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Concrete divisions

A New Age of Walls · Episode 3

Coming Oct. 17

Published Oct. 17, 2016

A debate over extending the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border has been a noisy centerpiece  of this year’s presidential election. A journey from San Diego to Brownsville, Tex., offers an up-close view into what it would take to complete a barrier along the Rio Grande — and at the lives of those already divided.

Published Oct. 17, 2016

About this series

From eight countries across three continents, this series examines the divisions between countries and peoples through interwoven words, video and sound.

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‘Build that wall’

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DONALD TRUMP Republican nominee for president of the United States

“On Day One, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.”

Ted Thayer Retired river guide, Marathon, Tex.

“Where would you build it? Down the middle of the river? That's the border. You gonna build a wall on the border, it needs to be down the middle of the river.”

SCOTT MCWILLIAMS Owner of Val Verde Wool and Mohair Co.

“If we can go to the moon, we can build a wall.”

Eloisa Tamez Lipan Apache civil rights leader

“All of this building of the wall, it is a sign of the erosion of our democracy.”

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Donald Trump has made no secret of his plan to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border — and persuade Mexico to pay for it.

The Republican nominee has been remarkably vocal about the proposal, one that 6 in 10 voters disagree with. The wall, he argues, is needed to curb illegal immigration, reduce gang violence near the border and stop drugs from reaching the United States.

For now, fences cover just 700 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile-long border. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, opposes completing the wall — but as a senator, she voted for the 2006 bill that led to construction of most of the existing fence.

CA

Segments of border

with some kind of fence

San Diego

AZ

NM

Tijuana

Nogales

El Paso

Segments of border

with no fence

Ciudad

Juarez

Nogales

TX

Del Rio

Laredo

Eagle Pass

Brownsville

McAllen

Reynosa

Matamoros

100 miles

Segments of border

with some kind of fence

Segments

with no fence

U.S.

CA

AZ

S.Diego

NM

Nogales

TX

El Paso

Tijuana

C. Juarez

Del Rio

Laredo

Brownsville

100 miles

Segments of border

with some kind of fence

U.S.

CA

Segments of border

with no fence

AZ

San Diego

NM

Nogales

El Paso

TX

Del Rio

Eagle Pass

Laredo

McAllen

Brownsville

100 miles

Source: Center for Investigative Reporting, Openstreetmap.org

The idea of “completing the wall” has been part of political rhetoric since construction of the fence began. But now, a decade after the majority of the fence was built, opinions are divided on whether a barrier spanning the entire border is necessary – or even feasible.

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San Diego, Calif.

Support for the wall

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MARA KRISKA San Diego resident

“Well, have you seen the wall? It's like you could hop over it. It's like a joke. It's a joke.”

DE LE San Diego resident

“Right now, we have a fence. But a fence can be cut. But I would rather have a solid wall. A solid concrete wall.”

“The entire border needs to be walled off from California all the way up to Texas.”

“Illegal immigration is a drain to America, and they are doing nothing but bringing this country down.”

“And look at them, they come here -- they mostly uneducated, they commit a lot of crime, they are low-class people. They’re trash.”

“Let’s build a wall, a fence, whatever. Let’s keep illegals out.”

“I cannot wait to be walking down the street and see American faces again for a change.”

“They might call me racist. I don’t care.”

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Reynosa, Mexico

Worsening relations

Some Mexicans worry the rhetoric surrounding the border wall debate will worsen relations between the two nations. Dalton Ramirez, who makes pinatas of Donald Trump in Reynosa, Mexico, thinks Trump’s rhetoric provokes racism.

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DALTON RAMIREZ Owner of Ramirez Pinata shop

“That border wall, it sounds ridiculous to me.”

“Even more when I hear that we are going to pay for that. It's talk of war.”

“It's like going back to ancient times.”

“I think they are just words he says.”

“But who knows? If he is elected, maybe he'll do it.”

