Border visit from Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas highlights change in Ariz. Governor's Office

Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

NOGALES — U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made his second trip to Arizona's southern border Tuesday, a return visit that highlighted a shift in approach from the state’s top office — from combat to collaboration.

Mayorkas was invited by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who faced questions during the campaign about her toughness on border issues. The then-candidate said she would work more closely with the federal government on practical solutions than her Republican predecessor did, or her bombastic GOP opponent would.

The transformation in attitude led to Mayorkas’ trip, where he and Hobbs stood side by side as he announced an operation targeting fentanyl and pledged to do more.

The joint operation between U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations, both under the DHS umbrella, stopped more than 900 pounds of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, 700 pounds of methamphetamine and 100 pounds of cocaine from entering the country in its first week, Mayorkas said. Eighteen arrests were made as part of the enforcement effort dubbed Operation Blue Lotus, he said.

"We have lost too many Americans to fentanyl and other illegal drugs, and it will take all of us working together to put an end to it," Mayorkas said.

Mayorkas and Hobbs both spoke about the dangers of fentanyl following a joint tour of the Mariposa Port of Entry on Tuesday afternoon. They are the latest politicians to visit Arizona's southern border, which has drawn increasing attention after Republicans seized the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have seized almost 11,000 pounds of fentanyl at the nation’s southern border since October, the start of the federal fiscal year, compared to just 4,000 pounds in the same timeframe last year. Over 90% of that was seized at ports of entry, according to CBP data.

Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs, left, and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas, right, attend a press conference at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales on March 21, 2023.

"The only way out of this crisis is through partnerships between state, local, tribal, and federal governments and stakeholders," Hobbs said, pledging also to work with community groups to cut addiction. "Drug supply responds to drug demand," the governor said.

Mayorkas’ visit to the state included a ceremony honoring Department of Homeland Security employees at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, an event held in a hangar with a backdrop of a Black Hawk helicopter and giant U.S. flag waving in the breeze.

He joined Hobbs for a tour of a shelter that houses migrants, Casa Alitas, before both traveled to Nogales to tour the Mariposa Port of Entry.

The port sees 25,000 people and over 1,000 commercial trucks pass through each day, Mayorkas said. That bustle — evidenced by the snaking line of cars waiting to cross through a checkpoint or the frequent blast of tractor trailer horns — helps make Nogales Arizona's busiest port, according to federal data.

Hobbs' calendar for the day also featured meetings with Department of Public Safety staff, a group of southern Arizona county supervisors organized as the Arizona Border Counties Coalition, and the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. She also visited a health center, El Rio Community Health Center, in Tucson.

Border issues:Migrants decry 3 years of border restrictions as Homeland Security secretary visits nearby

Change in Governor's Office shifts tone

On the campaign trail last year, Republicans attacked then-candidate Hobbs over her plans for the border, portraying her as weak.

Hobbs pledged to pressure the federal government to do more on border enforcement and immigration reform, while bolstering state support to border sheriffs and nonprofits at the border. Border issues can be tricky for state leaders, because federal courts have placed immigration policy and enforcement in the hands of federal agencies and Congress.

She announced in January, during her State of the State speech, that she had invited Mayorkas to visit Arizona's border with Mexico, something her predecessor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, had long urged. But in Mayorkas' two visits to the state while Ducey was governor (one of which was to the border), they did not appear together.

Ducey rose to national attention for his border policies and was among the slew of Republican elected officials who called for Mayorkas to resign, adding to a pressure campaign that has intensified with the articles of impeachment introduced by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., last month.

The shift in tone coming from the state's chief executive was notable in securing Mayorkas' visit.

"I think it's a powerful example of what we can do together, when we work together," he said. "There is strength in partnership, we can deliver results when we work together. Collaboration is the key to address very, very complex challenges. Challenges that have persisted for years and years."

In motion:Arizona will bus, fly migrants from state under new Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs

The Tucson and Nogales jaunt was Hobbs' third trip to border communities in Arizona in her first 100 days in office. She visited Nogales, Sonora, in February and toured Yuma, San Luis and Somerton in March. It was Mayorkas' fourth visit to the state, and he departed to continue a border tour in Texas.

"More than anything, my visits to the border and talking with community leaders has just reinforced what we already knew, that we need partnership to address the many complex issues we're facing as a border state, and that our border communities face," Hobbs said. "I'm grateful for the secretary for joining me here so we can talk about ways to partner with the federal government on this issue."

It was not only policymakers that drew attention to the border Tuesday. Just a few hours before Mayorkas and Hobbs spoke to reporters, several dozen migrants gathered in Nogales, Sonora, to decry a border policy known as Title 42 that has delayed asylum for thousands of people. They pleaded for the creation of a humane pathway to asylum.

Republicans, Democrats welcome visit

Other recent visits to Arizona's border include a trip by U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and four other GOP lawmakers who traveled to Cochise County last month. The tour reflected Arizona's prominent place in the national debate on border security, but was dubbed a publicity stunt by the White House.

But for Mayorkas' visit Tuesday, some of his loudest critics in the state were silent. Rep. Juan Ciscomani, a freshman Republican who visited the border with McCarthy, declined comment through a spokesman. A call to Biggs' office was not returned.

The visit was well received among state lawmakers, who for years have sought to tackle border security issues through funding or other means, though one GOP border hawk questioned what would come of it.

Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Goodyear and a leading proponent of border security at the Arizona Capitol, said it was good Mayorkas "finally" came to the border.

"My hope is that more comes from his visit than a photo-op," Montenegro said. "The message needs to be carried back to this administration that we have an urgent public health crisis in Arizona caused by an open border and the crime, illegal narcotics, human smuggling and sex trafficking it's brought."

Sen. Brian Fernandez, D-Yuma, whose district stretches across the border in Yuma and Pima counties, welcomed Mayorkas' visit and the governor's early push to make the border a priority.

"Dealing with the border has long been political football that parties have kicked around to win points with voters," Fernandez said. "Addressing our need for security starts with conversations and expert input, and I am confident that her trips to the border are a good first step."

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.