On the banks of the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona, it's still warm enough in November for families to swim in the shallow water.
At this point in its long journey, the once-mighty Colorado is slowing down and will be reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches Mexico. The geography of the city is one of the reasons people love it there, including Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls.
Nestled in the southwest corner of Arizona, Yuma borders both California and Mexico. The community of 105,000 residents grows “the world’s lettuce” during the winter, Nicholls says.
That's not an exaggeration: 90% of the country's winter lettuce comes from the fields around Yuma. And the Colorado River also makes it possible for cotton, alfalfa, wheat and lemons to thrive. A carpet of irrigated green on the desert floor stretches almost uninterrupted for miles to President Trump's new border wall.
That's the other thing to know about the area: Yuma county has more registered independents than any other party. And even though nearly 60% of the population is Latino, it’s still Trump country.
Nicholls supports Trump and recalls both the president and vice president visiting the area multiple times during their time in office. In August, Trump said at a local rally that, “Joe Biden is the puppet of the radical left-wing movement that seeks the complete elimination of America's borders and boundaries. They want to take the wall down.”
Trump ended up losing Arizona, but he won Yuma county by more than six points.
So now what? Biden has promised to overturn many of President Trump's harsh immigration policies, and in August told NPR that, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.”
But the Trump administration has already sunk up to $15 billion into the wall. And by the end of the year, the White House expects to have 450 miles of the towering 30-foot steel structures finished, almost all of it replacing smaller barriers that past presidents put up.
Back in 2006, Yuma faced a high peak of people coming across the border, one and a half times the population of the city, Nicholls says. This influx of immigrants redirected the local police to support Border Patrol, which was overwhelmed by the volume, he says.
In 2007, former President George W. Bush put up a fence and the volume dropped from 148,000 to 8,000 people, he says. And now with Trump’s new wall, Yuma is facing a manageable 30 cases of interdictions a day.
“Right now, if you look across the southern border, we are as a country experiencing an extremely high peak of crossings of people coming through — not through ports of entry, through other means,” he says. “Yuma, with over 100 miles of secure border, is not experiencing that peak.”
For Nicholls, this means that physical barriers work. But his comparison to other places along the border proves the point that the walls just force people to cross over elsewhere.
With Biden’s inauguration swiftly approaching, Nicholls says he’s not sure what the new president will change. As mayor of the city under the Obama administration, he didn’t have as much local interaction with officials compared to the more frequent communication he’s had under Trump.
Nicholls’ hope is that the Biden administration doesn’t worry about the wall, but rather consider how the U.S. engages with Mexico at the ports — where trade, tourism and important connections happen.
“We have families that live on both sides of the border and they regularly go home, visit people,” he says. “There's a lot of things that happen that can only happen when we have a good functioning port system.”
A quick 35-minute drive south of Yuma lies the city of San Luis, Arizona, where trucks carrying commercial produce rumble through the port of entry and farmworkers walk back to Mexico after a long day on the job.
For Vice Mayor Matias Rosales, the wall has always been there. Now, Trump’s “new, upgraded version” of the wall stands 20 feet taller than he says he remembers.
The city council is nonpartisan but Rosales tends to vote for Democrats. He says he's looking forward to the end of the Trump administration's anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But there is one thing he actually likes about the new wall: There's space between the steel slats that allows people to see through it.
“To me, it's just an improvement atheistically. It looks nicer, it's taller, but it still does the same purpose because someone can still jump this wall,” Rosales says. “People jump it, no matter what height.”
Many Americans think of the wall as a symbol — the pet project that Trump campaigned on. For people living near the wall like Rosales, the wall isn’t a Trumpian symbol because it’s always been there.
As Trump’s days in office wane, Rosales says the administration provided some $150 million in partial funding to redesign the San Luis port of entry. The funding helped improve the job environment and security for customs and homeland security officers at the border — which is more valuable than improving the aesthetics of the wall, he says.
But Rosales says the administration’s impact on the city wasn’t all positive. Mexican and American citizens now wait four to five hours to cross the border there, he says.
Rosales has the credentials to get over the border quickly, but a Mexican citizen hoping to come into San Luis or Yuma to shop will wait a few hours, he says. The additional hassle isn’t good for the city’s much-needed sales tax revenue.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the long waits are even worse. Only three of the port’s eight lanes are open, he says.
Environmental groups despise the wall for spoiling pristine aquifers. Native American groups say construction has desecrated sacred lands. Rosales says there's no way it was worth the money. But what should the president-elect do about it?
Rosales says he would rather see money invested in the port of entry rather than used to tear down the wall. With people still getting through tunnels and jumping over, the wall isn’t serving the purpose Trump promised anyway.
“Why would Biden come in and tear down a wall our tax dollars paid for?” he says. “It's already here.”
This segment aired on November 19, 2020.