Meet Tony Estrada. He’s the seven-term sheriff of Santa Cruz, a small, rural county in southern Arizona with 50 miles abutting the Mexican border. This county is home to ranches and pastures, and one of the world’s largest produce ports—every year, roughly $2.5 billion of Mexican fruits and vegetables pass through Santa Cruz. Estrada was born across the line in Nogales, Sonora. His family immigrated when he was a year and a half old. “I’ve lived all of my life here in this border community,” he told me. And after 50 years in law enforcement, he’s “seen the evolution and the dynamics of the border, how it has changed.” Years ago, Mexicans snuck through the border to shop. Problems were minor, and there was little need to interfere. These days, the US Southwest is a gateway for drug trafficking and undocumented immigration. But Sheriff Estrada cannot fathom how a proposed border wall will fix those issues.
“That ‘big, beautiful wall’ is not going to solve the problem,” said Estrada. “These are people that are determined to take on any challenge.” Undocumented immigrants risk their lives fleeing “extreme poverty, persecution, gangs, corrupt government,” and “no fence is going to stop them, no number of agents is going to stop them, no technology is going to stop them,” Estrada told me just days before President Trump was inaugurated. In fact, the dogged resolve of an immigrant is precisely what Estrada said the United States needs. “I look at them as courageous, I look at them as determined people. I look at them as family-oriented religious people, and hard-working.” Many migrants travel thousands of miles “at great expense and at great danger. You say to yourself, ‘Those are qualities that we can grab onto and make this country a lot better.’”
A day later and a few miles away in Nogales, Mexico, I visited the Kino Border Initiative. The organization works on both sides of the border, offering meals, clothes, first aid and safety tips for migrants on the street. The soup kitchen sits paces from Mariposa, the main commercial border crossing. Kino is often one of the first stops for deportees after US agents return them to Mexico. Last year the kitchen served about 48,000 meals, said Executive Director Father Sean Carroll. Seventy percent of Kino’s clients are migrating for economic reasons, 18 percent hope to reunite with family in the US, and the rest are fleeing violence, he said. Many migrants make repeated attempts to cross the border in a cycle of hiking and deportation.
“I tried already—twice,” Ignacia Bonfil told me. She’s a single mother from southern Mexico who worked in a school kitchen but couldn’t afford to put her three teenagers through school. She hoped to find better-paying work in the United States. So she made her way north and connected with a group to cross the border. They hiked an hour through the Mexican desert to reach a tall, steel fence. She clambered over and walked a couple more hours through desert on the US side until border agents caught her, detained her briefly, then deported her. “The desert means danger, and your life is not safe there,” she said. But she’s determined to find a way to support her kids.
Americans living close to the Mexico border often see people like Bonfil—or evidence of them—on their land. Not everyone is as lucky as Bonfil. “We’ve had 14 dead people on the ranch,” said John Ladd, who owns 16,000 acres in Arizona with 10 ½ miles abutting the border. Deaths can happen through illness, heart attack, heat stroke, a lack of water—or too much. In one incident, Ladd said, six border-crossers were caught in a monsoon flood on his property. Border patrol rescued five by helicopter, but couldn’t find the sixth. “We found him two weeks later,” he said. “I mean, I’m a big tough guy, but you know, you see a dead person and… it’s traumatic.”
Here’s the thing: Ladd is a vocal Donald Trump supporter—in fact, he’d just returned from the inauguration when we talked. The movement of people across his land is a big problem: “People are dying to get to America, and we haven’t done anything about it.” But an even bigger problem, he said, is drug smuggling. And he doesn’t think a wall alone will stop either. He’s had a metal barrier on his property for the past 10 years. “It’s between 10 and 14 feet tall, and we call it a wall.” Crews are currently working to build it up, using George W. Bush-era funds. But smugglers have always gotten through, Ladd said. And when they do get through, they cut his water pipes to fetch a drink, and he can lose thousands of gallons at a time. They cut his fences to cross his property, and he pays tens of thousands to repair them. Last year, he said, he spent $35,000 fixing fences before giving up. “It isn’t worth it,” he said. “I can’t have an interior fence. That’s reality.”
Ladd said the border needs far more patrolling, otherwise a wall is just “a waste of money.” But he doesn’t think everyone should be kept out. “The big reality is, there’s good people across the line. And nobody can seem to differentiate between the cartel,” and the people who simply want to work. Ladd said the current limitations on immigrant labor “are unrealistic.” For better or worse, American agriculture depends on immigrant labor. But visas for temporary farmworkers are often stalled by glitches and delays, putting US farm owners in a lurch. If crops are lost, so is money. “Somebody wants to come up here and work for six months and go home? Let him do it, pay taxes, do your thing,” Ladd said. “If they want to be a citizen, let them get in line to be a citizen.” He has no problem with that.
In fact, this border region has a long history of Americans helping Mexicans to become lawful American citizens. “In my lifetime, we sponsored three men to become citizens,” Ladd said. His family has generations of friendship with Mexican neighbors. “The guy on the west end…we used to help each other quite a bit, coming back and forth when it was just a barbed-wire fence.” But that was years ago. Physical barriers create social barriers, too, and the back-and-forth visits between cross-border neighbors ended. “Since they built the wall,” Ladd said, “we don’t do that anymore.”
Families along the US-Mexico line have centuries of shared history, culture and trade. But Sheriff Estrada said politicians in Washington often don’t grasp the nuances of cross-border relationships like that. “You have people talking about the border that really don’t understand the dynamics,” he said. “And they think they have solutions.”
Instead, he has an idea to lend perspective: “I would like to see Donald Trump walk one mile through the desert and put himself in those shoes.”