Columbus, New Mexico: Just minutes from the border in rural New Mexico, the Borderland Cafe in the village of Columbus serves burritos and pizza to local residents, Border Patrol agents and visitors from other parts of the country seeking a glimpse of life on the frontier. The motto painted on the wall proclaims ‘Life is good in the Borderland’.
“This is the sleepiest little town you could think of,” said Adriana Zizumbo, 31, who was raised in Columbus and owns the cafe with her husband. “The only crisis we’re facing here is a shortage of labour. Fewer people cross the border to work than before, and Americans don’t want to get their hands dirty doing hard work.”
“Enough about the wall already,” she said. “We have other problems here that need fixing.”
Extending nearly 3,218km from southern Texas to a fence jutting out into the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, America’s border with Mexico is as long and as varied as the terrain.
Remote spots in the desert like Columbus, a town of 1,600 people about 130km west of El Paso, are sleepily tranquil. In cities like El Paso and San Diego, the growing number of migrant families pushing for entry to the United States has generated crowds and controversy, with migrants packed into detention centre and bus stations, and clashes at the fences between rock-throwing immigrants and federal agents.
On Tuesday, as Trump was expected to make the case in a prime-time address that the nation is in the midst of an immigration crisis, The New York Times sent correspondents to Mexico and to the four states along the border — California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas — and found few who shared the president’s sense of alarm.
Many said there was indeed a humanitarian crisis unfolding, but they blamed the Trump administration for worsening it with a series of policies aimed at deterring Central American migrants from making the journey. Those policies, many of which have been blocked by legal challenges, have failed to stop the flood of migrants. But they have succeeded in escalating tensions, overwhelming volunteer shelters and putting those seeking asylum from violence at renewed risk of health threats and other problems once they arrive in the United States.
A uniquely American story
The border has long been more than a barrier or a headline. It is the setting of a uniquely American story, a binational place of contradictions and commerce.
One afternoon a few months ago, a Latino teenager walked through the bus station in the South Texas city of McAllen, a transit hub where hundreds of apprehended immigrants are dropped off daily by the authorities. The boy was not fresh from detention. He was a native Texan. He was visiting a relative and wore a black T-shirt correcting any misconceptions about his identity. It read “Relax Trump, I’m legal.”
That was the vibe along many parts of the border Tuesday, before Trump’s speech.
A cattle rancher in southern Arizona said he had travelled to Mexico a day earlier, and he saw no emergency. The lines were long — officials have shut down the number of ways people there can cross — but there were no signs of conflict or people pressing to get in.
“There is no border problem, except for ones we are causing,” said the rancher, who said he had not had any problems with illegal border crossers on his property and who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution from strident supporters of Trump’s planned border wall. “There’s no need for a bigger wall. There is not a border crisis down here.”
A funding problem?
From 2014 to 2017, local municipalities in South Texas had to spend $873,000 (Dh3.21 million) on immigrant relief efforts, expanding staffing, securing migrant assistance centers and maintaining restrooms, generators and sleeping quarters.
“Then we get blasted for being sanctuary cities — get real,” said Jim Darling, the mayor of McAllen. “It’s not our fault. The feds are the ones dropping them off. What are we supposed to do?”
Some of those along the border, to be sure, believe the government should not be rushing to accommodate new migrants but fortifying to keep them out. James Johnson, a prominent farmer in Columbus, said he had voted for Trump in 2016 and continues to support the president, including his proposal for a wall.
“Listen, we need security and a wall will provide that security,” said Johnson, 43, whose family-owned onion and chili farm sits along a stretch of the border. “I’m 100 per cent for the wall. Trump is bold in pushing for it.”
For a look at those whom Trump’s supporters would like to keep out, one needed only to take a short drive across the border from southern Texas to the Mexican town of Matamoros, where hundreds of migrants were biding their time Tuesday, waiting to cross into the United States and apply for asylum.
A porous tarp at their makeshift camp shielded them from the sun and, for the most part, the rain.
A Honduran mother, Iris Patricia Oseguera, 51, sat in slightly better conditions, at a nearby shelter, with her 10-year-old son. Having been turned back from the international bridge crossing by Mexican authorities when she tried to enter the United States, she said the two of them had been told to find permanent housing soon.
“We have nowhere to go,” Oseguera said, adding that she and her son could not return to Honduras because of the worsening gang violence there. If forced to leave the shelter, she said, she wasn’t sure where she would go. “We don’t even have money to eat. How am I going to pay for a house?”
Back at the Borderland Cafe in New Mexico, Zizumbo’s husband, Lawrence Haddad, keeps a pistol underneath the cash register in case something happens. He hasn’t had to use it.
“Nothing much happens, and that’s the way people like it,” said Haddad, 32.
Still, quiet Columbus has not escaped the political turmoil over border policy: Before the midterm elections in November, self-described militia members from around the country descended on the town to prepare for the arrival of a caravan of Central American migrants, then making its way up through Mexico.
“Honestly, these guys were kind of absurd, wearing camo and looking at their maps,” Zizumbo said. “They accomplished nothing, and now they’re gone. Maybe they’ll be back after Trump talks.”
Hours before Trump’s address Tuesday, Randy Shaw, 71, was outside the Borderland Cafe. He held a sign that read “Stop truth decay: Dump Trump.”
Shaw is from Wyoming, but spends winters in Columbus.
“This whole crisis thing is Trump’s creation,” he said. “Don’t let him fool you.”