The road to nowhere: lost lives on the Mexican border

Many Trump voters who live nowhere near America’s southern frontier really do want and expect a fortress wall all the way across it.

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At the south-east edge of San Diego, California’s southernmost city, a district dominated by cross-border trucking gives way to desert scrubland. Three layers of fence abutting the Mexican city of Tijuana become two; if you follow a dirt road east for a mile, the second fence of steel mesh also ends, leaving just the original eight-foot barricade of rusty steel, improvised out of surplus air force helicopter landing mats. This is where President Trump’s signature campaign promise, “The Wall”, is now taking prototype form.

The US department of homeland security reallocated $20m from other programmes and oversaw a chaotic bidding process for the construction of eight design samples. By late summer, there was nothing to see but a small hole in the ground and some plastic cones toppled over by the breeze. It was silent, except for slivers of children’s laughter floating over from the Mexican side.

Many Trump voters who live nowhere near America’s southern frontier really do want and expect a fortress wall all the way across it. But there are too many areas along the 2,000-mile border where construction would face bipartisan local opposition, legal challenges and technical complications posed by the terrain. The total cost, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, is one Americans ultimately will not consent to bear (nor will Mexicans).

What is possible is an upgrade of existing fencing, for which Congress has provided $341m, and perhaps some extensions. But gaps will remain, as Trump now comprehends, funnelling migrants into natural barriers – the mountains, deserts and, in the president’s words, “rivers that are vicious and violent”. Even with the border as it is, hundreds of migrants die in the wilderness each year.

Seventy miles further east from the prototype site, Jonathan Yost, of an organisation called Border Angels, was leading a group of young volunteers on a hike through the desert. Each member carried two or more gallons of drinking water to leave behind for struggling border crossers, the bottles inscribed with messages of friendship and welcome. In Yost’s words, anti-immigration policies were racially motivated and constituted “the greatest and most immediate human cost of a Trump presidency”.

Yost’s appearance – he has a bushy ginger beard and tattooed arms – had often helped him defuse random confrontations with angry Trump supporters (“I know the way I look,” he said, a little sadly). Even so, he had changed the group’s staging point recently in anticipation of more hostility. Since January, they had found as many as a hundred of their water jugs punctured with knives and buckshot by other hikers.

In early September, volunteers from Border Angels, whose numbers have swelled since the presidential election, were among the counter-demonstrators to a “Patriot Picnic” in San Diego’s Chicano Park. Established in a non-violent occupation by the local Mexican-American community in 1970, the park features the largest collection of outdoor murals in the US. 

The “picnic” had been organised by Roger Ogden, a retired scientist who runs the blog Patriot Fire, and considers the park an imperialist beachhead on American soil. The murals, dedicated to Mexican-American (or Chicano) empowerment, were “very offensive to many Americans. The whole park looks fascist!” He had gone there “to have pizza with some friends”, but 500 incensed counter-protesters had driven them out under a police escort.

“I just wanted to finish my pizza,” Ogden recounted, rocking sheepishly on his chair at a café. “It was good pizza, and I’m a cheap guy!”

Ogden is a wry, gentle-mannered man, and his central claim that the murals are too overtly political to receive public funding had a narrow legal merit. But he understood the inflammatory nature of his stunt in the wake of the white nationalist protest at Charlottesville: the “friends” he had been so eager to lunch with amounted to some members of the alt-right group the Proud Boys, and a shaven-headed agitator called Arthur Schaper, whom Ogden himself described as “a wacko”.

Keeping a low profile in Ogden’s sedan, we drove to Chicano Park. “They don’t have an altar there yet,” he said, referring to a mural showing Aztec sacrifice, “but I’m a little afraid they might get someone and take ‘em off somewhere!” It appeared to be an entirely normal park, distinguished only by the roaring freeway overhead, and the cheerful, humorous beauty of the murals, which had sprung up to offset that degradation.

Yet even Ogden thinks that the wall is nonsensical: it would be effective only “to insult Mexico”, which wasn’t worth the cost. As long as the market for cheap illegal labour in agriculture and the service industry remained, migrants would come. For Ogden, “enforcing the laws inside the country” would be the only way to avert the threats of demographic change and the subversive ideology of Chicanoism. This would mean deporting at least ten million people. But most people in the borderlands know instinctively that they are bound to their Mexican neighbours, economically and culturally. Dan Howley, a Trump voter from nearby Temecula, called the current situation of illegal workers, who have no recourse when they are exploited, “modern-day slavery”; he wanted a secure border, “to know who’s in the country. But people that are here already – make ‘em citizens, why not?”

Days after Ogden’s picnic, Trump rescinded Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, which had shielded 800,000 undocumented young people from deportation. In mid-September, he alarmed his base by appearing to strike a deal with Democratic legislators to maintain those protections with no strings attached.

Meanwhile, I found the prototype site sealed off from the public behind a fence of its own. By mid-October, an array of imposing, 30-foot-high sample sections were ready for unveiling, and the White House had hardened its stance on DACA, tying the fate of its enrollees to funding for the rest of the wall. 

This article appears in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship