Of all the executive orders President Donald Trump has signed this week, there’s a big one that comes to mind for Texas: the wall, which Trump has ordered to be built along the southern border. As anyone who lives in the many border towns and cities across southern Texas knows, there’s already something that functions as a wall – although in some places it looks more like a fence than a wall – that went up in 2006.
Further west along the border, past the Texas line, sits a town of just under 100,000 people: Yuma, Arizona. Larry Nelson was the mayor of Yuma in 2006 and worked with federal officials after former President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act.
“[Bush] was made aware of the problem and he made a special trip out to see what is the problem – and it was really bad,” Nelson says. “All we had was a little barbed-wire cattle fence that was mostly broken down. … When they finished the fence, the numbers went approximately 140,000 arrests or captured. After it was up, that number went down to about 4,000 a year.”
When Nelson heard the news in 2016 about the proposed border wall plans, he says he “wholeheartedly” agreed with it. But not many border town mayors – past or present – are singing the same tune. He says that could be due to the economic implications for the towns closest to the border versus those for the rest of the state.
“We had mayors in Arizona that were saying the same thing, ‘We don’t want that wall, we don’t want this border sealed,’ – but the general opinion of the state and the majority of the mayors of the state, may not be the border mayors’,” Nelson says. “You’ve got these little towns along the way … they don’t have the ability to get these people across to do their business and get them back and I say fine, let’s get the legal ones over no problem. But it’s not the legal ones we’re worried about, it’s the illegal ones.”
Five hundred miles from Yuma, across the Texas state line sits El Paso, the former mayor of which has a different take on the proposed wall. John Cook, who served as mayor from 1999 to 2013, is now the executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association. His reaction to Trump’s plan was not so favorable.
“It’s ridiculous to want to build a border wall or fence that goes all the way from San Diego to Brownsville,” he says. “A lot of the area where there is no fence or wall right now is out in the middle of nowhere and it’s not places where people are trying to gain access illegally into the country. … You can just tell that the existing fences that we put up – some of them I supported some, I didn’t.”
The areas he did support were those in highly populated areas. The further away you get from those areas, he says, building walls and fencing doesn’t make since. And the existing structures are demonstrating some effectiveness; Cook says in 2012 there were about 409,000 illegal entry removals, whereas, in 2016, that number came down to about 240,000.
“On the other side of that coin is in 2004, we had about 10,500 border patrol agents – the number now stands somewhere at about 21,000,” he says.
When it comes to former Yuma mayor Nelson’s opinion, Cook says it’s because Yuma is one of those highly populated areas where a barrier is necessary. But the cost of putting up barriers in non-populated areas is high.
“In the El Paso sector alone we put 131 miles of fencing up at the cost of $3 million a mile,” he says. “Right after we build the border fence, six months later, we found a tunnel that cost about $250,000 that one of the cartels built under the Rio Grande to get access.”
The bigger issue, Cook says, is immigration reform.
“People would not be coming across into the U.S. if they couldn’t find work here – it’s an economic issue that they’re coming here for,” he says. “If they got to this country and they could not find work, to be able to work legally, then they wouldn’t come. So why not fix the broken immigration system where you actually need to import workers into the United States – give them a way to come in legally and they will. Don’t force them to come illegally.
Written by Allyson Michele.