The border fence, its slats tall, dark, strong and slim: That’s one thing Calexico has that the White House, Manhattan and Mar-a-Lago do not.
President Trump on Friday visited Calexico, a small city in a largely agricultural region between Arizona and the Pacific, to inspect an upgraded portion of fencing and to meet with law enforcement. It’s the third visit by a federal official — after Vice President Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — in a year.
That’s more attention than usual for a border town that locals say is defined by its interconnection with Mexico, its infernal summers and its labor-based economy. Calexico, population just over 40,000, is, as former mayor John Moreno puts it, a “suburb” of Mexicali, the massive metropolis to the south. Even without crossing south, you can glimpse the density of the capital of Mexico’s state of Baja California through the fence slats at the border.
“We’re a small city. This is crazy,” said David Dale, the city manager, gesturing to the long list of media events he and Mayor Lewis Pacheco have scheduled. Pacheco said he welcomes Trump because Calexico is a welcoming kind of place. “The people here are open to receiving anybody.”
Pacheco does wonder why Trump chose this city as a backdrop for his remarks about immigration, security and the border at the end of a week filled with presidential threats to close that very border — threats that Trump backed away from on Thursday. Is Calexico a bad example, part of what Trump sees as the problem? Is he here to appeal to his base, in 2020 campaign mode? Was this all part of the border-closing gambit?
Trump used his visit to Calexico on Friday as a backdrop for his continued argument about the dangers illegal immigration poses to the nation. During a roundtable event with border agents and local officials, he said the United States should not allow any more migrants to enter the country because they are overwhelming the immigration system and “our country is full.”
“The system is full. When it’s full, there’s nothing you can do. You have to say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t take you,’ ” Trump said. “We’ve been trying to take people. I have to disagree with it. We’ve been trying to take people, and we can’t do it. You can’t do it. We’re going to look at that and look at it very strongly.”
Trump later visited the site of the border fencing and said that the new barrier is stronger than what it replaced, saying it is heavily reinforced and is “anti-climb.” He again claimed that Mexico is stepping up immigration enforcement but reiterated that he would close the border if the situation doesn’t improve.
When Trump first tweeted late last week that he planned to close the international border, it put people here on edge. Like several other U.S. cities along the nation’s southern boundary, residents’ lives unfold on both sides of the line, and Mexicali is the source of a lot of sales — and sales taxes.
Shutting down the border, Pacheco said, would have been “disastrous.”
For this small city, where the hot topics last year were a rise in water rates and cannabis legalization, the border poses certain persistent problems, but they are not of the “bad hombre” variety, Dale said. Calexico’s police, fire and emergency services respond to calls at the port of entry, racking up annual costs of more than $1 million, he estimated.
“We don’t get compensated for those costs,” he said. “Those are big costs that our city residents pay through their property taxes.”
Instead of focusing on the fence and the border, Dale said he would like to take the president to see the New River — in Spanish, the Rio Nuevo — which runs north out of Mexicali and into Calexico, close to the fence. It is heavily polluted with sewage and urban and agricultural runoff, and it flows into the Salton Sea. He also brought up air pollution that blows north from Mexico, largely car and factory emissions.
When facing south, the fence is omnipresent downtown, where empty storefronts, Spanish-language help-wanted ads for truck drivers, and a plasma donation center signal the economic troubles here. But the fence does not draw much local attention — it’s just there.
“It doesn’t produce any emotion,” said Manny Hernandez, a real estate agent. The emotion comes from hearing about children suffering hardships while crossing north, he added.
People cross north and south multiple times a day. They live in Mexicali, where housing is cheaper, and they work or go to school in Calexico. Or they live in Calexico and head south for medical care or for dinner. They have family and homes on both sides.
“We grew up not even thinking about it as being another country,” said Mike Davies, a retired police officer. But he believes improvements to the wall have helped stave off crime, and he would be willing to put up with a temporary border closure if authorities think it would do some good.
“There’s a really big need for the barrier. There’s no fooling about it. The people that come shopping here in our community will still continue to come shopping here,” Davies said, noting that closing the border could hurt Calexico financially — but could be worth it. “Desperate times necessitate desperate measures. I understand that would affect our economy, but I think what the president is trying to do is twist the arm of Mexico a little bit.”
Alex Perrone, a former mayor, lives across the street from city hall and four blocks from Mexico. He said he can smell the tacos Mexicans are making on the other side of the border. Perrone did not vote for Trump, but he has come to appreciate his presidency.
“He’s a very shrewd businessman,” he said, praising the president’s negotiations in Jerusalem and North Korea. Perrone believes Trump’s focus on the border is “keeping us safe,” noting that a stronger physical barrier will help combat drug and human traffickers. But Perrone doesn’t support closing the border.
If he could, he would love to give the president a tour not just of Calexico but also of Mexicali.
“These are the people that come across to Calexico every day. They come, and they see their families, and they consume our products, and they keep us going,” he said. “They’re our bread and butter.”
Jose Leon, who works at a Jack in the Box, said crossing the border is just part of the lifestyle here. Two years ago, the wall was “just there.” But the added security since then has changed his view.
“The day I started seeing more guards, the day I started seeing barbed wire, part of me — I got scared,” Leon said. “The wall? I don’t think about it. The security, the barbed wire, the tension, I feel it. And sometimes I’m scared of it.”
The president’s visit had some residents feeling confused, skeptical, hopeful.
“I don’t know why he’s coming, to be honest,” said Carlos Robles, who works in an income tax office, before the visit. “I feel like he’s just going to come and agitate the whole ‘caravan is coming.’ That’s a problem on the other side, but not here. Here there’s different problems,” he said. Among them: homelessness, drugs and property crime, he said.
One evening this week, downtown had a rush hour bustle. People lining up to trade dollars and pesos, shoppers grabbing groceries. The turnstile heading south at the border crossing clicked loudly every few seconds with another pedestrian walking into Mexicali for the evening.
At Diez or Less, a downtown boutique that targets, as its name hints, Spanish speaking bargain hunters, half a dozen people were circling its racks, up from the usual one or two — and Barbara Ayala, who has worked there for about 10 years, was worried.
Not that she didn’t want the business. Just the opposite. She and others were worried that a border closure might be imminent.
“They have Wednesday and Thursday to get their shopping done,” she said.
All day, rumors had swirled about the president’s threat to shut the border. She heard people making plans to sleep in Calexico so they wouldn’t get stuck south and miss school or work.
Ayala, folding clothes as she spoke, said 95 percent of her buyers are from Mexicali. She said a border closure would leave her cashier working alone in an empty store.
“Sola,” said her colleague, Jennifer Limon, from behind the counter.
But half a block away, at the port of entry, Ruben Nieblas, a security guard, wasn’t concerned.
“I’ve been here 18 years,” Nieblas said. “They didn’t close it after 9/11. They didn’t close it when John F. Kennedy got killed. They’re not going to close it.”
Leon, who is not a fan of the president’s approach to governing, said he was glad Trump was visiting, even if his visit to Calexico was brief. Just setting foot here would be a way for the president to see the place potentially impacted by his decision to build a wall.
“I can respect the idea that he’s coming here to where he wants to make the change,” Leon said. “This is something that, if it’s built, is going to transcend him.”
Seung Min Kim in Las Vegas and Tony Perry, a freelance journalist, contributed to this report.