Written by Jose A. Del Real
The barbed wire overhead evokes danger and violence, but Maritza Hurtado cannot take it seriously. When the sharp coils were placed on top of the old border fence several months ago, running right along the main boulevard, she chalked it up to political propaganda from a White House that does not understand life along the Southwest frontier.
“This is not a war zone,” Hurtado said from her tax and immigration consulting office in downtown Calexico, from which she can peer into Mexico. “I’ve had a business here for 30 years, and we’ve never needed the barbed wire. Why now? To me, it feels as if I’m enclosed.”
For nearly a year, President Donald Trump has pointed with pride to a renovation project replacing 2 miles of border fencing in Calexico. He hailed it as “the start of our Southern Border WALL!” — to the great consternation of many of the town’s residents, who are wary of becoming the public face of a hard-line immigration policy that most here do not agree with. The attention the president’s tweet brought was surreal, in part because the construction replaced an unsightly stretch of steel fencing that was already there.
Nationally, partisans and journalists began to debate whether the 30-foot-tall steel slats that make up the replacement barrier should be called a “wall” like the one Trump promised during his campaign. Others said it was just a “fence,” a distinction that has taken on great importance in Washington.
Lost amid the battle over credit and semantics was how Calexico residents themselves felt about becoming characters in Trump-era political theater. For many, a sense of apprehension turned to anger when the military installed barbed wire on top of older border fencing, which runs through downtown.
“This community is basically being used for political purposes,” said Hurtado, who served as the town’s mayor until December. “And it’s happening throughout these border cities that are just like ours.” She tried to remain diplomatic when television news crews asked her for comment about the barrier last spring, she said, to “avoid making more drama for this community that has nothing to do with the national problem.”
But she said she felt incredulous over the administration’s insistence that the replacement fence is part of the wall: “Before we started this project here to do the replacement, Border Patrol came to visit us about three times to ask us to please participate in avoiding the drama. They came to say, three times, ‘You guys, just so you know, we’re starting this project, and it’s not the wall,” recounted Hurtado, a Democrat who did not vote for the president. “And then here comes Trump and says, ‘It’s the wall!’”
The town has received a steady dose of attention from Trump administration officials since last spring. Vice President Mike Pence visited the barrier in April and said the administration was “committed to seeing the construction of a border wall.” In October, the Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, visited to unveil a plaque crediting the president with the barrier.
This month, the president tweeted again: “The Fake News Media keeps saying we haven’t built any NEW WALL,” he wrote, apparently in reference to the barrier in Calexico. “Below is a section just completed on the Border. Anti-climbing feature included. Very high, strong and beautiful! Also, many miles already renovated and in service!”
Amid a continuing national debate about the border, which has resulted in the longest government shutdown in history, many in this town of 40,000 have struggled to reconcile ominous warnings they see projected from the White House about life on the border with their own experiences living in the quiet agricultural community 120 miles east of San Diego.
Calexico has long celebrated its interdependent relationship with Mexicali, its sister city directly across the line; the two cities’ downtowns are bisected by pillars where the border lies. Shoppers from urban Mexicali, which has a population of about 1 million, are vital to Calexico’s small-town economy and cross to shop at large outlet stores on the U.S. side. Americans head to the Mexican side on weekends for cheap health care, entertainment and concerts.
“We’re right up against each other. Each city depends on the other,” said Hildy Carrillo, the executive director of the Calexico Chamber of Commerce, who like Hurtado did not vote for Trump. “The families are on both sides of the border. The businesses are on both sides of the border. And the education, the entertainment and the culture are on both sides of the border. Punto.”
Rather than a border wall, residents here express enthusiasm for modernizing the Calexico West Port of Entry, which they hope will expedite traffic and allow for a fluid flow of business between the two sides. The number of legal northbound crossers each day, leading to hourslong lines, is astounding: about 20,000 pedestrians and up to 20,000 vehicles, according to the General Services Administration.
Ground was broken in 2015 on the first stage of the renovation, a $121.9 million project completed in September 2018. Town officials are hopeful the second phase will be funded by Congress.
“We have been waiting for that funding, for years, for our port of entry,” Hurtado said. “That’s been our struggle. We don’t need a wall. We’ve been struggling to get the money for the door.” The president’s previous threats to shut down the border had also concerned her. “We’re depressed and you’re going to kill us if you shut things down. It’s like, help us by knowing us, you know?”
After Trump’s tweet about the “Border WALL!” Hurtado had T-shirts made and distributed. They read, “It’s Not A Wall.”
The high volume of legal traffic does not mean that illegal border crossings do not happen here. The risk those migrants pose, however, and the characterization of the numbers who jump the fence is enormously overstated, Carrillo said.
The real danger, many here said, lies in drug trafficking conducted through sophisticated tunnel systems built by cartels.
During a drive through downtown Calexico, Victor Carrillo — Carrillo’s cousin and a former City Council member, mayor and county supervisor — pointed to a house where federal authorities found an expansive underground tunnel in 2016 that ran from the United States to Mexico. As he drove, Carrillo and a friend pointed to other areas where tunnels were found, where sink holes formed because of attempted burrowing and where the authorities suspect there could be new tunnels.
“They’re everywhere. Every new apartment complex you see go up, you figure” there might be a tunnel there, Carrillo said.
A wall, he pointed out, does not even begin to address that problem.
The politics of the Imperial Valley are generally not with the president. The county gave Hillary Clinton 68 percent of the vote in 2016 compared with 27 percent for Trump. The 51st Congressional District, which runs along the southern border from the Arizona border to San Diego, supported the incumbent Democrat, Rep. Juan Vargas, with 71 percent of the vote versus 29 percent for his Republican challenger. Eighty-four percent of Imperial County residents are Latino, according to 2018 data by the U.S. Census Bureau.
That is not to say that there are not people here and in the broader Imperial Valley, which is a large agricultural region, who support the president’s policies. But in Calexico, it seems, few like to speak about it publicly. And even some of those who lean conservative have reservations about the president’s talk on immigration.
John Renison, 70, an Army veteran and longtime Calexico resident who is a former City Council member and county supervisor, began his political career here in the 1990s as a Republican but is reluctant to identify with either party today. But he said the barbed wire running through Calexico is a distasteful statement, as is, he said, the president’s general rhetoric about immigration.
“We do not have a crisis on the border. We are not in fear of being invaded like he said,” Renison said. “What’s really laughable is you think you’re going to stop illegal immigration by constructing walls and fences.”