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Part 3
At the Border

'We’ve grown accustomed to it': Concertina wire, traveling militias part of life on US border

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  • 7 min to read
'We’ve grown accustomed to it': Concertina wire, traveling militias part of life on US border

COLUMBUS, N.M. — More than a century ago, before The Wall, Pancho Villa raided this tiny border town in the Chihuahuan Desert and gave it a historic claim to fame.

Today, it’s best-known for an $80 million bus stop.

Each morning, a dozen yellow school buses arrive outside the town’s new high-tech port of entry. There, they pick up more than 800 children from Palomas, Mexico, who cross the border daily to attend class in U.S. schools.

There’s a not-exactly-simple explanation for this.

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Philip Skinner, owner of Los Milagros Hotel and former mayor of Columbus, N.M., also drives a school bus each morning from the U.S.-Mexico border to nearby schools. Around 800 children, who are U.S. citizens, cross from Palomas, Mexico, to the small town in New Mexico to attend school each day. Lauren Petracca/Staff

“They’re U.S. citizens,” says Philip Skinner, former mayor of Columbus … and one of the bus drivers.

See, there’s no hospital in Palomas, a town of nearly 5,000 that abuts the border. When someone shows up at a port of entry with a medical emergency, customs agents are instructed to call an ambulance. As a result, most of the children from Palomas are actually born 30 miles north in Deming, N.M.

So they’re free to attend U.S. schools.

This is just one quirk of life along the border, a world most U.S. citizens wouldn’t recognize and don’t understand. Although The Wall separates the two countries, it cannot divide sister cities. Along the border, culture and community are inextricably woven together on desert plains from Texas to California.

More than 250 miles west of Columbus, the signs in downtown Nogales, Ariz., stores are written in English and Spanish, and the clerks speak Espanol. It is the same in Calexico, Calif., 120 miles east of San Diego. And in El Paso, Texas, downtown shops depend on weekend traffic that streams across the Paso del Norte Bridge from Juarez to buy shoes, small kitchen appliances and socks that advertise “USA.”

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Shoppers walk down the street in El Paso, Texas, near a border crossing on Saturday, March 23, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Without The Wall, it would be almost impossible to tell where most of these cities end and the other begins.

It’s not uncommon for people to live in one town and commute across the border to work. Even in Columbus, population 1,700, many residents choose to live in Palomas, where the rent is cheaper. And folks in Columbus regularly go to Palomas for dinner, since all their restaurants close at 5 p.m.

People in Columbus rarely even question the notion of Mexican children attending U.S. schools without their parents paying property taxes. There is so much cross-border shopping and trading they feel certain those parents are contributing to the economy.

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Children walk near the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., after school on Thursday, March 21, 2019. In several border states, Mexican children born in U.S. hospitals attend school in the States because they are citizens. Lauren Petracca/Staff

They also see no problem living next door to a foreign country and have no fear of violence or crime. 

“This community is mostly Hispanic, and very close with Palomas,” says Skinner. “I believe in secure borders, but I would say we don’t need a wall here. I feel we live in a very safe community.”

The controversy over The Wall can occasionally intrude on Columbus, a place so small and isolated that actual tumbleweeds sometimes blow through. Back in the fall, members of a militia showed up after internet chatter suggested a surge of migrants would try to cross there.

It was little more than a curiosity for locals. These well-armed men stood on the hotel balcony with night-vision goggles, looking for the caravans politicians and pundits swore were on the way.

The militia didn’t catch any errant border-crossers, but Skinner made a few bucks. He owns the Los Milagros Hotel, which has a clear view of The Wall — in these parts, 18-foot high spiked steel bollards that jut out of the sandy dirt 3 miles south.

“When it first went up, people were upset, but we’ve grown accustomed to it,” he says. But these days, “The Wall is not a topic of conversation.”

***

The Wall between Columbus and Palomas was built 10 years ago, and stretches about 2 miles in each direction from the port of entry.

It is one of the few spots along the border where The Wall is not covered in concertina wire, probably because the New Mexico governor withdrew the National Guard before they could put it up.

Nogales did not escape that fate. Concertina wire covers The Wall top and bottom through most of the Arizona border town. It is the first thing you notice about the city. And that makes Mayor Arturo Garino sick.

“It doesn’t look business-friendly. Our merchants are concerned, and children play close to that wall — it is in their backyards,” Garino says. “The only two places you see that wire is in a war zone or a prison. Who would want to live in a prison?”

Garino grew up in Nogales, and says residents have co-existed peacefully with their Mexican neighbors for years. The Wall, he says, is unnecessary.

The city recently passed a resolution officially asking Border Patrol to remove the wire. Tuscon and Bisbee city governments joined that request, and Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, raised Cain with the Department of Homeland Security.

“Border communities are already some of the most militarized communities in the United States,” Grijalva wrote to Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. “Forcing them to act as a photo opportunity to reinforce a false narrative of rampant lawlessness at the border promulgated by the president is nothing short of ridiculous.”

The national controversy over The Wall doesn’t often rear its head along the border, usually only when something intrudes on daily life. Like the razor wire, or tourists.

