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Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, 73, is the law in Nogales, Arizona. He has been the sheriff of this border county since 1993. He is an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump and his policies.
David Wallace, USA TODAY

NOGALES, Ariz. — Tony Estrada is the law here — not President Trump.

The well-worn crossing along the Mexican border is a place where President Trump’s strident campaign rhetoric aimed at Mexican immigrants still throbs. And few feel the sting more than the 73-year-old Santa Cruz County sheriff.

Born in neighboring Nogales, Mexico, Estrada arrived in the United States, at the age of 1, and now occupies the local public safety building that bears his name. His personal story is a familiar one in the dusty town that for decades has marked the beginning of thousands of hopeful immigrant narratives.

Yet this place and Estrada’s deep roots here underscore some of the most complicated issues confronting the Trump administration’s contentious efforts to secure the border, from a White House directive authorizing local police to assist with federal immigration enforcement to the proposed wall.

During the campaign, Trump often celebrated the endorsement of Joe Arpaio, the former Phoenix-area sheriff whose hard line on illegal immigrants foreshadowed the then-candidate’s border agenda. But just 179 miles to the south in Nogales, and all along the nearly 2,000-mile southwest border, Trump’s plans are playing to a much more skeptical, if not adversarial, audience.

Part of the Southwest Border Sheriffs’ Coalition, whose members are scattered across four states, Estrada and his colleagues are flatly opposed to the centerpiece of Trump’s plan: the wall.

“The wall is not the answer,” said Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez, the coalition president whose own Texas county includes 84 miles of border with Mexico. Among the primary obstacles, Martinez said in a recent interview,  the new administration has failed to reconcile complex environmental and cultural conditions inherent to the border that make such a massive undertaking (cost estimates have topped more than $20 billion) “impractical.”

And while Santa Cruz County (population: 46,000), represents perhaps the poorest stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border, Estrada’s strong bi-national connections here have cast him as one of the most forceful and vocal opponents of Trump’s unfolding border strategy.

Each time the new president refers to his plans for a “great, great wall,” as he did most recently in an address before a joint session of Congress, the words re-open deep wounds first inflicted on many here during Trump’s initial appearance as a candidate when he referred to Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists.

“He insulted my people,” Estrada said. “When he said that, I took it personally. That’s not right. He shouldn’t be talking about people like that, people you don’t really know. If he knows them, he’s probably had them doing his construction work.”

A slap in the face

The meticulously preserved photograph is the official record of the Estrada family’s formal entry to the United States from Mexico more than 70 years ago.

The mother, wearing a serious expression befitting a journey into an uncertain future, is surrounded by her four boys.  Balanced on her lap is the youngest of the brood, whose sleepy appearance elicits a warm smile from the now gray-haired man peering into the mirror of his own arrival in the United States, in 1944.

“Yes, that’s me,” Sheriff Estrada said, pointing to the young boy, mouth slightly agape.

The antique-colored photograph underscores the deep connection to a swath of the border that straddles many generations of families, and explains, at least in part, why the administration’s border agenda has struck such a dissonant chord along much of the rugged territory that currently serves as the international dividing line.

“A wall would only represent a slap to the face of our Mexican neighbors,” Nogales Mayor John Doyle said. “It sends the wrong signal to the rest of the world.” Like Estrada, Doyle, 65, also represents an unbroken link to what locals call the “other side of the line.”

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His mother was born in Cananea, a copper mining town in the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora. His cowboy father, an immigrant from the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, for years drove cattle on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

In the community that’s more than 80% Hispanic, Doyle said it would be more unusual to find someone with no connection to the Mexican city that even shares the name of its U.S. neighbor.

“Our families are connected, our economies are connected, but our government is doing its best to drive us apart, it seems,” the mayor said.

On the Mexican side, government officials also are making a vocal case, warning that a wall would represent a “closed door” to vital economic interests between the two countries.

Graco Ramirez, governor of the Mexican state of Morelos and president of the Mexican Governors Conference, was urging his U.S. counterparts gathered last week in Washington, to seriously consider how Trump’s border enforcement policies could potentially affect Mexico’s status as a top trading partner with three of the four border states: Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. (Mexico also ranks as the third-largest trading partner with the United States, with trade valued at $525 billion.)

