An Arizona border sheriff confronts the wall

President Trump’s pitch is ‘a sound bite, not a cogent public policy position.’


From his office perched on a bare hillside just north of downtown Nogales, Arizona, Sheriff Tony Estrada can see past the rust-colored wall that cuts right through this city on the U.S.-Mexico border. For Estrada, who was born in 1943 on the Mexican side of Nogales, the past few decades have brought so much change to the region that it is almost unrecognizable — from the 18-to-30-foot-high bollard steel wall to the drones, helicopters, floodlights and cameras, not to mention the 1,000 Border Patrol agents now stationed in his jurisdiction.

Last November, President Donald Trump dispatched active-duty troops to the Southwest border to install razor wire atop the border wall that slices through neighborhoods and Nogales’ downtown shopping district. The move came in response to a much-publicized caravan of Central American migrants who hoped to apply for asylum in the U.S. By early February, coils of concertina wire covered the wall from top to bottom — a sight more common in a war zone or a prison than in an American city.

Its surreal,Estrada told me at his office in March. Migrants do not pose a “threat” to his city, he added. “Sure, razor wire will stop people from coming illegally. You put some land mines there, and thatll stop people too. But how far are we going to go?

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada has worked on the border for 51 years. Currently he is the only Hispanic sheriff in Arizona.
Anita Snow/AP Images

ESTRADA, A SOFT-SPOKEN MAN OF 76 with snowy hair, questions the current tactics, in part because of his 51 years of experience in law enforcement on the border, as well as his personal history. He was a toddler when his mother brought him and his three brothers from the Mexican side of Nogales to the Arizona side. “I’ll show you the picture,” he said, pointing to an old black-and-white image of his mother holding him as a baby, his older brothers standing around them.

Estrada grew up a few blocks from the border, in a three-room house without indoor plumbing. Rent was $10 per month. At 22, he joined the Nogales Police Department, eventually becoming a captain before running for sheriff in 1992. Estrada, who is serving his seventh term, is currently the longest-serving — and only Hispanic — sheriff in Arizona.

“I’m very cognizant of the people who struggle,” he said. Unlike his parents, who were able to immigrate legally, most of today’s migrants have no such option. “If you don’t have the right documents and financial resources, you’re not going to make it,” he said. 

In 1995, two years after Estrada was first elected, an economic crisis in Mexico spurred a big increase in illegal immigration; between 200,000 to 300,000 more people came that year than was usual during that decade. Migrants rushed the car lanes at Nogales’ main port of entry, Estrada said, and there were not enough Customs and Border Protections officers to stop them. 

That year marked the beginning of a military-style security buildup inside the city itself. More Border Patrol agents arrived, and the citys border fencing was replaced by new fencing built using corrugated steel from old Vietnam-era helicopter landing pads. In the years that followed, far fewer people crossed illegally, but Estrada saw other problems emerge: Migrants were pushed to cross the border in more dangerous, remote sections of the desert, and drug traffickers began building tunnels under the wall through Nogales.

When I look at the drug problem we have in this country, illegal immigration pales in comparison,” he said, noting that the amount of hard drugs smuggled into the country has soared in the past five years — the vast majority coming through legal ports of entry, including Nogales.  

But while Trump has asked for $211 million in his 2019 budget request to hire 750 additional Border Patrol agents, he did not request more customs officers to staff the ports of entry and prevent the influx of more illegal drugs. “If youre going to vet people and find drugs, you need to put officers at the ports of entry,said Estrada, adding that the main crossing in Nogales currently has about 100 customs officer vacancies.  

IN RECENT MONTHS, Estrada has watched with increasing frustration as Trump continues to ignore the sheriffs along the southern border in his demands for a wall. In a letter released on Jan. 8, all 31 border sheriffs wrote that Trump’s push for a wall wasa sound bite, not a cogent public policy position.

That wall. That magical panacea — that silver bullet, said Estrada, chuckling. He recalled how, back in the ’90s, a new kind of latticed steel border wall was erected through Nogales. Almost immediately, Estrada started noticing small square-shaped cuts in the fence, too small for a person to go across. Why, the sheriff wondered, would people cut holes too small to climb through? He smiled, remembering: What they were doing was cutting out sections to use as barbecue grills.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

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