February 15, 2019 / Modified dec 20, 2019 2:45 p.m.

Arizona 360 Border Special: Tucson to El Paso

Setting out to see if the president's description of a crisis at the border is shared by communities in the borderlands.

This week, Arizona 360 embarked on a journey to continue our coverage of border-related issues. We traveled across state lines to trace the international border through New Mexico and to El Paso, Texas where President Trump held a campaign rally Monday. Our travels took us to the rally, and to communities along the way, where we sought to understand if rhetoric about border security reflects a crisis at the U.S. southern border. 

Our first stop was the City of Willcox, a community fueled by agriculture and tourism. Lorraine Rivera met with Alan Baker, executive director of the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. While the city is more than 60 miles from the nearest port of entry, Baker said his community often fields inquiries from wary travelers concerned about their safety.

"They hear that it's a dangerous area, it's a warzone. It impacts us quite a bit."   Baker said the city tries to promote a positive image of Willcox and Cochise County on social media to dispel any negative perceptions.

"The more you can show people out having a good time, the more people get comfortable with the area," Baker said.  

Upon arriving in El Paso, Arizona 360 sought an understanding of how communities in the region have been impacted by the recent influx of asylum seekers to the U.S. southern border. Lorraine Rivera met with USA Today reporter Rick Jervis, who covers border and immigration issues in Texas. 

"I've talked to people who live along the border and asked them this same question, whether there is a crisis," Baker said. "And sort of resoundingly I've been told there is not. They feel that what the Border Patrol is doing and what their local sheriff's department is doing are really good and they're keeping them safe."   Jervis also described speaking to immigrants arriving at the border from Central American countries who told him they would continue to try to get into the U.S. even if they are deported, because, "Their situation back in their home country is just that bad."

President Trump's comments about El Paso in his State of the Union address thrust the city into the national spotlight and led many to dispute his claim that a border wall caused violent crime to drop while defending El Paso's relationship with Mexico. Richard Pineda echoed that sentiment when he spoke to Lorraine Rivera at the University of Texas at El Paso. Pineda is an expert in political communications and director of the university's Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies.

"I think it's really troublesome when you've got somebody that comes from outside … and says: 'You were dangerous. There were these different situations that existed, but then border control policy was the difference in terms of coexisting,'" Pineda said. "That's simply not true. I think when you look at a community like El Paso, our history suggests that not only have we had a really strong relationship with our neighbor to the south, but so much in terms of pivotal moments in U.S.-Mexican history happened here in El Paso."

He also described how the president's event in the city fits into the overall debate about border security. 

"It's funded by the Trump 2020 campaign. It's used as a kickoff to a certain extent for his campaign. I think it's less about policy and more about reasserting this message that the wall is part of the president's agenda."

The former chief of Border Patrol's Tucson Sector calls El Paso home after serving the agency for two decades. A native Tucsonan, Victor Manjarrez teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso and is associate director for UTEP's Center for Law and Human Behavior. Manjarrez shared his views about border security with Lorraine Rivera. 

"My biggest challenge when I was in the Border Patrol was getting clear definition of what effective border security is," Manjarrez said. "I think success, anyways, is going to look at a combination of personnel, tactical infrastructure … from roads, to border fences, to border barriers, to access roads, things of that nature, and technology."

Manjarrez said he believes the ongoing surge in asylum claims reflects a humanitarian crisis at the border. When discussing solutions to current disagreements over border security, Manjarrez said the issue has become so polarizing that it's unlikely any proposal would satisfy everyone.

"Especially in the last 30 years. It's either far right, far left, very few in the middle. And then the sides flip," Manjarrez said.

Custom and Border Protection's El Paso Sector covers more than 260 miles of border and also includes all of New Mexico. Of all nine sectors that comprise the southwestern border, the El Paso Sector has seen the largest increase in family units apprehended within the agency's last fiscal year. As of January, agents encountered more than 25,000 family units, representing an increase of nearly 1,600 percent compared to the fiscal year-to-date in January 2018. Lorraine Rivera traveled to sector headquarters to discuss some of the challenges the agency encounters in the region. Spokesperson Joe Romero described a decrease overall in the number of apprehensions within the last decade, but said the recent influx of families has strained resources. 

