‘It’s not the same’: How Trump and Covid devastated an Arizona border town

(Sept. 4, 2020) When Francis Glad was a child growing up in Nogales, Arizona, the US-Mexico border near her home was nothing like it is now. “It was more like a neighbor fence, like you have at your house,” she remembers. “It was very symbiotic. Just people coming back and forth.”

But today, a towering 30ft border wall, made of dizzying steel bollards, slices through the Nogales sister cities.

The economies of the two Nogaleses have always been intrinsically linked and mutually dependent on cross-border commerce, with residents from each side passing through to do their daily shopping or to visit with friends and family. Years ago, Glad’s mother ran a hotel in downtown Nogales, Arizona, which was almost always packed with businesspeople and tourists.

But, she says, the bustle has stopped. In part, Glad blames the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and lies about the borderlands. “Outsiders believe that Nogales is a war zone,” she says, “with ‘murdering, rapist,’ undocumented [people] climbing the border wall like the zombies from World War Z, when it’s far from the truth.”

More recently, Covid-19 restrictions on “nonessential” border crossings have turned downtown Nogales into a ghost of its formerly busy self. In a small town with a $28,000 median income and a poverty rate of 33.9%, the slowing of traffic comes with potentially dire economic consequences for workers and small business owners.

But even before Covid-19, Glad says, “The parking lots [were] empty. And that was not the case prior to 2016.”

Glad moved away several times in early adulthood, but always returned home to Nogales. Every visit back, she noticed changes: new sections of wall. A larger border patrol presence. Today, Glad says that border militarization has changed her community – and the lives of the people in it.

As defined by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, border militarization is “the systematic intensification of the border’s security apparatus, transforming the area from a transnational frontier to a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement and violence”.

Over the past three decades, US administrations have enacted federal policy with lasting consequences for border residents. In 1994, the Clinton administration launched a border patrol strategy called “prevention through deterrence”, aimed at curbing undocumented immigration by sealing off urban ports of entry. Towns along the US-Mexico border were transformed by the addition of walls, surveillance towers, motion and thermal sensors, helicopters and drones, federal agents and roving border patrol checkpoints.

Today border peoples are hugely affected by militarization. In some places, rural residents must stop at border patrol checkpoints just to go to the gas station or get groceries. Tohono O’odham tribal members – whose nation is literally severed by the US-Mexico border – report racial profiling by border agents; drone and tower surveillance; and disruptions to their traditional hunting and ceremonial practices. And tragically, militarization created a death trap for migrants, who now must navigate by foot through remote, dangerous terrain in order to cross the border. In the last two decades, nearly 8,000 migrants have been found dead along the southern border, but the real number of fatalities is certainly much higher. Thousands are missing.

There is perhaps no more tangible symbol of border militarization than the wall, which roils and alters landscapes and communities all along the border. Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” – after his predecessors had already completed 654 miles, ranging from steel panels to vehicle barriers. As president, Trump’s obsession with the wall has only intensified.

One hundred and 30 miles west of Nogales, the tiny town of Ajo, Arizona (population 3,300), has been inundated by a flurry of border wall construction. Despite concerns about Covid-19 transmission, out-of-state workers arrived in droves, hired to build a section of wall – part of a $524m federal contract awarded to Southwest Valley Constructors. This summer, construction has seen contractors blasting through indigenous ceremonial sites, using so much water that a sacred spring is drying up, and chain-sawing through saguaro cacti, a protected species that can live up to 200 years. Day by day, the wall snakes further across the pristine Organ Pipe Cactus national monument, cutting off wildlife migratory corridors and access to water sources.

August brings record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures to southern Arizona. Heat hovers in visible waves over the pavement. Any metal item left outside becomes a branding iron.

Arizona has also become a political hotspot, with national groups pouring millions of dollars into the newly recognized battleground state. Analysts say Trump is far less likely to win the 2020 presidential election without winning Arizona. And both the Trump and Biden campaigns have their eyes on a key voting bloc: Arizona’s estimated 1.2 million Latino voters.

Trump won 28% of the national Latino vote in 2016. Today, an estimated 24% of Latino voters favor him – despite Trump’s overwhelmingly anti-immigrant stance. In addition to doubling down on the promise to build the wall over the last four years, the Trump administration has attacked Daca, carried out aggressive raids and deportations, and separated asylum-seeking parents from their children.

Amid the raging pandemic and spiking summer temperatures, Trump is courting that vote. Between June and July, the Trump campaign spent more than $1.4m in Spanish-language TV and radio ads to bolster his Latinos for Trump initiative. Both he and the vice-president, Mike Pence, have made multiple campaign visits to Arizona.

On 18 August, Trump visited Yuma for the second time this summer, speaking for 45 minutes in the 104F heat. Yuma county, known for its winter vegetable production and seasonal population of migrant farm workers, has been hit particularly hard by Covid-19.

“Nobody understands the border better than Hispanics,” Trump said. “They know what’s good, what’s bad. They don’t want bad people coming into our country, taking their jobs, taking their homes, causing crime. Hispanic Americans are the people who are most in favor of what we are doing at the border.”

But in her work as a volunteer with the Santa Cruz county Democrats, Francis Glad has spoken with hundreds of fellow Latino voters weighing the decision this November. “The stories again and again hold a pattern,” she says. “I do not like what has become of our city and country, our border. If anything, militarization of our border and the anti-immigrant stance has motivated many like me to become more involved … and to vote.”

It was a combination of factors that inspired Glad to become politically active. But near the top of that list was Trump’s racist rhetoric, referring to Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists”. Even Glad’s own six-year-old son, who is not allowed to watch the news, has absorbed that sentiment.

“Am I Mexican, Mommy?” he asked her recently.

“Well, yes, baby,” she responded. “You are part-Mexican because of me.”

He paused, thinking, and then asked, “So, Trump doesn’t like me?”

“Oy, baby,” she managed, and wrapped him in a hug.

In 2018, Trump sent national guard troops to Nogales and other border towns in a show of force against the unarmed migrant families traveling from Central America to request asylum. On election day 2018, troops installed razor-sharp concertina wire on the border wall, and in February 2019, additional wire was added, covering some parts of the wall from top to bottom. More than one year later, that wire is still there in Nogales – six coils high and within reach of playing children – despite outrage from local officials, who have demanded that it be removed.

“When they put up the concertina wire, it was a low blow,” says Glad. “It’s our community. Ours. And they went and did it without thinking about how it would affect us.”

She hopes such actions by the Trump administration will encourage fellow border residents and Latinos to vote for Biden in November. Last year, the Biden campaign launched Todos Con Biden, an initiative aimed at wooing Latino voters across the country. Of course, there is an elephant in the room: Biden’s role in the more than 5m deportations that took place during the Obama administration.

While Biden has frequently cited Obama’s Daca executive order as evidence of the administration’s pro-immigrant policy, he was hesitant to address the deportations. But in February, Biden finally expressed regret in an interview with Univision. “We took far too long to get it right,” he said. “I think it was a big mistake.”

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Debbie Weingarten