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This Border Town Mayor Wanted More Roads. What He Got Was Razor Wire.

Originally Published in Slate.

“This should not be happening to our community,” says the mayor of Nogales, Arizona.

By MARY HARRIS

FEB 12, 2019

If you want to get into Nogales, Arizona, from Mexico, you’ve got options.

“As a matter of fact, Nogales is the biggest port in the state of Arizona, and actually the model port of the state of Arizona. We have five port of entries in our city alone.”

That’s Arturo Garino. He’s the mayor of Nogales, a small border town 60 miles due south of Tucson. He says the ports of entry include a pedestrian walkway, a truck crossing, and an airport. They also have a border crossing for cattle.

Mayor Garino has lived in Nogales his whole life, and he has been the mayor under President Obama and under President Trump. I spoke to him this week on What Next, Slate’s new daily news podcast that I host.

While Nogales has only 20,000 people living on the U.S. side of the border, there are hundreds of thousands of people on the Mexican side.

“We don’t have a buffer zone like other states,” he says. “One street divides us. And in the middle of that street runs the border.”

The main street in Nogales actually runs all the way to Mexico City.

“Our corridor is a very, very busy corridor for trade, and for tourism and everything,” Mayor Garino tells me. “The main highway, it ends in Nogales, and that’s why we’re considered the CANAMEX Corridor—the American-Canadian-Mexican corridor. Billions and billions of dollars of trade go through Nogales. And this is trade that’s not only for the state of Arizona, but it’s for the whole nation.”

Nogales is home to the slats that President Trump keeps talking about. “We’ve had it for over 20 years,” Mayor Garino says. “I like to tell everybody we’re actually a city of 400,000 divided by a fence.”

Garino is worried someone may try to climb the wall and end up in a horrible nest of razor wire, especially since the wire is difficult to see on the Mexican side of the border.

The mayor says the Trump administration is pushing even fortified cities like Nogales to firm up their borders. As Congress and the president attempt to avert another government shutdown, I asked him to tell me how his community has changed over the past few decades as borders have been hardened and redefined.

“When I was very young—like 8 years old or so, or even younger—we used to live about two blocks away from the border,” he says. “We used to play, and we used to go towards this little canyon that had some cattle ponds and stuff like that. As I grew and got older, and I look in that direction now, we were actually playing in Mexico, because back then it was nothing but a cattle fence that divided both Sonora and Arizona. In a little piece of the center of town, there was like an 8-foot chain-link fence. And we had our events—like our Fiesta de Mayo and a lot of events. Our parade went into Mexico, looped around, and then came back. And their parades would loop into Nogales, Arizona, and then turn around and then go back.”

This is what life was like in Nogales for years, until the early 2000s. Then things changed dramatically after 9/11.

“Before 9/11, you could cross into Arizona from Mexico just by saying ‘U.S. citizen,’ ” says Garino. “They would question you just a tad, and then you would come across. You didn’t have to have a passport—you didn’t have to have anything. But if there was suspicion, they would ask you for an ID or something like that. But now it’s gone to the point that we need to have a passport that’s a card to go across the line, and then they scan it when we come across to make sure that we’re U.S. citizens. It’s very, very different now than when I was growing up.”

The dividing line in Nogales has evolved over the years. At one point, a 12-foot wall was welded together out of metal landing mats from Vietnam.

“And then later on, we had a little section made out of concrete, which was more like a designer wall in the DeConcini Port of Entry to make it look nice,” he says. “It had big squares with mesh through which you could actually see into Nogales, Sonora. And then after that is when we got this metal bollard fence, [made of] this big, thick steel about 4 to 6 inches wide, and in some places from 18 to 20 feet high. This is how everything’s been evolving.”

Mayor Garino says the community hasn’t had any problems with the wall, until this fall, when the U.S. military added concertina wire to the structure. That’s the kind of barbed wire you’d find lining prisons or on a battlefield. It’s embedded with little razors.

“In November of last year, that’s when they started installing the first strand on the very top,” says Garino. “And then the weekend came by, you know, this past weekend I wasn’t in town, and I didn’t get back until about 11 at night. But while I was out of town, one of my constituents called and said, ‘Mayor, what’s up with a wire?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, what’s up with a wire?’ And he goes, ‘They’re installing concertina wire.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well, they started back in November.’ She said, ‘No, they’re installing it on all the wall—to the ground—and it looks hideous.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ ”

Mayor Garino was shocked when he saw the razor wire all over the 18-foot fence.

“It goes up and down like a snake—up the valleys, down the mountains,” he says.

Now, Garino is worried that someone may try to climb the wall and end up in a horrible nest of razor wire, especially since the wire is difficult to see on the Mexican side of the border.

“If somebody climbs it and they don’t know anything, and it’s pitch-black, that’s when something’s going to happen,” he says.

On the whole, the mayor’s worries are really basic: On the U.S. side, he worries about kids or pets getting hurt. If someone tries to scale the fence and gets stuck in the wire, he’s not sure emergency services could help them out. And with all this razor wire curled along the border, he says it just looks like we’re trying to keep Americans in, not like we’re trying to keep Mexicans out.

“I don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “Are they testing this here in Nogales? Are we the concertina poster child? I don’t think so. This is America. We’re in the United States. What do you want? Why are you doing this? We have a checkpoint 20 miles north of here on Interstate 19 that we have to go through—all the Nogales U.S. citizens have to go through if we want to go to Tucson, every day. So, we’re between a checkpoint and a border already. And now concertina wire? What’s after that?”

This razor wire deeply bothers Garino. In a way, it’s an affront to his home.

“I was born and raised here in Nogales. This is my city—this is our city, the residents of Nogales. And the way I feel, and the way that merchants, and the way that produce companies, and the way everybody who has been talking to me in my office feels—everybody’s concerned,” he says. “This should not be happening to our community. You know, when 65 to 70 percent of our city sales tax depends on people from Nogales, Sonora, crossing to buy here daily, of course there’s a concern. We might not see the impact within the next month or two, but you leave that wire there for months, or years, or whatever—which is very common that the government does that. They’ll put something on, and they’ll say it’s temporary, and then it’s still there 10 years from now.”

The Trump administration wants to keep people out. But Mayor Garino says that the town relies on people coming in.

“I’m talking the legal way, people coming in through our ports,” he adds.

He looks at the debate over the razor wire as an opportunity for the rest of the country to really understand what it’s like to live on the border.

“I’ve had people call me and they say, You know, mayor? You know, they’re doing the right thing. Yeah, but you live in Boise, Idaho, or you live in North Dakota,” he says. “Of course, they have never seen the border. They have never lived here. This is our livelihood, our city. It’s a beautiful city. And like I said, we’ve accepted everything.”

The town tolerated the wall. But the community is drawing a line with the wire.

“This is very concerning. This is not right, what they’re doing now,” he says. 

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