During his presidential campaign, one of Donald Trump's biggest and most ridiculous promises was that he would build a Berlin Wall-style wall along the entire 1,900-mile border between Mexico and the United States. At various times, he has claimed that such a wall could be built "very inexpensively" and that it would be —depending on how grandiose his delusions were that day — 35 to 40 feet, 50 feet or even taller. Trump's fans, the vast majority of whom live nowhere near the border, cheered wildly every time he said the word "wall," drunk on their loathing of anyone born south of the Rio Grande.
But for many people who grew up near the border, or live there now, the response to all this wall talk is more like "huh?"
The West Texas region that borders the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila, which is where I lived from birth until I graduated high school, is geographically intimidating territory: mountainous desert that is hot, dry and desolate and so steep and treacherous in places that it's frankly impossible to imagine building Trump's "big, beautiful wall" there. Every time he has talked about it for the past year and a half, all it did for me was to drive home how little he knows about the region of the country he blithely wants to tear up in a fit of anti-immigrant hysteria.
But don't take my word for it, as I haven't lived in the Chihuahuan Desert in two decades. Public officials who live in or represent the area are speaking out against Trump's plans to wreak environmental havoc on the desert that they live in and love.
Brewster County, where I went to high school, has a population of less than 10,000 people spread out over 6,00o square miles, some of which overlaps with Big Bend National Park. Last week Brewster County commissioners unanimously voted for a resolution opposing Trump's executive order to build the border wall.
The resolution noted that "Brewster County’s economy is largely dependent on tourists, many of whom travel here to hike and camp at Big Bend National Park, and to visit the Republic of Mexico." It went on to state that "the southern border of Brewster County is marked by the Rio Grande, and the adjacent desert terrain is treacherous, rocky and marked by canyons, and building a wall of any kind would be a burdensome, inconceivable expense if not nearly impossible."
That language might sound hyperbolic to President Trump and the vast majority of Trump supporters who have never laid eyes on this region, but it's no exaggeration. For instance, two of the biggest tourist spots in the Big Bend National Park are Santa Elena Canyon and Boquillas Canyon, both of which are along the border carved out by the Rio Grande. This is what they look like:
The Brewster County resolution framed the issue not just in liberal language about the environment and wildlife but in more conservative terms, as well, noting that "Texans value local control" and "many of those miles [along the border] are on private property."
Neighboring Presidio County, whose population is 7,000, is seeing similar resistance to the idea of tearing up of desert landscape with an ugly concrete wall. The mayor of the city of Presidio, John Ferguson, released a statement in January that, like the Brewster County resolution, focused on the geographical ignorance that Trump has displayed with his wall demands.
"In the Texas Big Bend and in the deserts of northern Mexico, the choice to make the journey northward has often been tempered by unforgiving heat, mountainous terrain, and an extreme lack of water," Ferguson wrote. "Yet, many still choose to try and make it, but this portion of the border generally discourages large-scale movement of undocumented immigrants."
(He's not joking about the heat. As I write this, the high temperature expected in Presidio — in the middle of February — is 89 degrees. In June and July, the average high temperature in the area is above 100 degrees, and annual rainfall is around 10 inches a year.)
Ferguson went on to say that even if it were possible to build a wall along the river, one should still "consider the blight on the landscape a border wall would cause in Texas’ last frontier." It would, for example, likely damage the Lajitas Resort, which "is built with the river and a breathtaking mountain backdrop as its essence."
Presidio County recently bore witness to one of the odder moments in the bizarre culture war that has sprung up in the wake of Trump's reckless lies about the dangers of immigration and the supposed need for a wall.
In January New Mexico-based hunting guide Walker Daugherty and a client of his named Edwin Roberts were shot in a hunting trip in Presidio County near the border. Daugherty and his fiancée appear to have blamed undocumented immigrants for the shooting, claiming that they had been ambushed.
Instead, it now appears more likely that irrational fear of Mexican nationals led to shooting. Investigators have said Daugherty became convinced that Mexicans were trying to break into Roberts' RV and burst in to save him, which led to a three-way shootout between Roberts, Daugherty and a third man, Michael Bryant. The Mexicans were imaginary and now Daugherty and Bryant, who are both supposed to be professional hunting guides, are under indictment for the shooting.
It's exactly this kind of irrational fear that many residents of the area are trying to combat. After the election, people from all over the Brewster and Presidio areas drove to the town of Presidio to hold hands across the border with residents of Ojinaga, the small Mexican city adjacent to Presidio. They were seeking to demonstrate a sense of the cross-border community that Trump wishes to demolish with his wall.
“We’re not going to allow fear to go ahead and dictate the pace of what we’re going to do here in Presidio, Texas, and West Texas,” Presidio City Council Member Dimitri Garcia told The Texas Observer.
To be clear, the politics of the region are not all about peace and love and anti-racism. Far from it. As Marfa Public Radio found when it spoke with residents along the border, there are plenty of Trump supporters in the area who support his bigotry and his improbable wall. Still, the overwhelming signal coming from the West Texas areas bordering Mexico is crystal clear: no wall.
Will Hurd, the Republican congressman who represents the 800-mile stretch from El Paso to San Antonio that encompasses this border region, has been one of the most forceful of the GOP opponents to Trump's wall.
"Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border," Hurd said in a statement released in response to Trump's executive order.
A poll conducted by Cronkite News, Univision and the Dallas Morning News in July shows that people who live near the border don't want the wall. About 72 percent of the American respondents opposed the wall, and 86 percent said they liked their neighbors on the Mexican side of the border.
Trump's proposed border wall is a crystalline example of how he draws his political ideas, not from reality, but from lurid reactionary fantasies fueled by race-baiting right-wing sites like Breitbart and Infowars. He clearly has no real conception of what life is actually like around the border, and neither do those who spread this kind of propaganda. There's no indication that the president cares to learn the facts on this issue (or much of anything else). But the border region is a real place where real people live, and many of them believe that Trump's fantasy border wall is a threat to their way of life.