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Reynosa, Mexico

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Reynosa, Mexico

Growing fear

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Mario Lopez Villareal Rancher and president of the Reynosa Chamber of Commerce

“I don’t want him to win. Because of threats toward Mexicans, people like us.”

“Because of what he thinks, what he’s got in his head, what he’ll do.”

“He can lose control and do serious damage.”

José Luis Guzmán Pérez Rancher

“That’s right. Many people are afraid that World War III will break out, because this old fool is crazy.”

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Del Rio, Texas

Connected communities

The U.S. and Mexican economies are deeply intertwined. This can be seen clearly in the agricultural communities along the border. Scott McWilliams owns Val Verde Wool and Mohair in Del Rio, Tex., a place that remains mostly unfenced and where ranchers from both nations come together to do business.

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SCOTT MCWILLIAMS Owner of Val Verde Wool and Mohair Co.

“A high percentage of our retail business comes from Mexico.”

“So we have a great relationship with the ranching community over there as well as here.”

“If the wall was built, that might stop some of the drug traffic from coming through their ranches before they get to our ranches. So it could be a positive for them as well.”

“It would have to be such a wall and monitored in such a way that it actually worked, but I've seen fences built in this country in places you wouldn't imagine you could build one, and they managed to do it.”

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Del Rio, Texas

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Del Rio, Texas

Challenging terrain

Some locals stress the enormous logistical challenges of building a wall. The Lake Amistad in Texas, shown here, is just one example of the rough terrain.

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The shifting border

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Mile by mile, the landscape and culture along the border vary wildly. West of El Paso, through New Mexico, Arizona and California, where most of the existing fence has been built, the border is largely a series of straight lines drawn by men. But to the east, in Texas, it follows the winding path of the Rio Grande. Most of the border land here is still unfenced.

Barrier construction in this area would be difficult because of the region’s isolation and rough terrain. The federal government owns very little land in Texas, so a bigger fence would require the use of private land, adding to the legal and logistical challenges.

Federal land

CALIFORNIA

Segments with fence

Segments with no fence

ARIZONA

San Diego

NEW

MEXICO

El Paso

Tijuana

Nogales

TEXAS

Ciudad

Juarez

Nogales

BAJA

CALIFORNIA

CHIHUAHUA

SONORA

Del Rio

Laredo

Eagle Pass

COAHUILA

100 miles

Brownsville

NUEVO LEON

Matamoros

Segments with some kind of fence

Segments with no fence

Federal land

CA

U.S.

AZ

NM

S.Diego

Nogales

El Paso

TX

Tijuana

C. Juarez

Del Rio

Laredo

Brownsville

100 miles

But most challenging of all, the Rio Grande is a natural feature – not a man-made boundary. Rivers erode the land they pass. They flood. They dry up. They sometimes change course. A completed border barrier would have to navigate these natural challenges.

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Near the mouth of the Rio Grande lie the twin towns of Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Tex. Here, the land is remarkably lush, the river winding and prone to flooding.

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A bird’s-eye view of the river reveals a history of its previous paths. The United States and Mexico have had multiple disputes over land affected when the river has changed course.

Brownsville, Texas

Border fencing is sporadic here. Where fencing does exist, it often sits far from the river, outside its flood plains — creating wide seams between the fence and the official border. Jeremy Barnard, general manager of a golf resort, worries that his business would be walled off from the United States if the barrier is completed.

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Brownsville, Texas

On the seam

Border fencing is sporadic here. Where fencing does exist, it often sits far from the river, outside its flood plains — creating wide seams between the fence and the official border. Jeremy Barnard, general manager of a golf resort, worries that his business would be walled off from the United States if the barrier is completed.

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Jeremy Barnard General manager, River Bend Resort & Golf Club

“There's about 200 residents on the south side of the levy that would be displaced if you built the wall right here on this levy.”

“They'd be cut off from America and be in a no-man's land.”

