Donald Trump's immigration talk faces tough reality at Mexico border
Thousands have died trying to cross the border, and their numbers grew the last time politicians tried addressing the issue.
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JACUMBA, United States — An American border guard steps out of his vehicle onto a dusty desert road, seeking to chat with the strangers he sees milling about the mesquite bushes a few metres from Mexico.
His team catches a dozen migrants crossing here illegally each day, he says. A few dozen others slip through, he figures. Evidence lies in the sand, in the discarded bits of cloth desert-walkers place under their shoes to hide their footprints.
The conversation turns to Donald Trump. He's asked whether Trump's proposed border wall would halt the flow of migrants crossing through California's Yuha Desert. He doubts it. Almost one-third of the border already has a wall — people still get over.
"You'd need to get rid of all the ladders in Mexico," he says.
"If you build a bigger wall, they build bigger ladders... They've got fine engineers in Mexico, I have no doubt."
Down near the southern frontier, it's no mystery why Trump has been struggling lately with the details of his border plan. The complexities of the issue are especially apparent here — including the human, economic and technical details he's been glossing over.
He's now planning to clarify his policy in a speech Wednesday.
People here have pointed questions: Would Trump's wall cut off U.S. access to the Rio Grande? After all, the land border mostly has a wall already — so where would he build it along the river? As for the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, would he deport them all? If so, is there a plan to save industries that rely on migrant labour? If not, will he grant migrants legal status, reversing his position on amnesty?
A sombre monument nearby belies the notion of easy solutions.
A cemetery of unmarked graves is filled with people who perished crossing the border. Thousands have died — their numbers grew the last time politicians tried fixing the border, during the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
A partial wall went up in the populated areas near San Diego and Tijuana by the ocean, built from old scraps of metal that belonged to the military. As steel sheets and poles rose in the west, migration routes moved east, toward deadly threats: the desert, the river, and the human smugglers.
Enrique Morones leads a group praying in the cemetery. They're volunteers with his organization Border Angels, which deposits jugs of water in the desert to keep people from dehydrating or roasting to death in the scorching desert sun.
Migrants generally cross when it's cooler, he says — especially at night. Yet accidents happen constantly. People get lost and disoriented. The water bottles run empty — sometimes vandals cut them.
"When we say, 'I'm dying of thirst,' it's just an expression. For them it's real," says Morones, who used to work in marketing for baseball's San Diego Padres before turning to full-time work as an activist and public speaker.
"Every summer there's more deaths because of that wall than in the entire history of the Berlin Wall."
Hugo Castro is among the volunteers dropping water. He usually works in the fields — numerous crops grow in the valley near the Holtville cemetery, including cantaloupe, lettuce, watermelon and cabbage.
He said many workers go back to Mexico at night because they can't afford lodging in California. He said many make $40-$50 for a 10-hour day in the field, head south, wake up before 2 a.m., and return in the morning: "They cross daily."
He said many workers have legal papers to cross — himself included.
The effect of undocumented labour extends all the way to Canada's kitchen tables. Whether or not they're aware of it, Canadians have a distant personal connection to the migrants who've become a major U.S. election issue.
In a literal sense, Canada eats the fruits of their labour. Dennis Nuxoll of the Western Growers farming association said of the 400,000 farm workers in California alone, the majority are believed to have falsified work documents.
They pick delicate crops that can't be harvested by machine — especially grapes, tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce.
"If these workers disappeared tomorrow, we could not harvest many of the crops that Canadians consume," Nuxoll said.
These workers are unnerved by the election.
The sound of a transistor radio crackles in the vineyards, in an elegant winery near Napa. The owner says staff have been listening to Spanish-language political radio lately, not music, while they work.
She admits she's unsure whether they all have legitimate documents. There's such a labour shortage in the area, she says, that she's grateful for the workers she has: "I don't know what we'd have to do if we had to hire."
Trump's immigration plan, meanwhile, is in flux. Where he once promised to deport all illegal migrants, he's recently sent mixed messages. One possibility he's floated is forcing people out, then allowing an unspecified number back in; requiring them to pay back taxes; and granting legal status.
A shift in tone won't mollify Morones.
"I don't want anything to do with him," he said of Trump. "He represents the worst of the American spirit, and in my eyes he's not welcome here."