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How residents from El Paso feel about border barriers

Amid the roiling national debate about immigration and a border wall, construction crews in El Paso, Texas, are busy replacing 20 miles of wire mesh fencing with a bollard-style structure. Border Patrol says this kind of barrier is crucial for preventing people from crossing the border illegally. Special correspondent Angela Kocherga talks to El Paso residents about how it affects their community.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As President Trump continues his efforts to fund a wall, border wall, some sections of the southern border are already seeing improvements from previous government funding.

    Angela Kocherga of The Albuquerque Journal reports from El Paso, Texas, where upgrades are nearly complete.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    Just a few blocks south of downtown El Paso, construction crews are busy replacing 20 miles of old chain-link and wire-mesh fencing with a new bollard-style barrier.

  • Aaron Hull:

    This wall is going to be at least 18-feet-high above the grade. It's concrete inside of steel, with rebar running up the middle. There's a five-foot anti-climb plate at the top. It's buried six feet into the ground, with another two feet of concrete underneath that.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    El Paso Sector Border Patrol Chief Aaron Hull says a physical barrier is critical in this urban area to prevent people from illegally crossing the border and escaping into busy city streets.

  • Aaron Hull:

    It's a very solid structure, but it enables us to see through it, so we can see what's going on the south side and be prepared to react.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    The money to upgrade the structure between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was approved by Congress in the 2017 Homeland Security budget, before the current fight over funding President Trump's wall.

  • David Romo:

    There is no invasion here. This is our home.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    Historian David Romo, who grew up in El Paso, says the border has become a victim of politics.

  • David Romo:

    Listen to the voices of people from here, the border residents themselves. And I think they're going to tell you an entirely different story, perspective than what you're hearing from people in Washington, D.C.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    The first call for a wall between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez was more than 100 years ago to keep Chinese immigrants from coming across the border.

  • David Romo:

    And it was the same kind of narrative, that they were here to steal our jobs, and that they were bringing in drugs, opium.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    There has been some sort of fencing in this area for decades.

    During the George W. Bush administration, Congress approved stronger barriers here and along other stretches of borderland that were busy illegal crossing points.

  • Manuela Rodriguez:

    Look, there's a gap right here.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    In the historic Chihuahuita neighborhood of El Paso, near the Rio Grande, the tall border barrier is a backyard fence for some homes.

    Sixty-year-old Manuela Rodriguez has lived here her entire life, and she says the fence has made a difference.

  • Manuela Rodriguez:

    When we didn't have the fence, it was free-for-all, coming in and out, coming in and out, and not only people. They would bring in — smuggle in kids. They would bring in drugs and everything.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    Today, there are far fewer illegal crossings in this area of downtown El Paso. Occasionally, people climb over the fence, leaving behind evidence, coats or jackets on top used to protect their hands.

  • Manuela Rodriguez:

    As you can see the jackets up there.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    But, overall, illegal immigration from Mexico has plummeted to a historic low.

  • Claudia Hernandez:

    There's already a wall, so I don't see the issue. I guess a lot of people from other parts of the U.S., they don't know how we live here. There's already a lot of security.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    On a sunny afternoon in El Paso, just a few blocks from an international bridge, the Hernandez sisters and a friend walk their dogs. They're concerned about the president's portrayal of the border as a dangerous place.

  • Ana Hernandez:

    This is a really safe city. And it just makes you feel unsafe somehow, like all that wire they put there. It just looks horrible. It's like, it's threatening in an issue that's not really threatening us here.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the El Paso area recently added new razor wire at international border crossings to keep crowds of migrants seeking asylum from overrunning legal ports of entry.

    Humberto Porras questions the president's need to declare an emergency on the border to build a wall.

  • Humberto Porras:

    Since he set a precedent of using it for that, Democrats can also use it to push gun control policies. So, I think he set the bar pretty low.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    This is the point where new construction to extend the existing border wall comes to an end. Here, you can see the Normandy-style vehicle barriers. This is also the dividing line between those who are in favor of a big barrier and those who believe there are other ways to secure the border.

  • Aaron Hull:

    No wall is going to stop everybody from crossing the border illegally. No form of barrier is ever going to do that. It's not intended to do that. It's intended to discourage them, to make it more difficult.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    Border Patrol Chief Hull admits the wall is one component of a border security strategy.

  • Aaron Hull:

    The wall is a key part of our border security posture, but its only part of it. Our greatest resource are our agents. They always have been, always will be.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    This show of force at the border barrier just west of El Paso recently was part of a series of exercises designed to demonstrate Border Patrol agents' readiness.

    The goal? Discourage illegal border crossings, as a growing number of migrants from other countries wait in Mexico. Most are families and unaccompanied minors from Central America. Many turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents and ask for asylum, a legal process.

    Between October and January, agents took more than 25,000 Central American parents with children into custody in the El Paso Sector alone, which includes all of New Mexico.

    El Pasoan David Romo is critical of the ramped-up border security response.

  • David Romo:

    I feel very, very safe. I feel more under threat from the extreme militarization.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    Now, as President Trump and Congress clash over the national emergency declaration, and a legal challenge looms, many of those living on the border worry they're caught in the middle of a lingering wall-or-nothing fight.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso, Texas.

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