On the Border, Little Enthusiasm for a Wall: ‘We Have Other Problems That Need Fixing’

Little Enthusiasm

COLUMBUS, N.M. — 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 labor. Fewer people cross the border to work than before, and Americans don’t want to get their hands dirty doing hard work.”

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President Trump has shut down part of the government over border security and his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico, but based on her conversations with customers, Ms. Zizumbo said, people in Columbus oppose the idea of a wall by about a “90-to-10 margin.”

“Enough about the wall already,” she said. “We have other problems here that need fixing.”

Extending nearly 2,000 miles 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 80 miles 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 centers and bus stations, and clashes at the fences between rock-throwing immigrants and federal agents.

On Tuesday, when Mr. Trump made 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 the Mexico side of the border and to the four states on the United States side — California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas — and found few who shared the president’s sense of alarm.

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 on Tuesday, ahead of Mr. Trump’s speech.

A cattle rancher in southern Arizona said he had traveled 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 Mr. Trump’s planned border wall. “There’s no need for a bigger wall. There is not a border crisis down here.”

Little Enthusiasm

Some of the worsening problems, some city officials have said, are a result of the federal government’s own management of the border. In El Paso and other cities in California and Arizona, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has in recent weeks released thousands of immigrants unannounced onto city streets, forcing city officials and migrant shelter operators to scramble to accommodate them.

“Nothing much happens, and that’s the way people like it,” said Mr. Haddad, 32.

Still, quiet Columbus hasn’t escaped the political turmoil over border policy: Ahead of 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,” Ms. Zizumbo said. “They accomplished nothing, and now they’re gone. Maybe they’ll be back after Trump talks.”

Hours ahead of Mr. Trump’s address on Tuesday, Randy Shaw, 71, was outside the Borderland Cafe. He held a sign that read “Stop truth decay: Dump Trump.”

Mr. 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.”