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. 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.