By Leonid Bershidsky
Editor’s note: Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Capitol Report or Bloomberg LP.
“Nobody likes the wall,” says Tony Martinez, mayor of Brownsville, a city in the Southeastern corner of Texas across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico. He’s the son of Mexican immigrants and a Democrat, but he’s not exaggerating: even Donald Trump supporters in the town hate the border fence that has been here since 2008.
“Build that wall, build that wall!” I have heard people chant at Trump rallies in the small towns of Iowa and New Hampshire, far from the Mexican border. Trump promises to build a wall that will be “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful.”
The fence in Brownsville is 18 feet tall and made from rusty iron bars. I could climb it in about 15 seconds. “Our record is eight,” says Michael Seifer, an organizer for the Equal Voice Network, a coalition of civic groups in the Rio Grande Valley.
It has cost more than $6 million per mile to build, and it runs through farmers’ fields and townspeople’s backyards. The local consensus is that it hasn’t helped anyone except contractors and drug cartels.
The fence stretches across private lands as far as two miles from the Rio Grande, the natural border between Texas and Mexico. It doesn’t quite reach the Gulf of Mexico. There are gaps for every county road and gates for farmers to move between parts of their bisected properties. The gates have electronic code locks. Bonnie Albert, whose family owns the Loop Farms at the southeastern edge of Brownsville — a sizeable operation that grows vegetables and citrus fruits — says the locks freeze from time to time. Farmers have to call the Border Patrol to unlock them.
It’s common for farmers to live on the south side of the fence: It went up north of some houses because of terrain peculiarities and administrative problems. “The government is selective about whom it protects with this wall,” says Eloisa Tamez, a nursing professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who knows all about the wall because it runs through her yard. She has to walk around it to get to the southern part of her property.
Albert doesn’t think the fence protects anyone at all. “In places, you can see scuff marks on it where they climb over,” she says. “And there are so many gaps.”
Nor does Cuban Monsees, a 68-year-old known as Rusty who lives alone with his dog on a 21-acre ranch at the end of a road that bears his family’s name. He says the wall’s concrete foundations have shut off water to wells along the border, requiring them to get costly permits to dig deeper.
But people still get across, including people paid by the cartels to deliver drugs or run errands like smuggling in Central American refugees. According to Border Patrol statistics, only slightly more than half of the undocumented immigrants apprehended last year were Mexicans. Most of the others came from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Monsees says people from a cartel have been offering him money for the use of his rather overgrown property, but he has rejected the advances. Albert says the cartels run everything south of the border, but she is reluctant to talk about the specifics. “We have to live here,” she says.
“The wall has created a pressure cooker,” says Seifert, a former Catholic priest who has lived on the border for 29 years. “Before it was built, people crossed to pick peaches or lay roofing and came back. Then suddenly it became hard to do. The human smugglers loved it.”
Albert and Monsees aren’t bleeding hearts. “We must enforce immigration laws,” says Albert, who says that faced with a choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton, she’ll vote for Trump. “It’s expensive even to take care of your own family, and the people who come over need taking care of. But they will keep coming if there are no consequences to it, wall or no wall.”
Monsees, who suffers from two forms of cancer and survives on Social Security, let it be known in 2014 that he needed help staying safe. The call spread on social networks and gun-toting locals and out-of-staters turned up to form a kind of militia on his property. “Some of them were good people, but others were here to play Rambo,” Monsees says. “It was a vacation thing for them.” They shot their AR15 rifles and hunted illegal crossers. Fortunately for everyone, no deaths ensued. Two of the militiamen turned out to be convicted felons who had no right to possess forearms. They went to jail, and local police told Monsees, a former highway patrolman, that they didn’t like the company he kept. Monsees says he sent his “helpers” home.
Despite this history and his support for Trump, Monsees believes in increasing border patrol numbers more than he does in fences, ugly or “beautiful.” I didn’t notice any lack of personnel — as we talked on the tailgate of Monsees’s shabby truck on the south side of the wall, a patrolman passed back and forth no less than three times, waving to us in a friendly way — but Monsees doesn’t feel protected. He’d like to sell or lease his ranch and go away.
Brownsville is in fact extremely safe. It is last of the 24 Texas metro areas in violent crime. Matamoros is another matter. There is a State Department warning for Americans to “delay all non-essential travel” there because of robberies and kidnappings.
“The cartel violence in Matamoros is the real wall on the other side,” says Seifert, who used to cross the border every weekend but no longer does. “There used to be a great atmosphere there, but no more.”
It’s not the wall that’s keeping the violence out of Brownsville. “The criminal enterprises are like corporate America in a way,” Mayor Martinez says. “They don’t want any part of the U.S. judicial process; problems are the last thing they want.” In Mexico, the cartels fight their wars. In the U.S., they do business. They have captured the heroin and fentanyl market from South Asian suppliers and they don’t want to lose it by attracting too much attention.
Rather than keep down crime and illegal immigration, the fence ended up hurting ordinary Americans who lost their land under eminent domain. “I got raped on the deal,” Monsees said. “An acre went for $10,000 back then, but they offered me $1,500 for three acres and said if I didn’t take it, they’d just take the land. So I took it.” Albert said the compensation Loop Farms received was adequate for the land itself, but not for the disruption of the business.
Tavez, who fought the partition of her property in court and forced the government to consult with her on the placement of the fence, was paid $56,000 in compensation for less than half an acre on which the fence went up in 24 hours after she lost the last appeal. She has established a scholarship fund for nursing students. But she grew up on the property and the trauma hasn’t quite healed. “If they could get away with that, what else could they do to me?” she says. “I never felt so lost as during that time. I was not treated as a citizen.”
That psychological effect is perhaps the wall’s biggest wound to Brownsville, a community with a 91-percent Hispanic population. “Before the fence went up, we used to travel between Brownsville and Matamoros in a pretty liquid fashion,” Mayor Martinez says. “We all have relatives on the other side.”
Many locals are angry at Trump. I watched Monday night’s debate with a group of mostly Spanish-speaking people at a local law office, and one woman showed up in a T-shirt with a Spanish vulgarism under the Republican candidate’s picture. “To be categorized as rapists and undesirables is extremely hurtful and unwelcome,” Martinez says.
The disappointment runs deeper, however. Tavez, who is a registered Democrat, doubts that she’s going to vote for Clinton. Like many people here, she remembers that the militarization of the border began under President Bill Clinton. The decisions to build the fence and appropriate land for it were made under President George W. Bush, and Tavez’s unsuccessful legal battle took place under President Barack Obama. Tavez, who met Obama and hoped he would stop the construction, now worries that democracy no longer works at all.
Others in Brownsville believe the system’s inefficiency is their shield from worse problems with Trump’s wall. “I don’t think he can build it,” Albert says. “It’s one thing to talk about it in New Hampshire where you heard it and another thing to actually try to do it here. There are all these little regulations to stick to.”
“Look how unfinished it is,” Mayor Martinez says. “It’s impossible to do in the four years that these guys get in the White House. Trump is just offering people who don’t know better a quick fix. And it’s not as if this fellow has never failed.”
Martinez hopes the existing wall will eventually come down. He points to the first private space launch pad in the U.S. that Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building near Brownsville. “We are about to become an interplanetary civilization,” he says. “And here we are talking about a wall separating what is essentially the same community.”