Skip to main content

Taking Freedom: 'Build That Wall!': A Local History

On how politics and fear, rather than the day-to-day risks and realities of life at the U.S.-Mexico border, have historically shaped border policies.
The North American Free Trade Agreement wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of small farmers throughout Mexico. More dead undocumented immigrants have been found in Arizona's Sonoran Desert than in any other region of the southern border of the U.S.—2,701 bodies were discovered between 1998 and 2013.

The North American Free Trade Agreement wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of small farmers throughout Mexico. More dead undocumented immigrants have been found in Arizona's Sonoran Desert than in any other region of the southern border of the U.S.—2,701 bodies were discovered between 1998 and 2013.

The Taking Freedom book series, a collaboration between The Social Justice Foundation, the Service Employees International Union's Racial Justice Center, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), is intended to address a wide range of issues, from housing rights, to debt burden, to police reform, and more.


Key Points

  • In 2017, an unarmed Mexican boy standing in Nogales, Sonoma State, Mexico, was shot through the border wall and killed by a U.S. border patrolman standing across the border in Nogales, Arizona.
  • In the past, the border between the two cities was not so militarized. Historically, the cities were seen as "one border town under two flags" and were referred to as "Ambos Nogales" or "Both Nogales." The border between them easily could be crossed in either direction.
  • The U.S. Border Patrol was created in the wake of the 1924 Immigration Act, which sharply limited the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants (particularly impacting Italians and Jews) and banned immigration from parts of Asia altogether. But the 1924 act did not include any limits on immigration from Latin America. Border agents were mainly used to patrol the Canadian border.
  • In 1954, the border patrol's focus shifted to the south, and a new policy, offensively called "Operation Wetback," caused massive, violent deportation of Mexican workers from the U.S.
  • Starting in the 1990s, beginning with President Bill Clinton, a new wave of restrictive trade and immigration policies was put in place. Yet during Clinton's administration, immigration from Mexico began to increase, due in large part to the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA brought heavily subsidized U.S. corn across the border, severely undercutting the livelihoods of small farmers throughout Mexico.
  • Since NAFTA, the population of Nogales, Sonora, has at least tripled due to the growth of maquiladoras, the hundreds of foreign-owned factories built around Nogales to exploit Mexico's cheap labor.
  • Post-9/11, the militarization of the border entered an entirely new phase. The current version of the border fence, based on an Israeli design, cost approximately $4.14 million per mile.
  • Before that wall went up, people from either side could move relatively freely, and there was commerce and community across the border. Some say that the border has "destroyed the two cities."

Nogales, Arizona, is a faded border town about an hour south of Tucson. The most direct route, via Interstate 19, takes you through spectacular high desert terrain: long-limbed ocotillo cactus plants that look like they should be growing under water, spiky yucca trees, shrublike mesquite, the sere peaks of the Tumacácori Mountain Range looming off to the west. I-19 also has a funny numerical quirk I didn't immediately notice: the distances on the highway signs are written in kilometers rather than miles. It's the only continuous stretch of U.S. interstate to appear this way, a vestige of the Carter administration that seems unbelievable now—a metric-system pilot program also meant to make the drive easier for Mexicans crossing the border at Nogales, a sort of good-government welcome mat for tourists and day-trippers both.

Three and a half decades after Jimmy Carter left office, shoppers from Mexico still basically prop up the local economy in Nogales, hitting up the big box stores on the outskirts of the city and the downtown mom-and-pops. Many of the latter sport hand-painted signs: Miss Divine, La Cinderella, the unfortunately named Coquette's School Uniforms. There are also shops selling tires, cowboy boots, musical instruments, and nothing but distilled water. There's a notary public whose sign offers assistance with immigration forms, income tax, and tradduciones, and a secondhand store where the merchandise is simply piled all over the floor in chaotic mounds. The last time I visited, a professional audio shop a few doors down had its doors open and someone was blaring Spanish-language talk radio through massive wedding-DJ speakers.

I'd come to report on the fatal shooting of an unarmed 16-year-old Mexican boy in Nogales, Sonora, by a United States Border Patrol agent. The agent had been standing on Arizona soil and fired through the border fence, which runs along the edge of town and out into the desert: slatted, rust-colored steel bars filled with pressurized concrete, their height varying between 18 and 30 feet, lined along the top with slick, anti-climbing plates. The Border Patrol claimed the boy had been throwing rocks.


