What Big Bend Summers Taught Me About Donald Trump's Wall
Residents of the southwestern part of our country tend to have had some sort of experience with the U.S.-Mexico border. Specifically, some of us have known people, likely many, whose lives have been impacted by it — we may be the ones impacted as well, having crossed over it to visit family, or experienced the busy trade back and forth between the two countries. As a result, unlike Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who paints the U.S.-Mexican border as teeming with undocumented immigrants, the people who have lived in this region understand that the reality is far more complex.
Of the many Trump assertions that has been thoroughly and successfully debunked in this campaign, one is that Mexico is willingly shipping rapists and criminals across the border into the United States. Trump first made the infamous claim in his speech announcing his presidency in June 2015, along with rolling out his now well-known (but still sparsely-detailed) plan to build the Great Wall of Mexico. Though his stance on how to respond to undocumented immigrants has sort of "softened" — and then just seemed even more muddled — Trump never apologized for those comments. Moreover, a key part of the original sentiment remains as a literal rallying cry for his supporters: the wall.
Time and time again at rallies, Trump has whipped his followers into a frenzy with some version of this call-and-response: "Who's going to pay for the wall?" "MEXICO!" The wall is, perhaps, the most consistent "policy" of his entire campaign. And there are a few reasons why that part of the argument persists. Even as is it has been argued many times that the wall's construction is untenable, if not impossible, Trump has managed to embed an image of an porous border in the minds of many Americans.
Need assurance that the wall is nearly as ridiculous as Mexico treating the United States as some sort of penal colony? Ask a Texan — like myself.
Sure, Texas, which makes up nearly half of the shared border between the United States and Mexico, has some of the busiest border checkpoints in the country — El Paso, Laredo, McAllen — and that's where U.S. Customs and Border Protection rightfully focuses much of its resources and staff. That leaves hundreds of miles of the border relatively "open," but even that is a misnomer.
I have been making multiple yearly trips to Big Bend National Park, which shares 118 miles of its border with Mexico, since I was in utero. It's a haul even for native Texans. From my childhood home in East Texas, it would take 12 hours to drive to the park headquarters, and even from my more centralized current locale in Austin, it's still a nearly eight hour drive to get there. And it's a lonely journey. Any experienced Big Bend traveler knows to gas up in Alpine, the 6,000-strong town that's your last taste of civilization before making the two-hour final trek through the desert and into the park.
But thousands of devotees willingly plunge themselves into the general isolation of the park — one of the least-visited National Parks in the United States — because they recognize the same thing that I, and my father before me, did: that there is beauty to be found in its remote location. The Chisos Mountains cut through the park, which at its southern edge is bound by the Rio Grande, the very same river that has served as the border between Texas and Mexico since the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Though the Chisos Mountains basin and its mountaintops have pockets of fertile growth, 98 percent of the park is made up of the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, which is a far greater representation of the border wildlife writ large. From the top of the South Rim, one of the highest points in the park, the land of Texas and Mexico look like one green field. However, a zoomed in inspection reveals harsh desert-scapes dotted by clusters of cacti, ever resilient only thanks to hundreds of years of adaptation. It serves as a natural wall — not some ridiculous edifice concocted by Trump.
My first visceral understanding of our natural wall came in 2000, when I was 10. My father and I had taken a break from a day of hiking to drive to the tiny Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen. At the time, Boquillas was accessible through the park and had an open border, a curiosity to a Texas kid who had grown up hearing about the security checkpoints separating our state from our neighbors to the south. As Dad and I walked across a shallow part of the Rio Grande (which, yes, despite its name, was certainly doable), crossing from Texas into the Mexican village nestled on the riverbank, I was alarmed when no one took notice. Shouldn't we have told someone? Was it really that easy to cross?
"Why can we just walk in?" I asked my dad. "I thought we couldn't just go into Mexico. What's stopping people from going from Mexico to Texas?"
My dad stopped as we took in the blip of a town, at the time only consisting of a dozen or so families. He calmly turned me in a slow 360 degree circle. "What do you see?" he prompted.
Nothing. I saw nothing but vast stretches of desert, similar to the 50 miles of it that we had driven across to get here from the park headquarters. (Although I didn't know it at the time, beyond my line of sight past Boquillas there was even more isolation—the nearest Mexican town is 150 miles away.)
I was still searching in the nothingness for any clues as to what, exactly, my dad was asking me to find, but before I could answer he made his point. "That's why." he concluded. What my dad had said without saying it, is that there wasn't anywhere for potential Mexican immigrants to go from here. Nothing but more desert, which was not unlike the stretch that the people in Boquillas had already managed to tame.
A few years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, even the most remote international crossings without official checkpoints had shut down thanks to a crackdown of border restrictions. Boquillas, which had once enjoyed a slight but steady tourism industry fueled by Big Bend travelers, closed.
The Boquillas crossing reopened in 2013 with a $3.2 million entry checkpoint, and it is once again accessible to U.S. visitors, but only with a passport. It's a very different time than over a decade ago, when my dad and I sloshed across a sleepy Rio Grande. And the Big Bend region as a whole is now dotted with Border Patrol checkpoints, like the one my husband and I passed through on on our last trip to the park just a few weeks ago. It's a relatively hassle-free experience, but there is a constant reminder that even in the most remote areas of the state, there is someone watching you.
When I traveled through Big Bend most recently, I thought of how Trump still manages to evoke a vastly inaccurate idea of what our border states are actually facing. Trump's fabled wall, for me, has become a reminder of more than the candidate's wild fantasies, charged rhetoric, and presumably undeliverable promises. As I imagine a wall rising cutting through the wilderness that I love, it's offensive to the natural beauty that it would interrupt. Trump's wall isn't just a misunderstanding of our needs at the border, but an unwillingness to grasp its reality.