Cries to build the wall are more than campaign chants for Arizonans

Arizonans are dealing with the immigration problem first-hand.

August 28, 2018, 4:58 PM

COCHISE COUNTY, Arizona -- The chant to “build the wall” now seems like a phrase intrinsically connected to President Donald Trump and right-leaning candidates following his lead.

But border security and immigration reform amount to much more than just a campaign issue for people who live in Arizona, which is holding its primary election Tuesday for Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat.

For instance, in one 45-minute period on Sunday morning, cattle rancher John Ladd got two calls from Border Patrol officers, both reporting different groups of immigrants caught on his property.

And G.T. Bohmfalk, a lifelong resident of a border town called Douglas, points to a crackdown on both illegal and legal immigration as a contributing factor that caused him to close his family’s store and move to Texas. The storefront sits empty today, along with many other barren displays on the town’s once-bustling main street.

All of the candidates in Arizona – including the three Republican hopefuls who are battling it out in the primary and the likely Democratic nominee Rep. Kyrsten Sinema -- have border security among their top priorities.

“As someone who was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, not far from the border, this is part of my life and has been part of all of Arizona’s history. So these aren’t talking points for us, this is our world. This is our history,” Sinema told ABC News Monday.

The realities of the current fence

John Ladd says that the swing gates that were added to higher portions of the wall are intended to help stop build up against the wall during flash floods but they tend to be left open for days.
Meghan Keneally/ABC News

Ladd’s family has owned 16,000 acres of land in Arizona’s Cochise County for more than a century, 10.5 miles of which run right up against the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ladd first spoke to ABC News in February 2017, fresh at the start of President Trump’s term and when he was optimistic about a new style of fence that was going up along more of the border. That version was made up of 18-foot bollards topped off with a five-foot flat sheet of metal, which he hoped would make it harder for immigrants to climb.

The bollard fencing now makes up eight miles of his portion of the border, while other parts are just separated from Mexico with either 10-foot or 13-foot metal mesh fence, which Ladd says is “worthless.”

Ladd’s optimism about the bollard fencing has washed away, especially since swing gate-style doors were installed intermittently in an effort to help prevent build up from some of the areas floods. The problem that he faces now is that while the gates tend to be opened by Border Patrol officers ahead of storms, as they’re intended to be, they will remain open for days, which the clearly aren’t intended to do.

“I really thought the bollard would work and the reason it doesn’t work is because there isn’t enough Border Patrol to patrol the boundary,” he said.

This past Sunday, there were more than a half dozen such floodgates open with one or two strands of barbed fencing serving as the only barrier of entry. Ladd said they had been left open that way since a storm the previous Thursday, three days prior.

And whether it be using ladders to climb over smaller portions of the wall or just walking through those open swing doors, people are still finding their ways through and into Cochise County, and, onto Ladd’s land.

“This year, for ’18, it averages two a day,” Ladd said of reports of groups of immigrants found on his property. He says that over the past few decades, Border Patrol agents have “caught a half a million people on the ranch.”

For Ladd, the appeal of the promise to “build the wall,” both by Trump and many Republican candidates is that he thinks it will, in fact, lead to a better barrier along the border but more importantly, an increased attention to the issue.

“He has been the best president talking about illegal immigration and trying to do something about it and while I think he is very serious about building a wall, I think he knows he can’t build it along the whole southern border and it’s a talking point,” Ladd said.

Impact on border towns

About 30 miles east of Ladd’s ranch is the sleepy town of Douglas. It was quiet in 2017, with a sparse main street, G Avenue, that suggested it had seen busier days. But now, even more of the stores are empty now including the longtime saddle shop, Marlins.

“It’s the collective of all of the confusion and commiseration of the leadership of our great country. I’m talking Congress, the executive branch, the whole leadership of this country has failed to address this situation which create pockets of difficulty and the border towns are those pockets,” Bohmfalk told ABC News by phone from his new hometown outside of San Antonio.

G.T. Bohmfalk's store Marlins in Douglas, Arizona, was open for 67 years before he had to close it in 2017.
Meghan Keneally/ABC News

“When they crack down on this border stuff, they also crack down on a lot of legal crossers, and that’s what border towns need,” he said, adding that when such crackdowns happen, people who would previously have crossed over into the U.S. legally for shopping will “just say ‘to heck with it, I’ll just find something close enough here in Mexico.’”

“That's how it kills you,” he said.

Bohmfalk had put his shop up for sale when he first spoke to ABC News in February 2017, but he wasn’t able to sell the building. And had trouble with the merchandise in store too.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t hardly sell anything,” he said.

He had a going out of business sale for the goods inside, including custom cowboy hats and clothing, but eventually ended up donating a good deal to local nuns. As for the building, there’s still a realtor’s poster in the window, and Bohmfalk is still trying to unload it.

“Do you want it?” he asked this ABC News reporter.

“Unintended consequences: when you crack down on the border you crack down on legal crossers too and that's important to the border area,” he said.

Meaningful political semantics

For some in Douglas, like funeral director Alex Espinosa, the simple inclusion of border security as a campaign issue is a good sign.

“For a long time, the southern border was ignored,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa, a proud Republican and Trump supporter, said that he’s pleased that all three Republican primary candidates are outspoken supporters of the border wall.

U.S. Senatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Martha McSally tours the international border with Mexico, south of Arivaca, Ariz., Aug. 22, 2018.
Matt York/AP

“Anybody that’s for the wall, I would vote for. Anyone who’s for better enforcement,” he said exasperatedly but went on to say that he has a personal favorite: Rep. Martha McSally, whose current congressional district includes Cochise County and Douglas.

McSally also has the support of Ladd, who is also one of her constituents and the chair of Border Ranchers for McSally. She and her opponents Kelli Ward and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio have all put border security either near or at the top of their policy issues both visually on their campaign websites and figuratively: Ward led a chant of “build the wall” at a campaign event on Friday.

"How do you want to secure the border?" she asked the crowd at a stop on her bus tour. When the crowd responded "build the wall," she said "Yes! Music to my ears! Build the wall!"

Border security is not solely a Republican issue in Arizona. On her campaign website, Rep. Sinema references immigration as one of her priorities and how important the topic of border security is to Arizonans.

"Kyrsten is a cosponsor of the USA Act, a solution supported by both parties that invests in smart border security while providing permanent protection for Dreamers," Sinema's website states.

“Just like John and many other Arizonans, I am disappointed that Washington has chosen political, partisan talking points instead of just getting the work done to solve the crisis on our border,” she said, referencing Ladd who she has met with on his ranch.

“I do believe very strongly that we can solve the immigration challenges in our country but what we really need are the people who chose partisanship over country to step aside and let those of us who have the desert and the border in our blood to let us do the work because we know how to do it,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Rep. Sinema does mention border security on her website.

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