One night, Luis Parra, a lawyer hired by the boy's family, took me to Mexico and showed me the spot where the boy had died. Parra was a history buff. He kept horses, he told me, and one of them, a berbera, a Spanish Berber, was fifth-generation and could be traced back to a horse owned by his great-great-grandfather, who was born in Arizona when it was still controlled by Spain. As we stood at the border, Parra asked, "Did you know that the original fence they put up here was because of another cross-border shooting?"

I did not. But Parra was right. The shooting had taken place nearly a century earlier. At the time, Inter­national Street and Calle Internacional, the streets that run along either side of the border fence today, were a single, unpaved thoroughfare, with guards stationed in both countries but without a fence of any sort. "The absence of a physical barrier stimulated the close relationship between the two cities so that, like many other border towns of the period, they were in reality one bi-national community," wrote the historian Carlos Francisco Parra. For years, in fact, locals referred to the region as a singular entity, Ambos Nogales, "Both Nogales."

Tension, though, had been increasing, thanks to a series of cross-border skirmishes between Pancho Villa's rebel army and the U.S. military; at the same time, the onset of World War I had resulted in a marked rise in passport and customs searches by the Americans. In this context, on August 27th, 1918, a carpenter named Zeferino Gil Lamadrid was returning home to Mexico from a job in Arizona when a U.S. customs agent, noticing a bulky package under Gil Lamadrid's arm, called out for him to stop.

But Gil Lamadrid had already reached Mexican soil, and a Mexican customs official contradicted the U.S. agent's order, instructing him to stay put. The carpenter froze, and a shot rang out. It's not clear who fired first, but when Gil Lamadrid dove to the ground, the Mexicans thought he'd been hit and one of them shot a U.S. soldier in the face. The return fire killed two Mexican customs officers. "The firing then became general," according to a contemporaneous article in the Nogales, Arizona, newspaper The Border Vidette. U.S. soldiers faced off against "Mexicans shooting from doors, windows, roofs of houses, and behind buildings"—primarily civilians who'd grabbed weapons—in a firefight across International Street that lasted for hours and became known as the Battle of Ambos Nogales.

When Felix B. Peñaloza, the mayor of Nogales, Sonora, emerged from City Hall waving a white cloth tied to the tip of his cane, he was shot and killed by U.S. troops. Not long afterwards, the Americans forced a surrender. There had been casualties on both sides, at least 17 Mexicans and seven Americans dead, and neither of the parties felt unjustified in taking up arms. A ballad that's still performed in the region today, "El Corrido de Nogales," details the heroism on the Sonora side of the border: "Brave Nogalians / Did their duty / They fought the gringos / Until death or victory." Meanwhile, a New York Times report filed days after the battle chided "hair-trigger Mexicans who open hostilities" and darkly posited that "the German conspirator may lurk in the background," before concluding with an odd, passive shrug: "So long as there are 'border towns' under two flags, like Nogales, and until civil order is fully restored in Mexico, collisions between the races will be inevitable, and for that reason they have not been taken too seriously."


After peace was restored, both governments agreed to build a two-mile border fence running along the center of International Street, the first of its kind in the area. Six years later, the U.S. Border Patrol was created in the wake of the xenophobic Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply limited the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, particularly impacting Italians and Jews, and banned immigration from parts of Asia altogether. But the law placed no quotas at all on immigration from Latin America. In the early days, agents patrolled the border on horseback—the Canadian border, primarily, until 1954, when a mass deportation of undocumented Mexican immigrants called Operation Wetback began shifting focus to the south. (Donald Trump's campaign pledge to deport millions of undocumented immigrants has drawn unfavorable comparisons to Operation Wetback.)

Nogales, Sonora, meanwhile, became a popular place for American tourists: Tucson residents, servicemen stationed in southern Arizona, and Hollywood actors filming Westerns in the desert all trekked south to shop, dine, catch bullfights, and hit the nightclubs. A 1941 article in Harper's dismissed Nogales, Arizona, as "in no sense attractive to the eye" while pointing out that, "across the line is Nogales, Sonora, where tourists may buy French perfumes less the American duty, sip tequila and make a face over it, and dine very well indeed in the famous Cavern Cafe." The latter restaurant, housed in a rock-walled cave—a former prison reputed to have held Geronimo during the Indian Wars—remained a trendy spot for decades. In 1965, a writer for the New York Times raved about the club's famous soup, "a rich, dark, meaty broth made with fresh Guaymas turtle."