“People don’t want more walls, they want more exchange,” Ramirez said in an interview with USA TODAY.

Already, officials said, a sweeping set or orders issued late last month by the Department of Homeland Security, aimed at accelerating the deportation of undocumented immigrants, is sending a shiver through border community economies and institutions.

Doyle said there has been a noticeable decline in local foot traffic downtown, perhaps an indication that even Mexican citizens with current documents who cross the border daily for business or shopping, are concerned about being swept up by U.S. authorities. The mayor also is worried that citizen children enrolled in local schools, whose parents’ immigrant status may be in jeopardy, could suddenly find themselves alone and be funneled into the area’s modest foster care system.

“There is real fear that even valid green card holders could get picked up if they don’t answer a question properly,” the mayor said. “Heck, I would be afraid. It’s a shame that we have to live under these circumstances.”

The D.C. ‘disconnect’ at the border

Ultimately, it will be Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly who will be tasked to carry out President Trump’s immigration directives. And when he arrived here last month to take stock of existing border security — already highlighted by a 20-foot-tall steel fence that indelicately knifes through sections of downtown neighborhoods on both sides of the divide — Sheriff Estrada was a prominent member of the local delegation bent on persuading the secretary to take Trump’s wall somewhere else.

Estrada and the border sheriffs’ coalition raised similar concerns in 2006 when the Bush administration pushed forward with an elaborate border fencing plan — part of its own effort to slow illegal immigration and shield border communities from a feared spillover of violent crime linked to warring Mexican drug cartels.

The sheriff refers to past fencing programs, beginning in earnest in 1995, as akin to erecting “iron curtains.” Mexican traffickers immediately responded by tunneling under them. Since the mid-90s, Estrada said authorities have discovered more than 100 tunnels in the area.

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A wall, the sheriff argues, would be worse.

“At least you can see your neighbor through a fence,” the sheriff said. “In the case of wall, there is something unhealthy about not being able to see what’s happening on the other side.”

The push for such an elaborate barrier, Yuma County, Ariz., Sheriff Leon Wilmot said, only underscores a “continuing disconnect” between Washington and local authorities.

“They don’t breathe the air that we do on a daily basis,” said Wilmot, a member of the border sheriffs’ group who also attended last month’s session with Kelly. “It’s incumbent on our representatives in Washington to listen to what we’re telling them.”

Wilmot said Estrada is uniquely positioned, because of his links to Mexico and seven terms in office, to communicate that message.

“I have the utmost respect for that man,” Wilmot said.

A bygone era gives way to uncertainty

Long gone are the days Estrada remembers from his youth, when you didn’t need documents to go back and forth to Mexico and when Americans and Mexicans later suspended border crossing restrictions to stage joint Cinco de Mayo festivals to commemorate the Mexican army’s symbolic 1862 victory in a battle with the French.

“I think all of us understand now that people should come across legally, they should,” the sheriff said. “But the stark reality of this phenomenon is that a lot of people who are coming across have no paperwork; they have no paper trail. They have no opportunity of getting a visa or work permit or anything. They have absolutely zero chances. So they are going to come, and the only way they feel they can do it is tracking here illegally to the United States.

“Do you think a wall is going to stop them?” the sheriff asks. “It’s just another obstacle; it’s just another hurdle. And it might be the easiest one for them in spite of everything they have gone through — men, women and children.”

The estimated $20 billion cost for the wall, Estrada said, could be better spent helping to stabilize the Mexican economy to staunch the flow of illegal immigration or fund more drug treatment in the U.S., to cut American dependence on illegal drugs.

“What (Trump) is doing is contrary to the principle that says if you neighbor needs help, you help. You don’t attack them.”

Estrada still has family on the Mexican side of the line, but it’s been about 10 years since he has last visited. As a prominent local law enforcement officer, who has had his share of run-ins with drug and human traffickers, it’s probably a wise precaution.

Still, the self-imposed travel restriction gnaws at him in the same way that Trump’s proposed wall and the proposed enlistment of local cops for federal immigration enforcement duty represent what the sheriff believes to be new roadblocks to the very path the Estrada family took more than 70 years ago.

That journey has taken the sheriff from a spare, rented home with no indoor plumbing just three blocks inside the U.S., to the corner office of county building that now bears his name.

“We’ve got to put up some resistance,” the sheriff said.

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