"It takes a little bit more manpower, a lot more hours. But it works in cooperation with us working closely with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]; working with other agencies to ensure that we're able to facilitate all of this," Romero said. "Right now, it's still manageable but it definitely puts more of a strain on what we're doing right now as opposed to what we were doing 10 or 12 years ago."

Romero added that Border Patrol is an apolitical agency focused on enforcing the laws on the books. 

"We're always looking for ways to improve what we're doing because whether it's one family that gets away from us, a murderer that gets away from us, a serial killer that gets away from us, somebody will be impacted by that in some way."

The same night President Trump held his campaign rally in El Paso, former Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke held his own public event nearby. Each drew thousands of supporters for the politicians. At a demonstration opposing the president's border policies, Arizona 360 met a woman who said she traveled from her home in Globe, Arizona, to attend O'Rourke's event. 

"I think it's important to show up. Just to show up and show support for this, and show how many people actually don't agree with the policies of putting children in cages," Colleen Abbott said.

Outside President Trump's campaign rally at the El Paso County Coliseum, the line snaked down the sidewalk, and not everyone could get inside the venue. Supporters shared their reactions to their city being underscored at the State of the Union. 

"When I was a young child I lived right by the border and we did have a major problem with theft and crime. Now that the border wall is up I think it has made a difference," Martha Velasco, a lifelong resident of El Paso, said.

As our crew headed back west, our next stop was Columbus, New Mexico, a small community just a few miles north of the international border that has a population of about 2,000 people. It neighbors the Mexican town of Puerto Palomas, which is roughly twice the size of Columbus. On the beaten path, we meet Adriana Zizumbo, owner of the Borderland Café. The restaurant's location at the corner of intersecting state highways 9 and 11 make it a popular destination for locals and travelers alike. 

"We get a little bit of everything. The locals, customs agents, Border Patrol, teachers," Zizumbo said. "We get everyone that's going to California, Arizona, Texas or Mexico."

Born and raised in Columbus, Zizumbo describes her hometown as a tranquil community where crime is uncommon and those passing through rarely worry about their safety in Mexico. 

"If anything, I hear them more concerned about not having a passport or they didn't bring it. But you never hear them not wanting to go because it's not safe," Zizumbo said.

At the café, Glen and Nancy Hoehne share their views at the border with Lorraine Rivera. They spend three months on the road every winter away from their home in Wyoming. They said Border Patrol's presence and barriers at international line put them at ease in communities like Columbus. But they're less certain about more remote areas where there are fewer resources. 

"If the people who are in power can put walls around their homes to feel safe, maybe we can put a wall around our home to keep us feeling safer," Glen Hoehne said.

A few miles south, the port of entry is New Mexico's only port open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. According to Customs and Border Protection, only a handful of migrants have requested asylum at the port. Instead, the agency said cartels in Mexico are mostly directing asylum seekers about 90 miles southwest of Columbus outside the more sparsely populated Antelope Wells, an unincorporated community in New Mexico's boot heel region. Agents apprehended a group of 330 immigrants there the day before our stay in the state. 

Our path back to Arizona took our crew onto Highway 80, which straddles the New Mexico and Arizona state line. The highway runs between Douglas, Arizona, and Interstate 10. Unlike other highways in Southern Arizona, Border Patrol does not have an immigration checkpoint on the route. Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels spoke to Lorraine Rivera about some of the challenges patrolling the highway. 

"You've got your three major highways coming out of the county moving up to I-10, but Highway 80 east is wide open," Dannels said. "It's a very vulnerable spot. I've heard ADOT talk about it, I've heard Border Patrol talk about it and it all goes back to one thing: funding."

Dannels serves on the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council and is chairman of immigration and border security on the National Sheriffs' Association. He discussed his views on how to improve security along Arizona's southern border and President Trump's approach.

Arizona 360
Arizona 360 airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on PBS 6 and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on PBS 6 PLUS. See more from Arizona 360.
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