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Arizona community divided over border wall after Biden’s policy changes

In Arizona, people are feeling the impact of President Biden's order to halt border wall construction. While the wall's presence has already had a profound impact on border communities, its enduring legacy under a new president remains unclear. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have been focusing in-depth this week on President Biden's plans to reset the country's immigration policies.

    Tonight, we check in from Arizona, where communities already are feeling the effects of the new president's order to halt border wall construction. The wall's presence has had a profound impact.

    Its legacy, though, remains unclear.

    Amna Nawaz has our report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For 125 years, John Ladd's family has raised cattle in this corner of Arizona. Ten miles of his ranch run along the U.S.-Mexico border. For years, Ladd says his work was made harder by the steady stream of migrants and smugglers he says regularly crossed here.

  • John Ladd:

    They just cut all my fences. They cut my water lines. They chased cattle around. So there's an economic impact right there.

    I spend about 50 percent of my time checking fences and water lines.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Which is why, he says, he welcomed President Trump's wall construction, and is worried by President Biden's order to halt it.

  • John Ladd:

    If Biden carries through with what he's proposing, the law enforcement is going to be under the gun. Border Patrol is already outmanned. It's going to be a real serious security issue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Looming, gleaming, and incomplete, former President Trump's so-called new border wall extends 450 miles, including this stretch of the Arizona desert, which advocates say has destroyed habitat for endangered species and divided cross-border families and communities.

    Much of it upgraded existing wall with these 30-foot-barriers, totaling $11 billion, mostly paid for by tax dollars diverted from the Pentagon. At roughly $20 million a mile, some estimate it's the most expensive wall of its kind in the world.

  • Mayor Donald Huish:

    If the wall immediately, that will hurt us economically.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For Donald Huish, mayor of the border city of Douglas, Arizona, those construction contracts were a boon, especially after the pandemic shuttered cross-border commerce.

  • Donald Huish:

    We estimate between 60 and 70 percent of our sales tax revenue comes from the Mexican side. And so the restrictions that have been put in place have — we anticipated roughly probably a 33 percent drop in our budget. That hasn't happened.

    And the reason it hasn't happened is the influx of the — what we call the wall people, the people that have been brought in from out of state to work on the wall.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Huish, a Republican, grew up here and has family on both sides of the border. He says fencing, dating back to the early 2000s, helped to cut down illegal traffic.

  • Donald Huish:

    It pushed that element outside of our community, which has turn made our community much more safer in that aspect of it. And even with the new wall, it's pushed it even further away from our community. And we have virtually seen none of that activity happening here anymore.

  • Rev. Mark Adams:

    For the majority of our history, we have not had a steel barrier that's divided us from one another.

    And I think, for many people in Douglas, seeing a wall and then seeing 500 Border Patrol agents come to town,well, there has to be something dangerous over there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pastor Mark Adams has lived here for 22 years. His Presbyterian ministry, Frontera de Cristo, is a cross-border community, stretching from Douglas, Arizona to its sister city of, Agua Prieta in Mexico.

    He says the perception of safety, from an increase in security, has not meant safety for all.

  • Mark Adams:

    Our border policy has been one that uses deserts and mountains as lethal deterrents. And we have seen thousands of people die because of that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For decades, successive U.S. governments have stepped up security at the border, Bill Clinton's Operation Gatekeeper, George W. Bush's Secure Fence Act, which then-Senator Barack Obama supported, and now, Trump's wall, which Biden plans to halt.

  • Javier Osorio:

    There's no discussion that they're going to demolish the wall.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Javier Osorio is a political scientist at the University of Arizona. He says there's little evidence the wall has stopped drugs or migrants from reaching the U.S.

  • Javier Osorio:

    Walls have never worked since the Middle Ages, right? I mean, there are always ways to breach, to go around, to break the walls.

    So, these physical barriers are actually not creating an important deterrent on all migration patterns into the U.S. Why? Because there's always a supply and demand of these human crossings.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those crossings, Osorio says, continue. They have just been pushed into emptier, deadlier stretches, something Mayor Huish has seen.

    Because the supply of people who want to be able to cross because of things that they're fleeing in their home countries or searching for better economic or safety conditions, because that supply hasn't changed, what you're really doing when you build a wall is pushing them further out into more dangerous positions and further endangering their lives and maybe even the lives of the people on the border who are trying to enforce it.

    Do you worry about that at all?

  • Donald Huish:

    I do. And you're absolutely correct.

    And that's why I'm saying that the immigration laws need to change somehow. They need to be better set up that we can handle those situations, that if somebody has a legitimate reason why they need to be here or want to be here, desire to become an American citizen, then we should have a way that that can happen, and so they don't have to resort to these means of trying to get across illegally.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pastor Adams says U.S. laws greeting people are one challenge. The forces causing them to flee are another.

  • Mark Adams:

    This has been the biggest death year in over 10 years of people crossing the border. It just rerouted the traffic, because we weren't dealing with the root causes of why people were migrating.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nightfall at the border. Another group of migrants is deported back to Mexico at a port of entry far from where they originally crossed.

    Confused, they gather for a meal at the migrant resource center and try figure out next steps. Many reach out to the smugglers they hired to try and get back to the U.S. Others end up spending the next few days at CAME, A nearby shelter that houses migrants.

    We met a woman there who fled violence in March and tried to enter the U.S. She's now living in this shelter, waiting her turn to request asylum. She doesn't want to be identified, fearful of consequences if she can't leave.

  • Woman (through translator):

    With the wall, we have to go over the mountains or through the desert. It's much more difficult. I hope that Biden welcomes us and has compassion for those of us who have been trapped here for a long time. The truth is, we have nowhere else to go.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The wall, to many, is more than a tangible deterrent. It also sends a powerful signal.

  • Perla Del Angel (through translator):

    It's not just a wall, but also it is a physical representation of immigration policy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Perla del Angel is the outreach coordinator at CAME and a volunteer at the migrant resource center.

  • Perla Del Angel (through translator):

    Even before the new construction, we saw many people get injured who fell from the top of the wall and ended up with broken bones. There's even been people who've died from falling off the wall. So, it's obvious, with an even bigger wall now, that these accidents are going to increase.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Every Tuesday for the last 20 years, faith leaders and congregants have gathered here on the U.S. side of the border to remember those who die making the brutal trek across this desert.

    During the pandemic, only a few gather in person, the rest on Zoom.

  • Mark Adams:

    Sister whose name is unknown to us, but known to God, who died on around December the 10th.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pastor Adams shares their stories, and notes that their lives, even across a border, are still part of the larger American story.

  • Mark Adams:

    Part of our mythology as a nation is that we're a nation of immigrants. And that's true. And, at the same time, we're a nation that has typically always rejected the newest immigrants.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For now, his community is divided by a wall, he says, but remains united in faith.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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