The ongoing debate over President Trump's border wall has real-life significance along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In Nogales, Arizona, a steel fence topped with razor wire already separates the two countries. It's terrain that Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada has been patrolling for decades. He's been in border law enforcement so long that the building where he works in Nogales is named after him.
Over the course of 26 years as sheriff, Estrada has witnessed significant changes along the border. Now, as descriptions of immigration chaos continue to emerge from Washington, he's encouraging people to come to Nogales for proof of what's apparent to him every day: "There is no crisis down here."
"We have those issues of people coming across illegally — and that will always be a challenge — but to consider it a crisis, and think that a wall is going to take care of the problem, that's an illusion, that's a pipe dream, that's a fantasy," Estrada, a Mexico-born Democrat who immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler, tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd.
Drugs, not people, are the primary problem law enforcement officials confront at the border, Estrada says, namely at ports of entry. But he says a wall wouldn't address that issue either.
"Not unless you put a wall at the ports of entry and you don't let anything come through, and of course everything dies on both sides of the border," he says. "So it's a ridiculous attempt to try to convince people that that is going to stop drugs from coming into the United States."
On whether there is a crisis at the southern border, as Trump has claimed
"No, there isn't, there is not. I think the biggest crisis we have as a nation, besides other things, is probably the drug problem we have here. Illegal immigration pales in comparison to the drug problem we have here in the United States. We have 5 percent of the world's population and consume over 50 percent of the world's drugs. We have a real issue with drugs. Immigration can be settled, there could be reform, comprehensive immigration reform, you can actually tackle that, you can actually work on it, you can actually solve it. The problem with drugs, it's something that's really going to be a challenge for us.
"We're not having a crisis here. If you go downtown and you're by the border, you'll find out that everything is normal."Sheriff Tony Estrada
"This is obviously a major corridor, and the reason for it is because you have a major highway on the Mexican side in Sonora that connects the major highways and interstates here in Nogales and that brings you up to Tucson and Phoenix, so we have a major corridor. And in that corridor we have international trade, we have thousands of tractor trailers of produce that come over every day. We also have ... the maquiladora industry, we have the raw materials that are sent into Mexico, assembled and brought back. Then you also have the Union Pacific boxcars, hundreds of them going and coming back. It's a very robust, active border."
On whether he's noticed any change in the types of drugs that are coming over the border
"Definitely. I would say a few years back, we would really be scared when we saw ounces of methamphetamine. Now we're talking pounds, we're talking kilos, we're talking hundreds ... methamphetamine [is] a real danger. ... People are probably saying, 'OK, marijuana is not quite good enough for me. I want a bigger, longer, stronger high.' So they're going into just about everything — they're going into fentanyl, meth, cocaine, heroin and marijuana of course, and of course we've got legalized marijuana in a lot of places, and Arizona obviously is looking at that as well."
On a wall not being effective at halting the flow of drugs
"It is not going to stop unless you address the demand [for drugs] on this side, and you address the supply push that's coming through Mexico. For a long time, I've told people: The United States took their eye off of Mexico for too long — friendly little nation — and all of a sudden, look what we have. We have a nation where most of the drugs and people are coming through their border and into the United States. We took our eye off of Mexico and now we took our eye off Central America as well, and this is what we're facing right now."
On how the federal government ought to spend an extra $5.7 billion for border security if it were to receive that funding
"Definitely not on the wall. Obviously, you can see we have a border fence. It extends miles and miles east and miles and miles west of the ports of entry here. So we do have something here already. Where you don't have something is in the real remote areas, which is very dangerous and very rural.
"What you need, obviously, and to start with, there's about 100 vacancies at the ports of entry, of officers. If you're going to vet people in droves coming in across the border, you need more people at the ports of entry. That's why you need maybe more boots on the ground, maybe more technology. We've got all the technology here, we've got floodlights, you've got sensors, you've got cameras, you've got boots on the ground, you've got air support — you have everything in this small county.
"We're not having a crisis here. If you go downtown and you're by the border, you'll find out that everything is normal. I mean it's not like the rhetoric that people are scrambling through the ports of entry with drugs and everything else. It's just not the reality. What is happening, it's happening in a very subtle way, people are coming across, overstaying their visa, false documents, false claims, a lot of reasons. Now they're sometimes even digging themselves under the ground."
On the partial government shutdown's impact in his community
"The commerce, you know, obviously, people that normally would be spending money here are real tight with their money right now because they're not seeing a paycheck. And a family member, a close family [member] of mine, works with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and he says, 'I'm good for about two months,' he said, 'after that, I'm going to have to do something about it.' It is not fair to hold these people hostage. These are federal employees. They're actually employees of the president, and yet he is holding them hostage so that he can build this 'big, beautiful' wall that is a fantasy of his, and it's never going to solve the problem. It's not the silver bullet that's going to take care of drugs and people coming across the border."
This article was originally published on January 24, 2019.
This segment aired on January 24, 2019.