“A lot of people just assume the wall would be built right here at the edge, and that's not true.”

“There's lots of people and communities that would be affected in a different way.”

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Brownsville, Texas

Walled off

For some, living in these seams is already a reality. Construction of the existing barrier impacted hundreds of landowners. Farms and farmland were fenced out. Important wildlife sanctuaries were fragmented.

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Eloisa Tamez Lipan Apache civil rights leader

“This is my indigenous land. This is where all my ancestors have come from. That's where I was born, right here. That's not the original house, but that right there is where I was born and raised.”

“The property extends onto the other side of the levy. I requested direct access. They denied it.”

“By not having direct access to my property to see how things are on the other side, I have to go 1,200 feet to the east, or twice that length to the west. And now there's a gate there.”

“I have to put in a code to get into it.”

“If they took the land to build this wall, what is the benefit? Have we seen the benefit?”

“Has it done anything to prevent the drug trafficking or the so-called undocumented coming through?”

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Brownsville, Texas

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Brownsville, Texas

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A complicated answer

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Whether the existing barrier has achieved its goals is up for debate.

Fencing is just one part of the effort by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to secure the country’s borders. The number of Border Patrol officers has doubled in recent years. Where no fencing exists, cameras and sensors do.

Data released by CBP suggests that illegal immigration has decreased since 2001, but it’s difficult to show which specific policies made a difference. The Great Recession, which began in 2008, almost certainly deterred some economic migrants, researchers say.

1.6

1.6

Apprehensions on the southwest

border by fiscal year.

1.5 million

1

1 million

500,000

0.3

0

1986

1960

2000

2006

2015

The Secure Fence Act was signed in Oct. 2006.

Apprehensions on the southwest

border by fiscal year:

1.6

1.6

1.5 million

1

1 million

500,000

0.3

0

’60

’86

’00

’06

’15

The Secure Fence Act was signed in Oct. 2006.

Apprehensions on the southwest border by fiscal year.

1.6

1.6

1.5 million

1

1 million

500,000

0.3

0

’86

’60

’00

’06

’15

The Secure Fence Act was signed in Oct. 2006.

One consequence of tightened border security policies is that routes for migrants — many of whom are Central Americans, not Mexicans — have become more dangerous.

This map shows the apprehensions by Border Patrol sector:

IN 2006

Segments of border

with some kind of fence

El Centro

S. Diego

61,465

Tucson

142,104

El Paso

392,074

Yuma

122,256

Segments of border

with no fence

118,549

Del Rio

42,636

Big Bend

7,520

Laredo

74,840

Rio Grande

110,528

100 miles

Apprehensions by Border Patrol:

 

IN 2006

500,000

S. Diego

300,000

El Centro

Yuma

Tucson

100,000

El Paso

Big

Bend

Del Rio

Laredo

Rio Grande

No fence

100 miles

Fence

Apprehensions by Border Patrol sector:

IN 2006

Segments of border

with some kind of fence

El Centro

S. Diego

61,465

Tucson

142,104

Yuma

Segments of border

with no fence

El Paso

392,074

118,549

122,256

Del Rio

Big Bend

42,636

7,520

Laredo

74,840

Rio Grande

110,528

100 miles

This map shows the apprehensions by Border Patrol sector:

IN 2015

Segments of border

with some kind of fence

El Centro

S. Diego

12,820

Tucson

26,290

El Paso

63,397

Yuma

14,495

Segments of border

with no fence

7,142

Del Rio

19,013

Big Bend

5,031

Laredo

35,888

Rio Grande

147,257

100 miles

Apprehensions by Border Patrol:

 

IN 2015

500,000

S. Diego

300,000

El Centro

Tucson

Yuma

100,000

El Paso

Big

Bend

Del Rio

Laredo

Rio Grande

No fence

100 miles

Fence

Apprehensions by Border Patrol sector:

IN 2015

Segments of border

with some kind of fence

El Centro

S. Diego

12,820

Tucson

26,290

Yuma

Segments of border

with no fence

El Paso

63,397

7,142

14,495

Del Rio

Big Bend

19,013

5,031

Laredo

35,888

Rio Grande

147,257

100 miles

Source: Center for Investigative Reporting, Openstreetmap.org, cbp.gov and staff reports

Today, most deaths reported by Border Patrol officials occur in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where most of the border remains unfenced, and in the Tucson area, which is mostly fenced.

