On the border, Trump’s wall pledge casts long shadow

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On the border, Trump’s wall pledge casts long shadow

Arivaca, Arizona – Across the 19km stretching from the US-Mexico border to Arivaca, a 600-person unincorporated town in southern Arizona, rock-studded peaks jut skyward, deep valleys carve the terrain and border patrol vehicles sit idly along the dusty makeshift roads.

Dissecting the mountainous region is the border, where US President Donald Trump hopes to raise a 9.1-metre concrete wall to block entry for refugees and migrants fleeing economic devastation and violence in Central America and elsewhere.

Surveillance drones occasionally buzz overhead, while low-flying helicopters seek out undocumented immigrants and others who cross the frontier.

The existing border barrier includes a series of disparate and often unconnected fences and walls that span around one-third of the 3,201km border dividing the US and its southern neighbour. Swaths of the border remain without a barrier.

Megan Davern, a 30-year-old Arivaca resident, argued that the billions of dollars spent on a wall would be better suited for education programmes in poor and marginalised communities.

“The wall wouldn’t work, and there are a lot of kids who are illiterate in Arizona,” she told Al Jazeera.

The barrier is seen in Sasabe, Arizona [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

In a public spat with Democratic leaders on Tuesday, Trump again threatened to shut down the government if Congress does not allocate $5bn in funding for a border wall by December 21.

“If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other – whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call – I will shut down the government,” Trump said, adding that he would be “proud” to do so “for border security”. 

But time is working against Trump. During November midterm elections, the Democratic Party gained a majority in the House of Representatives after two years of Republicans controlling both congressional chambers. 

Democrats and several rights groups have condemned Trump’s proposal, while six out of 10 Americans are opposed to expanding the existing structure, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, published in January.

The same Pew poll found that an estimated 37 percent of Americans support the president’s plans to deter irregular immigration by erecting the concrete wall.

‘Symbol of hate’

During the last two years, retired game warden Rich Glinski has spotted a few groups of migrants crossing a dry-grassed wash, specked with cacti and blanketed in brush, across the hills on his 10-acre (4.05 hectares) plot in Arivaca.

Sitting in his home, Glinski described Trump’s call for a border wall as “totally nonsensical” that has been used as “a great marketing tool”.

“What’s infested our politics now days is hate,” he told Al Jazeera. “When they say ‘the wall’, it’s a symbol of all the hate they have for [migrants] who are coming across.”

Glinski points to water left by human rights groups for migrants crossing the border [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Explaining that much of the border is not easily accessible by vehicle, he added, “The wall won’t do any good.”

But Arivaca has also attracted supporters of the wall, including the Utah Gun Exchange, an online gun marketplace known for following survivors of the February mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Earlier this year, Utah Gun Exchange launched BuildTheWallTV, a right-wing online media project that claims to crowdfund money for the construction of the wall. The group ventured to Arivaca, where it collaborated with anti-immigrant armed vigilante groups.

Bryan Melchior, Utah Gun Exchange co-owner, cruised through the town in an armoured BearCat vehicle emblazoned with the words “Build the wall”.

Since coming to office, Trump reduced the number of refugees resettled in the country to an historic low, banned nationals from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US and oversaw a spate of policies designed to hinder immigration.

Trump has also called for increased deportations, cutting down on refugee resettlement in the US and the erection of a border wall.

Trump’s proposed border wall is estimated to cost billions of dollars [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

During the midterm elections, Trump stoked fear over a US-bound caravan of Central American migrants and refugees, falsely deeming it an “invasion”.

On Friday, the president claimed the wall could cost between $15bn and $20bn. “I could even do it cheaper if I have to, and it will be better than anyone’s ever seen a wall,” he said at a Project Safe Neighborhoods conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Congress must fully fund border security in the year-end funding bill,” Trump added.

Republican politicians have thrown their support behind Trump’s proposed wall. Speaking to Fox News on Sunday, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham urged Trump “not to give in when it comes to the wall”.

‘Hate as a political tool’

Last Thursday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi insisted that her party will not accept an agreement that would see funds put towards the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme in exchange for border wall funding.

Pelosi described the wall plan as “immoral, ineffective and expensive.”

Human rights organisations and advocacy groups have issued similar criticisms. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report in September, saying “border walls do not make the US safer or significantly reduce smuggling or immigration”.

The report also found that border walls cause environmental devastation, hurt the economies of towns and cities nearby and contribute to the “ongoing humanitarian crisis of migrant deaths as they push migrants into more remote desert areas”. 

The existing border barrier includes a series of disparate and often unconnected fences and walls that span around one-third of the 3,201km border dividing the US and Mexico [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

In Arivaca, Dan Kelly, who lives 20km from the border, recalled recently sitting with a group of friends at a local bar while discussing their differing views on migration.

Despite disagreement, he said, they shared a desire for more compassionate immigration policies.

“We are pretty unanimous in recognising that the failure is a lack of a cogent immigration policy,” he told Al Jazeera, arguing that the Trump administration drums up “fear and hate as a political tool”.

Back in his home, Glinski asked, “Right here at the border where we live, are we going to generate [hate] or are we going to act with kindness?”

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