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For People Living Along The Border, A Wall Is More Than A Talking Point

The fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border is seen at sunset on July 22, 2018 in Nogales, Ariz. President Trump has proposed replacing the fence with a wall. (John Moore/Getty Images)
The fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border is seen at sunset on July 22, 2018 in Nogales, Ariz. President Trump has proposed replacing the fence with a wall. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Americans can’t seem to stop talking about walls. But for some people living along the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s more than something to debate — it’s a reality.

Jesus is a fourth-grader standing on one side of the steel mesh border fence in Nogales, Mexico. I am standing inches away on the other side in Nogales, Arizona. His mother Stephanie Camacho is next to me. She makes this trip to the fence every weekend to visit family.

Camacho cannot cross this fence. She says she has legal problems here in the U.S. that make it difficult to go back and forth. She won’t say much more about that — but she did say President Trump’s proposed $6 billion, 200-mile-long wall won’t work.

“They’ll have more problems, I don’t know, [a] person jumping the wall. I think it’s [a] bad idea,” she says.

I came to this spot along the border to see how the weekslong partial government shutdown is affecting life at ground zero.

“It’s a hard issue. There’s no easy answer,” says Leslie Kramer, who lives in the nearby town of Sonoita, Arizona. She spent the day in Mexico having lunch with visitors from Wisconsin, and she had just crossed back into the U.S., stray dogs barking behind her.

“I think the most frustrating problem for me is nobody really wants to solve it,” Kramer says of the shutdown. “They just want to stake out their positions and have a standoff — and that doesn’t help anybody.”

Like any border town, Nogales depends on the free movement of people like Kramer, and the movement of goods.

As a large freight train rolls south across the border, Bruce Bracker, a Santa Cruz County commissioner, explains what it’s carrying.

“It’s bringing components for … [maquiladora] manufacturing in Mexico,” he says. “Ford has a large plant down in Hermosillo, so this could be stuff that was produced in the Midwest that’s going down, components that are going to be parts of the cars that are finally produced. … There’s two trains that go southbound each day, and there’s a couple trains that come northbound each day.”

That’s good news for Nogales. But it’s too late for Bracker’s family business. He used to run a department store on Morley Avenue, a little block of low-cost shops.

“In the ’70s, this was literally the most expensive real estate in the state of Arizona,” he says. “The rents here were higher than the rents in Scottsdale, and that was because [of] all the Mexican nationals that were coming over here and shopping.”

But Bracker gave up on the business a few years ago. He says customs restrictions after 9/11 slowly choked off the flow of customers.

“In 2007, you had 7 1/2 million people walking across the border into downtown Nogales every year,” he says. “If you were a business person, it was phenomenal. … Business was very good for our family.”

The government shutdown doesn’t make things any easier. The Nogales Border Patrol station is the second largest in the U.S. Agents and customs officers are working, but they’re not getting paid.

I drove about a mile up the road from the fence to take a break at Antojitos Mexicanos — a little restaurant known for its traditional soup — and I just happened to run into the mayor of Nogales, Democrat Arturo Garino.

Garino says it’s time for politicians to figure out the shutdown mess and make a deal that will open the government. The president’s pitch — $5.7 billion for a wall in exchange for temporary protections for some immigrants — isn’t going over well in Nogales, Garino says.

“We’ve had a border wall here for more than 20 years, all right? Maybe they should come to Nogales and look at the real border wall. We’ve had one before anybody started talking about it,” he says.

“If you were to give $6 billion and you would tell Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, all of them, and said, ‘Here’s $6 billion. You use it the way you want to,’ I can almost bet that they would go by hiring more personnel, they would go by probably having more access roads to the border, because the topography doesn’t help. And then probably, at the very end, they will say, ‘OK, we do need barriers, we do need walls, because … there’s gaps.”

On past trips to the border, I’ve met with supporters of Trump’s wall who want to see those gaps closed. In 2016, a rancher told me drug smugglers cut through his property and tear down his fences. Just this week, Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally made her own trip to a spot near Yuma where 376 people breached the fence and presented themselves to border agents for asylum.

If you listen to what people from both sides of the political spectrum are saying here in Arizona, you might notice nuance that you don’t often hear in Washington. Many Republicans acknowledge it takes more than a wall to secure the border, and many Democrats agree that in some cases, a wall makes sense — including county supervisor Bruce Bracker.

“I think that it’s important that Border Patrol has had a plan to roll out these barriers, whether it’s a bollard fence, whether it’s electronic, they’ve been getting control of the border,” he says. “But to come in and say that we’re going to invest in walls and ignore ports of entry — and I know that I read the president’s announcement, he’s saying he’s going to put [$800 million] into ports of entry — Arizona alone needs $1.2 billion. CBP assessment of needs at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexican border is $5 billion.”

Bracker says ports of entry pose the real infrastructure problem at the border.

“If you look at a map of the United States and you look at the states, and you look and see who the No. 1 or who the No. 2 trading partner for most of these states are, it’s Mexico,” he says.

Whether Washington is listening, however, is anyone’s guess.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.