Well into the 1980s, border security in Nogales remained nominal. Several longtime residents I met recalled the sagging chain-link border fence running through town, easily slipped beneath if there happened to be a long line at the customs booth. "Prior to 1995, there were gaps all over the fence," confirmed Tony Estrada, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, which includes Nogales. "People would come over and the merchants didn't really care because some would shop, and then they walked back the legal way."

According to the 2010 census, Santa Cruz County is 82 percent Hispanic, and locals like Estrada, who was born in Nogales, Sonora, stress the historic link between the two sides of the border. Estrada's father, a carpenter who worked in the U.S., got a sponsorship letter from his employer and was able to immigrate to Arizona with his wife and four children. Estrada was 16 months old. He joined the Nogales police department as a patrol officer in 1966; he was elected sheriff in 1992 and is currently serving his sixth term. "The biggest issues we would have back then were property crimes: burglary, shoplifting, things like that," Estrada said. "None of them armed robberies. It's always been a peaceful community."


Throughout the presidential campaign, as Trump demagogued on border issues, Hillary Clinton positioned herself in opposition to his racist appeals, championing comprehensive immigration reform and initiatives like the Dream Act. And yet it remained an inconvenient fact that the current militarization of the border began in earnest during the presidency of her husband. In 1994, in response to increasing political pressure to crack down on illegal immigration, Bill Clinton launched an initiative called Operation Gatekeeper, which sharply increased Border Patrol presence in the San Diego–Tijuana region, where most of the undocumented crossings were taking place. The plan worked, sort of: migration receded in popular crossing areas but shifted to other parts of the border.

By October of 1994, the Tucson sector had reported 140,000 apprehensions, an increase of 50 percent from the previous fiscal year. So in Nogales, the Clinton administration introduced a complementary initiative, Operation Safeguard, in 1995, increasing the number of local Border Patrol agents and providing additional funding for new helicopters, cameras, infrared scopes, and several more miles of border fence. At the time, the "fence" was constructed from a series of metallic airport landing mats that had simply been welded together.

The mayor of Nogales, Arizona, José Canchola, didn't care for the new plan, complaining to the Tucson Citizen that most of the illegal crossers were simply coming to shop. But when Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner held a press conference in the area during the rollout of Operation Safeguard, she insisted: "What we have to do here is gain control over about a four-to-eight-mile area, and beyond that the mountains and the desert become useful for us. It becomes extremely inhospitable. If you take the whole southwest border, the whole U.S.–Mexico border, there really are relatively few areas that are amenable to crossing."

But illegal immigration continued to rise, in part thanks to another Clinton policy, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which wreaked havoc upon the liveli­hoods of small farmers throughout Mexico when heavily subsidized U.S. corn began to flow across the border. In the end, Meissner's belief that the extreme inhospitality of the desert would form a natural deterrent proved naive. "We started seeing people going out to the canyons, very rugged terrain, very remote terrain," Sheriff Estrada told me. Since the Border Patrol began keeping statistics in 1998, more dead undocumented immigrants have been found in Arizona's Sonoran Desert than in any other region of the southern border of the U.S.—2,701 bodies have been discovered between 1998 and 2013.

Sonora and Nogales became a popular location for tourists in the 20th century, and border security remained lax well into the 1980s. Santa Cruz County is 82 percent Hispanic.

Sonora and Nogales became a popular location for tourists in the 20th century, and border security remained lax well into the 1980s. Santa Cruz County is 82 percent Hispanic.

"What they underestimated was the desperation of the people who were crossing," Juanita Molina, the executive director of Humane Borders, a group dedicated to maintaining emergency water stations in remote areas on both sides of the border, told me in 2014. Molina also works with the local medical examiner's office to map migrant deaths. "What we have found, over 12 years of doing this, is that people are dying further from towns and roads," she said.

One morning, I took a ride into the desert with a Humane Borders volunteer named Joel Smith. A Tucson native and ex-marine, Smith had curly, shoulder-length hair and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. After leaving the service, Smith spent years working in a magnetic-tape factory, until the corporate office in Oakdale, Minnesota, decided to ship the plant to Juárez in 2009. Around that time, he began working with Humane Borders.

As we drove south in his beat-up white pick-up truck, Smith told me he'd been surprised by the meanness of the immigration debate in his home state. Humane Borders water tanks have been vandalized, and sometimes people flip him the bird after spotting the logo on his truck. "Somehow, not wanting people to die in the desert became a political football," he said.

Eventually, we turned off the main road and headed into the desert, pulling to a stop at an isolated stretch of border fence. The terrain was rocky and parched. Smith pointed out several handprints at various levels on the fence posts and shook his head sadly.

