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View from the USA: Build bridges, not walls

One of Trump’s most contentious policies might physically divide the US and Mexico, but the two countries already stand in stark, startling contrast

By Aaron Millar
Published 29 Apr 2019, 17:26 BST
Aaron Millar
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

On 22 December 2018, the US government came to a standstill. Bickering over funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico had reached fever pitch and, in what was perhaps the greatest ‘if you don’t play by my rules I’m taking my ball home’ move ever, the Donald refused to sign any spending bill that didn’t include $5.7bn (£4.4bn) for his ‘big, beautiful’, but possibly very racist, wall. And so began the longest government shutdown in American history — 35 days and 800,000 federal workers with no paycheck: air-traffic controllers, park rangers, mechanics, investigators and — in the greatest of cruel ironies — border police. 

It was a farce. The total cost to the US economy has been estimated at $11bn (£8.4bn) — enough to build two walls. Not that they would’ve worked — most illegal immigrants in America arrive on planes and overstay their visa; most drug smuggling occurs through legal ports of entry. And, of course, all of this ignores the fact that all non-Native Americans — around 98% of the population — are descended from immigrants, including Donald Trump, his wife and every single member of the Republican party. But this wasn’t about border security. Not really. This was a fight for America’s soul. 

To truly understand what that fight meant, I went to the border itself. Which is how I ended up in Big Bend National Park, deep in southern Texas, where the Rio Grande forms the boundary with Mexico, and cowboys and gauchos stalk the hills of no-man’s land on their respective sides. 

It’s a spectacular place. The author Etta Koch described her first sighting of the Chisos Basin as ‘that moment when your heart stands still and your whole body seems to swell’. She’s right. From the top of the Chisos Mountains — a giant’s fist of rock punching through the heart of the park — the desert shimmers like an ocean of dust, vast plains of ochre and orange swaying in the heat.  

But tucked in the western corner of the park is what must surely be the smallest international border checkpoint in the world — a single concrete shack, on the American bank of the Rio Grande (the official border is in the middle of the river itself). Crossing it is like teleporting between two different worlds. I parked my car on the US side, walked across manicured paths to the air-conditioned, computerised passport control office, opened the door on the other side into Mexico and immediately fell into knee-deep mud. There were no paths, no buses, no cars. I waded through the muck barefoot, holding my shoes above my head for a quarter of a mile, until a guy on the other side of the river saw me and picked me up in a rowing boat. His village, Boquillas, he said, was a few miles away. There were no taxis, but I could hire a donkey and a local man to guide me. That’s how I met Raul. 

He led me through wastelands of desert scrub and stone, along empty dirt roads, to a scattering of whitewashed stone homes shadowed against the stark enormity of the Chihuahuan Desert. We stopped at the local bar for tequila and enchiladas; we watched an old man picking strings on a broken guitar, kids kicking a flat football through the streets. Raul told me that in its heyday, 200 people lived here. Now only a handful of families remain. They have to travel hundreds of miles through the mountains for everything they need. There’s no running water, nothing to grow. It’s not quite a ghost town, not yet. It’s worse; it’s a deathbed.

There’s already a wall — a wall of poverty, depriving people of opportunity, education, healthcare. One side of the river doesn’t have enough to drink. On the other, I saw people wash the grime off their boots with bottles of iced Evian. But there’s a solution. Raul told me that every summer, when the river runs low, the locals hold a festival, Voices From Both Sides, when Mexicans and Americans come together in the middle of the Rio Grande to celebrate, swim, play music and connect. Rich and poor. Light and dark. Bridges, not barriers. Border security, I realised, is just one side of the story. It’s also as simple as being good neighbours. The fight for America’s soul is a choice: should we build walls or should we tear them down?

Follow @AaronMWriter

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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