Friday, October 14, 2016

‘The Wall Is a Fantasy’


...Now the border loomed again, bristling with guards and cameras. This time, if caught, he faced six months in detention. He didn’t care. “I’ll go back and try again,” he said. Nothing could stop him, he said. Not even a new wall.

Across the globe, walls are going up. In Europe, columns of refugees snaking over borders have sent leaders scrambling for solutions in concrete and razor wire. Hungary has erected a 108-mile-long fence to keep out Syrians; at the French port of Calais, Britain is funding a barrier to prevent Afghans and Africans slipping into the channel tunnel. Public sympathy for immigrants, once kindled by images of drowned infants washing up on European shores, has been curdled by terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and Nice. The defensive mood has spread to Africa, where Kenya plans to build a 440-mile-long wall along its frontier with Somalia to keep out the Shabab militia.

As a reporter based in the Middle East, I’ve mostly been on the other side of those walls, in places that might be described as the underbelly of globalization. This spring, in a scruffy Egyptian fishing village at the mouth of the Nile, I met restless teenagers who, drawn by images of Western glamour on Facebook, yearned to board the smugglers’ boats. In the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo, I had breakfast with a surgeon who, as bombs exploded outside, spoke of dispatching his family to Canada. In Tripoli, Libya, a young Nigerian migrant named Oke peeked through a church door, mulling his chances of surviving the fraught voyage across the Mediterranean.\

...America, the land of migrants, never seemed to need walls. It had water — vast oceans, east and west — and, since 2001, a formidable visa program. And yet this year, the drem of a grand protective barrier across the 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico catapulted Mr. Trump’s presidential bid into stunning viability. “Build that wall!” chanted candidate and crowd in unison at rallies this year.

And yet, the closer you get to the border, the fewer people think that it might work — even among Trump supporters and law enforcement officials. “The wall is a fantasy,” said Tony Estrada, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, Ariz., a border district that is one of the busiest corridors of drugs and people smuggling in America. “I don’t care how big, how high or how long it is — it’s not going to solve the problem.”

He sighed. “But people are eating it up,’’ he said. “I can’t believe it.”

Mr. Estrada, who is 73, knows better than most that borders are more than lines on a map. Born in Mexico, he arrived in America at the age of 1. Until the 1970s, he said, the border had an organic quality. During the Cinco de Mayo fiesta, dancers paraded from Mexico into America then back again; beauty queens from both countries sat together on a platform that straddled the border; white tourists crossed into Mexico for the bullfights, the night life and the “rum runs” — cheap alcohol.
Then the drug wars exploded, and in 1995, a fence started to rise. Crime fell sharply, but the drop exacted a cost. Tourism withered, the curio shops closed and there was a painful tear in the cross-border culture. “The dynamic changed,” he said.

...The fence itself is a formidable sight, spanning about one-third of the 2,000-mile frontier from California to Texas, and patrolled by about 20,000 agents. One of the most tightly guarded stretches is around the city of Nogales, which straddles the border. Here, the first world abuts the third. American Nogales, orderly and somniferous, pushes up against Mexican Nogales, an unruly metropolis of 300,000 souls where the Sinaloa cartel looms large.

John Lawson, a border patrol officer born in Pennsylvania, took us on a tour of the fence, a slatted metal barrier, 18 to 30 feet high, that undulates along the hills on either side of Nogales. It was built at a cost of $4 million per mile, which includes an array of military-style fortifications. We passed pole-mounted cameras, radars, vibration sensors and, in the dip of valley, a line of World War II-style Normandy barriers meant to stop any Mexican vehicle from crashing through America’s front gate. The border patrol reaches into the air, too, with a fleet of drones, balloons and Blackhawk helicopters.
And yet, the “migrantes” and the “traficantes” still slip through.

...To modern-day cowboys and ranchers, Mexican migrants are the new foe. Ranching families thronged to the Cochise County Fair, outside the border town of Douglas, for an archetypal show of rural Americana. Children screamed with delight at the turkey race as their parents went to the rodeo; neon-lit stalls sold corn dogs, Confederate flags and gun paraphernalia.

Tony Fraze, a rancher and Trump supporter, paused to chat. Migrants were the scourge of the area, he said. They damaged fences, vandalized water systems and left trash that killed livestock. “You can’t leave your door open or your keys in your truck,” he said. “If you do, they might take them and kill you, too.” He mentioned Rob Krentz, a local rancher shot in 2010 in a traumatic case that briefly made the national news.

...Dark clouds scudded the sky as we drove 30 miles east to to see Ed Ashurst, a cowboy of craggy temperament. He is the author of three books on ranching and one on the migrant problem, titled “Alligators in the Moat.” “Immigration is a multikazillion dollar industry,” he declared. “They have scouts on every mountain and an intelligence operation better than the C.I.A.”

The night before, he found a migrant snoozing in his saddle house, and promptly turned him over to the border patrol. He hates President Obama (“not a patriot”) and likes Mr. Trump, but dismissed talk of a border wall as a “farce.” His solution was to deploy Navy SEALs along the border, arm them with AR-15 rifles, and give them orders to shoot anyone who crossed.

Later, on a walk through a field, Mr. Ashurst pointed to the detritus left by migrants — food tins in Spanish, plastic bags. I asked if he felt any compassion for the migrants’ plight. His voice rose sharply. “I’ve helped more Mexicans than these activist types,” he said. “But just because I’m a Republican, and I want a closed border, I’m a sorry son of a bitch.”


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