After only a few moments, a cloud of dust appeared on a distant road. "Border Patrol," Smith predicted. Sure enough, a white-and-green Border Patrol truck soon came into view. The agent turned out to be Latino; his nametag identified him as Officer Sanchez. He gave us (two white guys) a suspicious look and asked if we'd been making contact with anyone on the other side of the fence. We said no. He frowned and warned us to be careful in a way that sounded more threatening than helpful. Then he climbed into his truck and backed it slowly down the road, parking a short distance away, where he remained, watching, until we were ready to leave.


Since the passage of NAFTA, which Trump derided during his campaign as "the worst trade deal ever," the population of Nogales, Arizona, has remained relatively unchanged, hovering right around 20,000. But the population of Nogales, Sonora, has at least tripled—according to official census figures, to 250,000, though other estimates place the number at closer to 400,000. Most of this growth has been due to the rise of the maquiladoras, the hundreds of foreign-owned factories built in and around Nogales, Sonora, post-NAFTA, to exploit Mexico's cheap labor. The only comparable-looking industrial concerns on the Arizona side of the border, a series of warehouses (Del Campo, Grower's Pride, D'Andrea, Zaragoza, dozens of others) lining I-19 just north of Nogales, turn out to be storage facilities for winter produce trucked up from Mexico. (Sixty percent of the winter produce consumed in Canada and the U.S. passes through here, according to the U.S. consulate.

Post-9/11, the militarization of the border entered an entirely new phase. The current version of the border fence, based on an Israeli design, cost approximately $4.14 million per mile. Cartel violence began to hit Nogales, Sonora, around 2007, when turf wars broke out involving drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and his rival Arturo Beltrán Leyva. The murder rate peaked in 2010 at 226, nowhere near that of cites like Juárez, where the number of killings spiked to over 3,000 that same year, but enough to scare off tourists.

Today, the easiest way to avoid lines at the border is to cross on foot. At the main pedestrian entry in downtown Nogales, Arizona, you simply pass through a full-height metal turnstile and walk down a corridor, where your bag might be searched at a customs table, but otherwise you're simply waved through, and then you're in Mexico.

Plaza Pesquiera, just past the entry, now caters primarily to medical tourists. There are pharmacies with giant Viagra signs in the window, and lots of dentists—Smile Dentist, Dental Bliss, Border Dental—with grinning Anglo kids showing off their new braces on various billboards. A few other shops offer curios, folk art, and Cuban cigars. One afternoon, wandering along the main drag, I saw a mariachi walking to a gig with a guitar slung over his back and a cart selling Sonoran-style hot dogs, which are hot dogs wrapped in bacon.

The maquiladoras begin to show up about 20 minutes farther south, a series of anonymous factory buildings and industrial parks, many bearing cryptic names like Molex (which, it turns out, is owned by Koch Industries; they make various types of electronic connectors) and Amphenol Optimize (headquartered in Wallingford, Connecticut, with a product line ranging from air bags to circuit boards). Some of the workers live in new low-income housing developments, blocky units stacked in endless, uniform rows like beige Legos; others, in vast squatter neighborhoods, where dirt roads wind past lively street markets (where you can buy cell phone parts or used clothing or get your laptop fixed) and hillsides covered with shacks made from corrugated tin, wooden pallets, cardboard, and tires (the latter piled like bricks to make walls, then filled with dirt, doubling as planters). There's also a gated development catering to higher-income professionals, with quirkier, more interesting architecture than comparable American suburbs and streets named after European capitals (Paris, Amsterdam, London). Nearby commercial boulevards are mostly lined with local shops and restaurants, but there are a few U.S. chains, including a Home Depot and a Sam's Club.

At the restaurant of the Hotel Fray Marcos, on the main downtown strip, I met Alma Cota de Yanez, the executive director of the Fundación del Empresariado Sonorense, or FESAC, a local community group. Cota de Yanez moved to Nogales with her family about 15 years ago, when her husband took a job managing one of the maquiladoras. On a tour of the city, she touted its positive attributes: the eight universities, the countless mom-and-pop businesses that have opened to serve maquiladora workers. Crime has also waned, she said. Cota de Yanez came from an upper-middle-class family and had spent time in the U.S.—her father, a biologist, attended the University of Nebraska, where he developed a new breed of corn—and for her, the two sides of Ambos Nogales could be categorized without much fuss. "You mean the ghost town," she asked, "and the alive?"


The first time I saw the southern border fence up close, I happened to be on a ride-along with a Border Patrol agent named Peter Bidegain. We were in Nogales. Bidegain had grown up in the area and used to visit regularly as a kid in the '80s, long before they'd built the current version of the fence.