Most U.S. citizens visit border towns only to cross into Mexico for cheaper surgeries or dental work, or to visit the farmacias that line the streets near The Wall. There, they can buy drugs you can't get in the States without a prescription — antibiotics or Viagra, for instance.

Now and then, Border Patrol agents say, someone with plates from Wisconsin or the like will show up to marvel at “Trump’s Wall” as if it were just another tourist attraction. Agents can’t resist telling them the truth.

“Actually, that’s Bill Clinton’s wall,” they say. “It’s been there more than 20 years.”

Twenty years. That’s perhaps not coincidentally how long the humanitarian group Tuscon Samaritans has been helping people on a path to citizenship … often in the desert.

As The Wall has expanded, it has driven migrants and refugees trying to cross the border illegally into more remote regions, hundreds of miles of sand and scrub, and not much else. If they cross the border in many parts of Arizona, navigating by U.S. mountain ranges, they could wander more than 40 miles before reaching a town.

People like volunteer Peter Husby hike into the Sonoran Desert near Sasabe, Ariz., to leave water, food and even socks for the people trying to make their way through the harsh terrain.

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Peter Husby, a volunteer with Tucson Samaritans, hikes past an abandoned backpack, likely left by a migrant, in the Sonoran Desert on Friday, March 22, 2019. The group provides humanitarian aid to migrants in the harsh terrain, leaving behind food and water. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Such provisions are quite literally the difference between life and death in a place where a number of migrant bodies have been found in recent years. In many places, crosses stand among the cacti where fleeing refugees have fallen.

“The Wall just forces people into more dangerous territory,” Husby says. 

Husby’s sentiments are decidedly the majority opinion along the border but, of course, not everyone feels the same. In Chihuahuita Park, a downtown El Paso playground in the shadow of The Wall, a man who will identify himself only as Alfonso — “I’d be lynched for saying this” — contends that migrants and refugees are only coming to the United States to sponge off the government.

“They’re just here for the benefits,” Alfonso says. “This country is going bankrupt, and who’s going to pay for the people coming over? The taxpayers. I wish they had built the wall back in the ‘60s, when it wasn’t so expensive. A majority of people are against it, but a lot of people are for that fence.”

He’s right, but nothing on the border is completely black and white. Even Alfonso has Hispanic heritage.

***

There is a rhythm to the border.

Both the United States and Mexico are desolate for hundreds of miles along the border, mountainous and empty. The landscape sometimes looks like the surface of Mars.

In places where there is a U.S. city on The Wall, there is almost always a Mexican city on the other side — and it is routinely larger.

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A border patrol agent watches a portion of the wall, which ends in the Pacific Ocean, between San Diego and Tijuana on Monday, March 18, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

In these places where there are sister cities, the Mexican side is often busier, more vibrant, even festive. That is most apparent in Playas de Tijuana, the westernmost borough of Tijuana — where The Wall runs into the Pacific.

On the U.S. side of The Wall, California’s Border Field State Park is a remote wildlife refuge with signs warning visitors to mind the rattlesnakes. From the parking area, it is nearly a 2-mile walk to the beach and border. Not exactly inviting.

But Playas de Tijuana is a beach town that makes the most of its geography. Locals gather on the weekends in Friendship Park, when Border Patrol allows U.S. citizens to approach the fence and talk with their neighbors.

It is a place where grandmothers see their grandchildren for the first time, brothers and sisters catch up on family news. In the past, Border Patrol agents opened a maintenance door on the weekends so that relatives could hug one another. But in November 2017, a convicted U.S. drug smuggler married his Mexican girlfriend in the "Door of Hope," as locals call it.

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A woman visits with a loved one through the border wall from the Tijuana side on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The door hasn’t been opened since, and now families can do no more than touch fingers through the fence.

Most Tijuana residents are still mad about the stunt, and blame the wedding party — even though Border Patrol insists the open-door visits were slated to end anyway.

"It was very upsetting to us," says Robert Vivar, a local activist who helps deported U.S. military veterans. "This is sacred ground, where people can come together."

On a recent Sunday morning, construction crews were reinforcing The Wall after a recent breach. The chain-link strung along the fence was being replaced by metal grating while armed Border Patrol agents kept watch.

As they work, a group of men play soccer on the Mexican beach, purposely trying to kick the ball through the bollards where the chain link has been removed. Eventually, they are successful — and cheer as if they just scored a goal.

A Border Patrol agent smiles and hands the ball back to them. The men laugh and go on with their game.

Up the hill, crews are painting The Wall in Friendship Park. On its U.S. face, the border fence is invariably gray or rust-colored. But in Playas de Tijuana it is constantly re-painted by local artists in bright colors, and often adorned with flags, banners and ribbons. Some include hopeful messages, others not so much.

“I miss my family. One day we'll be together.”

One of the workers stares at the new coat of paint on The Wall and says, “It is ugly, but it can also be beautiful.”

On the border, life is all a matter of perspective.

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A border patrol agent in San Diego hands a soccer ball back to a man who kicked it through the border wall in Tijuana on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Read the rest of the series:

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.