SASABE, Arizona – A U.S. Army grunt freshly arrived from the Northwest was still puzzling over how to unwrap a tamale at the tumbledown general store and bar at this flyblown border outpost, but he had already sized up his mission to make America safe again.
“Kind of silly,” he said, with a chuckle. “Before, it would take a guy about ten seconds to get over that fence.” Now that troops have garlanded the steel uprights with concertina wire, he figures, “it’d take a little longer.” In any case, the fence ends five miles from here.
At the checkpoint, a veteran Customs and Border Protection agent, with a German shepherd and sharp eyes, echoed the soldier’s mirth. “I wish all those guys in Washington would spend just one day down here to see what the hell they’re talking about,” he said.
Not even the Berlin Wall was impervious, despite its machinegun towers and obstacle-strewn no man’s zone. Down here, 50 miles of forbidding desert watched by high-tech surveillance and green-striped SUVS do the job without evoking a hateful Evil Empire.
After squandering perhaps half a billion dollars on a show of military farce, Donald Trump is sending another 3,750 troops to chew up the desert until September.
A clearly marked border, with sturdy fencing where useful, is hard to call immoral, as Nancy Pelosi does. Yet immoral is tepid understatement for Trump’s wild distortions to stoke fear and loathing among his base with a jihad aimed at anguished migrants and refugees.
Sasabe is 68 miles southwest of Tucson down a two-lane blacktop that runs through the Buenos Aires Wildlife Reserve. Noble pronghorn antelope run free again, ranging across the border, after hunters hammered them to near extinction early last century.
Most crossers head northwest, avoiding ranches near the free-spirited artisan town of Arivaca up the road. They brave the larger, wilder Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Reserve through dense cactus and rocky outcrops along what Spanish explorers dubbed El Camino del Diablo.
The name stuck. In “The Devil’s Highway,” Luis Alberto Urrea traces 26 men who set out on it in 2001; 12 survived. He faulted what one Mexican consul called “the politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border.” Today, stupidity is more prevalent on the north side.
Feelings run high in Arivaca, northeast of Sasabe, where early last century a camp of Buffalo Soldiers, black U.S. cavalrymen, kept Mexico’s revolution from spilling into Arizona. Now it is a waypoint for armed vigilantes in 4-by-4s who hunt down migrants.
Tensions are not new. No More Deaths reported last year that its teams counted 3,586 water jugs destroyed across 800 square miles of southern Arizona from 2012 to 2015, where 155 bodies have been found since 2001. It said the Border Patrol authorized and normalized “acts of cruelty against border crossers.”
The pace has quickened since, along with prosecutions for unauthorized trespass on federal land and for littering – i.e., leaving water and food -- although summer temperatures soar above 110 degrees. Travelers routinely happen upon human remains, some without even shoes, let alone drugs.
Nine defendants now await federal sentencing, found guilty of traversing the reserve without a permit to leave water and canned beans in the desert. They could spend six months in jail. A tenth also faces a felony charge of harboring and conspiracy for his humanitarian aid.
Last year, the volunteer group, No More Deaths, videoed Border Patrol agents dropkicking gallon jugs of water. In a second video, a laughing agent empties jugs, one by one, and says to the camera: “Somebody left trash on the trail. It’s not yours, is it? All you have to do is tell me.”
A letter signed Patty Miller to Connection, Arivaca’s monthly paper, caught the mood: “What is next? Are they going to tell us to walk or drive by a person who may be dying just because they don’t have papers? That they would imprison us if we did try to help?”
As that Sasabe border guard observed, a simple look at reality shows an elaborate wall would not only squander money but also devastate ecosystems and animal habitats. The criminals Trump targets find easier ways in. Desperate people on foot carry little on their backs.
Most illegal contraband comes in through official ports of entry. Last month, agents at Nogales seized fentanyl and meth with a reported value of $4.2 million. It was hidden among produce and in secret compartments of an 18-wheeler stopped for a search.
The Arizona Republic in Phoenix won a Pulitzer last year for an exhaustive investigation of the 2,000-mile border, probing every aspect with data sets, anecdotes, maps, photos and interviews. The upshot: A Great Wall of Trump poses far more problems than it solves.
And there are those echoes of the Berlin Wall. Nogales notables beseeched Martha McSally, Arizona’s hardline Republican senator, to spare them from coils of barbed concertina wire, which give their relaxed little border city the air of an armed camp.
With little else to do, troops are now attaching wire at ground level, where children play and passersby risk serious injury.
Perla Treviso follows border issues for Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star. She grew up in Juarez and El Paso and, recently, she spent a year in Europe with trips to Africa to study immigration. In a piece this week, Treviso quoted Evan Kory, whose prominent family owns Kory’s and La Cinderella stores:
“In Nogales we are used to seeing the federal government make decisions about our surroundings. But the razor wire was way more aggressive than anything we had seen, which scared me…You feel powerless, like your voices aren’t heard.”
Later, Treviso told me her own thoughts on walls. They are only a symptom of far larger problems, she said, a deterrent that slows crossers down in populated areas so that agents have more time to react. But they are no solution to crime, a demand for drugs or poverty.
That sentiment is echoed all down the line. In Texas, Republican congressman Will Hurd’s district skirts nearly half of the U.S.-Mexico frontier. He ridicules the wall as a misguided boondoggle. An ex-CIA field agent, he knows that only intelligence in its various meanings can protect a nation.
Trump claims a wall made El Paso safe. In fact, crime increased 17 percent after a barrier was fortified in 2009, and yet El Paso is still among America’s safest cities because of community interaction. That dog-whistle slur, “bad hombres,” hardly defines all Mexicans.
Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas represents San Diego, another safe and prosperous border city. He summed up his thoughts in a tweet: “President Trump and Republicans in Congress should ask themselves: what would Reagan do on immigration? Hint: it wasn’t building a wall.”
During Trump’s myth-laced State of the Union that took credit for an inherited economic boom and ignored allies’ role in past American triumphs, I saw that Mussolini jaw set. Sycophants chanted, “USA.” It was the classic demagogy I’ve covered elsewhere for decades.
Defending his harsh treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, he declared: “Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassion – it is actually very cruel.” Later, Stacey Abrams, from Georgia, set him straight: “Compassion is not the same as open borders.”
Down around Sasabe, that “under God” in the pledge of allegiance takes on practical meaning. Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha and other brand-name prophets shared a simple precept: When lost people wander in the wilderness, at least show a little humanity.