We had an unobstructed view from a table outside of a downtown McDonald's, where we'd stopped for coffee. All of the other patrons inside had been Latino, and I'd felt self-conscious at my association with la migra. If Bidegain noticed any of the wary glances directed his way, it didn't register on his face. But outside, he sighed. Beyond the fence, the hills of Nogales, Sonora, dense with modest, colorful homes, sprawled in every direction. "I think that fence is ugly," he said, without any prompting from me, "but it's a necessary evil."

And yet, taking in its enormity, I must confess, I had a reaction nearly opposite Bidegain's. I wasn't at all sure about the "necessary" part. But the fence was visually striking in ways I hadn't anticipated. Out in the desert, it curved over the hilly terrain like a weird spine, the edge of a saw, a sculptural installation co-designed by Richard Serra and Christo. Were it possible to set aside the symbolic and actual meaning of the thing, there's simply an awesome scale that's difficult not to admire when you're staring down its length as it disappears into the horizon—the same way you might gaze in awe at, say, a gargantuan public works project like the Hoover Dam.

Eleven months later, Trump took the down escalator at one of his eponymous towers and launched his presidential campaign, promising, among other things, to build a “big, beautiful” wall along the southern border of the U.S.

Three months after that, I met a lawyer in Nogales named Bobby Montiel. A former Superior Court judge, Montiel was working with Luis Parra on the Rodríguez shooting case. He called the border fence "the Iron Curtain." When Montiel was growing up, his father owned a grocery store in Nogales, Arizona, right on the border. "Our traffic was 98, 99 percent from Sonora," Montiel recalled. "I could look up the hill from where my father's store was, and the border was open. Sunday morning they'd come through to do their shopping, then go back. No Border Patrol, no problems. Maybe we had a few more burglaries, but other than that, it was open country, almost. My cousins lived there and I lived here, and they came across and we played baseball together. And everybody else was like that too. The wall destroyed that way of life. It destroyed the two cities."

The current version of the border fence, based on an Israeli design, cost approximately $4.14 million per mile.

The current version of the border fence, based on an Israeli design, cost approximately $4.14 million per mile.

When Trump vows to Make America Great Again, nothing along the lines of Montiel's boyhood idyll likely finds its way into his nostalgic imaginings. But the president-elect does make me think of another trip to southern Arizona, when I covered a protest in a little mountain town north of Tucson. It was the summer of 2014. A surge of unaccompanied minors had been illegally crossing the border, most fleeing violence in Central America, and the protesters were responding to reports of a plan to transfer 40 of the captured migrant children to a nearby juvenile detention. The local sheriff had warned his constituents that the kids might be disease carriers, possibly even violent members of MS-13.

People gathered on either side of a hilltop road leading to the detention center, hoisting signs reading "Return to Sender" and "Breaking Into My House Doesn't Give You the Right to Stay." Nobody knew what time the busload of children was supposed to arrive. As noon approached, the combination of the anticipatory tension and the high-desert setting—the austere rock formations and the gravel crunching underfoot—brought to mind an archetypal scene from a Hollywood Western. In my notes, I described the protesters as "Tea Party-types." But of course, in hindsight, I was actually attending a proto-Trump rally.

The name of the town, incidentally, was Oracle. A bit too on the nose, I know.

The bus never showed up. Eventually, a group of counter-protesters at the bottom of the hill sent up a mariachi band. As the musicians weaved through the angry crowd, protesters began shouting, "Go home!" But the band leader, a Tucson native and Marine Corps veteran named Ruben Moreno, marched on, undaunted, his trumpet outthrust, its mouth looking like the barrel of a blunderbuss, at least to me, though maybe it was just thoughts of a Tea Party that had me seeing 18th-century firearms.

They finished with a mariachi version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The shouters paused for a moment, unsure of their own ears—a brief respite, to be sure, but pleasing nonetheless.

Binelli, Mark. 2017. "'Build That Wall!': A Local History." Guernica, January 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.


Discussion Questions

  1.  According to this article, what is the history of the dependent relationship between Mexico and the United States?
  2. What do the Black communities mentioned in Chapter 1 (“Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.”) have in common with border communities facing violence from the Border Patrol? 
  3. What are the economic, political, and social benefits of and problems with a border wall for the countries that it is supposed to separate? 
  4. What are other ways in which the United States and Mexico can work together to ease tensions at their border?   

*Click here to access a Spanish-language version of this story.