federal dollars to run out.

GRIJALVA: The stress that we're feeling here in our community is, like, how do we continue to address and serve and keep our community safe, both for those who are seeking asylum and for our community here?

BUSTILLO: Diego Pina Lopez, program director of Casa Alitas, said his staff was warned of layoffs. And cafeteria volunteers started feeding shelter residents ramen noodles to cut costs. In an 11th hour save, congress approved funding. But officials warned the new money may only last three more months. After that, Pina Lopez worries asylum-seekers would be forced to turn to homeless shelters that are not equipped to help them.

DIEGO PINA LOPEZ: Most of the families that are coming through stays anywhere from six to 72 hours. There are issues, like I said, with family separation, medical issues, sponsor issues, where they stay longer.

BUSTILLO: But in an election year, many locals doubt that either political party has an appetite for serious solutions. Josh Rubin is a chairman of the Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority. He says the border has become a political football.

JOSH RUBIN: It wasn't, we're going to stop this because we don't agree with it. It was, we're going to stop this because we need our party to win, or I need to get reelected, or - it became a reelection issue.

BUSTILLO: Sitting in a busy local diner in Nogales, Rubin said these towns rely on a functional immigration system.

RUBIN: We need our ports of entry working at the best capacity they possibly can and provide the resources to the groups that are processing migrants and processing situations.

BUSTILLO: Both Biden and Trump need Arizona's enthusiasm. The swing state could help elect the next president. Tackling issues along the border is essential, says Evan Kory at La Cinderella.

KORY: We have to. There's no choice, right? And I think that we have to have empathy towards the situation, and our humanity is really No. 1.

BUSTILLO: He hopes the candidates spend time in the border communities to understand the needs. Ximena Bustillo, NPR News, Tucson, Ariz.

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