When John Thomas was growing up near the border of Arizona and Mexico in the 1950s and 60s, the only physical border that existed was barbed wire strands maintained by cattle ranchers, he said.
In many places no wire existed at all.
“There was no border then such as we would recognize now,” he said.
His grandmother was the last homesteader in Arizona’s Cochise County, where he grew up, with their home only getting electricity in 1967 through President Lyndon B. Johnson’s work on rural electrification. His family would frequently cross the border into Mexico where they could buy household staples — flour, sugar, Tequila and salt — less expensively.
As a child, his notion was that they were all families who could only be distinguished by the pigmentation in their skin or by what language they spoke better, English or Spanish, Thomas said.
“There was no notion of whether you were documented or not,” he said. “We just didn’t need it.”
Thomas, now a law professor at Quinnipiac University, recently traveled with his wife, Dorothy Stubbe, to Otay Mesa, California, where the federal government is funding the construction of eight prototype border walls in view of a rural neighborhood in Tijuana, Mexico. There, he interviewed people in both countries to get a sense of what is happening in the area as part of a planned two-book project that will examine the history and impact of the border between the United States and Mexico.
The prototype project stems from an early action after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, who issued an executive order to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border...to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.”
Earlier this year, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol awarded four contracts to build eight prototype walls, four made from concrete and four made from “other materials,” according to CBP, and each must stand between 18 and 30 feet high. Construction began Sept. 26 and is set to be completed at the end of the month.
The federal agency said in a release “Prototyping is an industry-tested approach to identify additional solutions when considering a new product or methodology.”
But Thomas said said he sees another reason for building the prototypes there, as technology has evolved so prototypes aren’t needed to test a structure’s strength and durability.
“We have a century of experience and engineers for that,” he said.
“This is political theater and maybe provocation.”
The closest Thomas could get to the prototypes on the U.S. side was two miles away, where the federal government has hired local police to patrol a fenced perimeter 24 hours a day. Police officers on that side couldn’t even see what they were guarding, Thomas said. But when he crossed into Tijuana, Mexico, he could see the prototypes being built about 100 feet away from the current border fence that runs along Tijuana and Otay Mesa, he said.
“It looks like political theater of the absurd, except the theater has been closed on the U.S. side,” he said.
Thomas noted that if the government didn’t want citizens to see the prototypes, they could have built them in Nevada where the topography is the same.
But in the neighborhood in Tijuana where the prototypes can be seen, some people live in the shells of abandoned cars, Thomas said, and they are some of the poorest people he’s seen.
Further, a statement from the White House earlier this month on securing the border said “A meaningful physical barrier on our southern border is vital to prevent infiltration by cartels, criminals, traffickers, smugglers, and threats to both public safety and national security,” but residents there doubt this.
Yet, when he was interviewing residents there, Thomas said, people were sad, because they know a wall won’t stop serious drug cartels and human traffickers.
“It’s this giant 30-foot symbol of U.S. rejection for people in Mexico,” he said.
Thomas also interviewed local police in Mexico and mid-level drug cartel members who he said told him the wall won’t stop the flow of drugs and human traffickers entering the U.S. The only people the wall stops, are those like the residents of Tijuana who might try to enter the U.S. for work, he said.
The existing 18-foot high border fence extends along the beach in Tijuana and out into the ocean about 100 feet. On the Mexico side of the fence, people can walk up to it without law enforcement stopping them, Thomas said, but on the U.S. side there’s a large sign about 50 feet away that tells people not to go beyond that point.
Thomas walked past the sign and within 90 seconds he heard sirens blaring and saw a border patrol agent on a quad with full body armor and face mask speeding toward him and yelling, “You can’t be here. You need to get out of here,” and they were threatening to arrest him if he didn’t leave, Thomas said.
But not far up the beach, border patrol will open a gate near the fence on weekdays so people can walk up to the existing wall, where in one spot the heavy duty grating between the metal bars has been removed as if to allow a person to touch someone on the other side. A rope, however, keeps people back about 10 feet and armed border patrol agents watch people so they don’t touch anyone on the other side or pass anything through, Thomas said.
“In the one context there is absolute prohibition,” he said. “They’ll shoot you or arrest you if you just stand there. Next context it looks like a prison where you can get tantalizingly close to your loved ones, but you can’t touch them.”
Earlier this year, the White House said Trump’s various efforts, including expending resources for the wall, expanding the border patrol, and “cracking down” are “achieving real results on illegal immigration,” according to a statement at whitehouse.gov. The statement said that in March, “16,600 individuals were apprehended or deemed inadmissible,” which was a 35 percent decrease from the previous month and a 61 percent decrease from January
Thomas said even with legitimate safety concerns regarding the border, he couldn’t understand the motivations of the U.S. government in this situation.
“I don’t see humanitarian interest by our government in building the wall,” Thomas said.
His visit to see the prototype walls will be the jumping off point of the next part of his borderlands book project. The first part, is his upcoming book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Struggle, and Violence Along the US/Mexico Border. In it Thomas returned to his hometown in Arizona’s Cochise County to examine the history of borders in the area through interviews with ranching families recalling tales their grandparents told. He uses the interviews to form a narrative of the revolution in economics, culture, and drug trade in the area.
Thomas is also the author of Kalamzoo Gals, an oral history of World War II era Gibson guitars and the group of women who built many of them.