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Sasabe, Ariz.

Tougher routes

Border enforcement has pushed migrants off existing routes into more deserted areas. In southern Arizona, migrants walk dozens of miles through the desert, carrying water in plastic jugs.

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Dinah Bear President, Humane Borders

“People are dying out here. We've had around 3,000 confirmed migrant deaths in southern Arizona. We know that we're going to be finding bodies for years, for decades.”

“As the border wall has gone up in various areas of the border, it's moved people into more remote areas.”

“We have seen a baby who is still alive who was trying to nurse from its mother, who was dead.”

“We have had a 1-year-old die.”

“Several of our volunteers have found dead bodies.”

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Sasabe, Ariz.

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Nogales, Ariz.

Patrolling the border

This is one of the most challenging places to attempt a border crossing. In 2015, the Border Patrol had more than 790 rescues in the Tucson sector. The death rate is one of the highest along the border.

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Vicente Paco Nogales Border Patrol agent

“8-6-5 off of 2-6-7. Okay, go ahead with the bio. It shouldn't be a death sentence for anybody to cross a border. Out there in Ruby Road, which is northwest of Nogales, an individual that was fighting a fire that started in Mexico and had crossed into the United States approached us and said they had an individual that claimed to be from Mexico in their custody. A walker came in just as we were leaving and he's really in distress. The Sonoran Desert out here is very remote. More than often, tragedies like this occur. He claimed that he had crossed two days ago and that yesterday at night he fell from a cliff. And that's when he hurt his leg and had a laceration in the head. Once the individual is in stable condition and fit for travel and detention, we run his fingerprints through different databases. And he might be facing administrative or criminal charges and ultimately repatriated back to Mexico.”

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Nogales, Ariz.

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Nogales, Ariz.

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Coming together

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Immigration is a complicated issue; a barrier along the border addresses just one part of it. An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already live in the United States, representing 5 percent of the labor force.

Emma Sanchez embodies the intertwined nature of border protection and immigration policy. She is married to a U.S. veteran and has two American children but was deported 10 years ago after being found without documents.

Every Sunday, dozens of deported mothers like her meet for a church service at Friendship Park, the only binational meeting place between the United States and Mexico. Situated at the west end of the border, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean between San Diego and Tijuana, the park provides divided families a chance to catch up with their loved ones — if only for a few hours, and only through an 18-foot-tall steel and mesh fence.

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Tijuana, Mexico–San Diego, Calif.

A partial solution

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EMMA SANCHEZ Sanchez sister living in Mexico

“We’re a group of moms. We’re all deported moms, repatriated moms.”

“I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t steal.”

ARAELI SANCHEZ Emma's sister, who lives on the American side

“I didn't commit a big offense. My only crime was staying in the country without documents, going into the country without documents. That was my crime.I think it's sad that we have to look at each other through a wall.”

“And it's heartbreaking because I'm there right there and my dad is right there and I can't give him a hug or I can't give him a kiss.”

“The pinkie finger is the only one that goes through the little holes, and that’s the only way we can touch each other. It’s very hard to see these little persons and not being able to embrace them, see my little niece and not being able to embrace her.”

“Hear her saying she wants to come to the house, and knowing that she can’t come to the house, that I can’t bring her, that it isn’t something possible.”

“I think it’s like prison, jail, the way that they put these walls here.”

“This wall is something really painful.”

“It is inhumane.”

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