I’ve traveled the Boca Chica Highway that leads to a beach where the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande meet in the easternmost part of Texas. Along the way are historical markers that note where a Civil War battle was fought and signs for a future SpaceX facility.
I’ve floated on an inner tube in the Amistad Reservoir near Del Rio, Texas, where the two countries are not separated by a wall but joined by water. I’ve driven through cotton fields in Mexicali, Mexico leading to the small border town of Los Algodones, appropriately named, where American tourists visit pharmacies and dentists and shop in a local mercado. I’ve explored abandoned trains in the town of Jacumba near the California-Mexico border.
If you listen to President Donald Trump, you may believe that the US-Mexico border is nothing but crime and chaos, an open door for gang members and migrants eager to exploit our nation’s immigration laws. As if to emphasize this point, Trump recently sent the National Guard to the border to stop the purported border flow. He also supports a Trump policy to cruelly separate immigrant children from their parents.
What we don’t hear about is the natural beauty of the border, the thriving businesses at the border, and the daily life of people who cross the border for work and school. I’ve traveled the entire length of the southern border, as well as more than half of the northern border, and have visited more than two dozen border communities, from big cities to small towns.
People drive cars on the beach at Brazos Island State Park in eastern Texas. Families picnic and camp near the water at the Amistad Reservoir. Birdwatchers and hikers admire the breathtaking views from Big Bend National Park in west Texas. I followed a beautiful lightning storm driving along the border through New Mexico. In Arizona, saguaro and other cacti punctuate the landscape. Outside Calexico, the border wall was painted with pink circles and blue, white, and yellow diamond shapes. The rocky hills near Jacumba, California, look like a moonscape.
Along the way I met people who live quietly along the border. Not one person thought a bigger wall would make a difference and not one person I met advocated for an “open border.”
“Believe it or not, the wall has already been built there. There’s a fence that goes all across from Brownsville to California,” said Victor Pedraza from El Paso, Texas, who stood at the shores of the Rio Grande supervising a group of Boy Scouts who went to Big Bend National Park to camp, hike, and go horseback riding.
He and other border residents do not think the US border communities are unsafe. “To me it’s more dangerous inside the cities than it is over here at the border,” said Juan Gonzalez, who worked at a gas station in Marathon, Texas.
The number of Border Patrol agents has nearly doubled since 2004, when there were more than 10,000 agents. The increase began under President Bush and continued through President Obama’s administration. Today, Congress mandates that there be more than 21,000 Border Patrol agents and there are more than 19,000 agents employed. The agency is working to fill the 2,000 jobs that are vacant. Trump has said he wants to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol and 10,000 more ICE agents.
In 2016, I traveled by car, east to west, 1,900 miles along the southern border. On another trip, in 2017, I traveled 1,500 miles by car from the southern border at Nogales, Arizona, north to Glacier National Park, and beyond to the border crossing near Babb, Montana. Then I traveled another 1,500 miles east across the Hi-Line through Montana, then from North Dakota into Minnesota, to Wisconsin, then crossing from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, into Canada.
Driving east near the northern border with Canada I only saw one US Border Patrol vehicle. The border crossing north of Babb, Montana, was so pastoral and quiet that I was allowed to walk right up to the line dividing the United States and Canada and take photos.
In contrast, when you drive along the southern border, there are multiple Border Patrol checkpoints in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, some more than 60 miles away from the physical border. The checkpoints are set up along major and minor highways so that there is no way to go north, east, or west without having to go through a checkpoint.
Driving along the southern border, I’ve been stopped at US checkpoints near Brownsville, San Antonio, Laredo, Eagle Pass, Nogales, Yuma, Calexico, and more.
At one checkpoint near Marfa, Texas, 59 miles from the border, my husband and I were ordered out of the car and Border Patrol agents used a drug-sniffing dog to search our car. Obviously, they found nothing. But in every southern checkpoint we’ve come across they asked about our citizenship and reviewed our passports. I lost count of the number of Border Patrol vehicles I saw cruising the roads or parked in the desert. Their presence is palpable. This border militarization is starkly juxtaposed with the physical beauty of the border.
Many residents want more tourists to come to the border, including small business owners. US goods and services traded with Mexico totaled more than $600 billion in 2017, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The trade deficit with Mexico was $64.1 billion in 2017.
Area residents worry how new wall construction will harm the environment, plant life and wildlife, and how it will be an eyesore in a landscape full of natural beauty.
“It would hurt tourism,” said Pam Ware who lives in Terlingua, Texas.
Go to the border and see for yourself. See that there already is a wall. And then look beyond it to appreciate the richness of the culture and the people who live there.