Border road trip reveals desire for change

Border checkpoint at Naco, AZ. Photo by Cali Nash / Arizona Sonora News Service
Border checkpoint at Naco, Arizona. Photo by Cali Nash / Arizona Sonora News Servic

One day, three cities, five people. The trip from Douglas to Naco to Nogales is a classic look into the American Southwest.

The sun is hot, there is a sea of yellow grass, and each downtown vaguely emanates the Wild West. Along the endless stretches of highway, however, modernity breaks up the timelessness.

U.S. Border Patrol cars — fleets of white SUVs, its purpose stated boldly in green, police lights fixed to the roof — race around the charcoal concrete, searching for interlopers.

Driving through Arizona’s border towns, the picture can be deceptively simple. On a Sunday, there are people pouring out of churches, milling about in city green spaces, and squeezing in some work. Yet this lazy Sunday belies the hotbed of activity that these towns are fused with.

Life in these cities is undeniably affected by its proximity to Mexico. Talking to five people from different border towns, with different backgrounds and different beliefs, each described life as uniquely political, but intensely personal.

Chris Alvarado, a worker at Denny’s from Douglas, sits at a park table with his wife and son. While Alvarado talks about life in Douglas, the family eats the Mexican food they bought from a taco food truck posted on the edge of the park.

To Alvarado, a border fence separating Douglas and Naco stands as an arbitrary obstruction. He says that people with enough motivation, money or intelligence will always find a way around any obstacle put in their way. Likewise, he believes the breakdown in the wall’s effectiveness is twofold: Just as there are people willing to do anything to cross, he believes there are corrupt or sympathetic border patrol officers willing to be bought out or look the other way.

Alvarado says the U.S. government should stop wasting its resources on border overhauls and instead focus on the root of the problem, not one of its effects. He feels that the family unit is the place to start, and that would-be border crossers need to re-establish their ties to the family to work through issues instead of escaping elsewhere.

Those who do cross end up using a lot of resources, he says, such as: slots in the school that his son goes to, which is overcrowded; and jobs similar to his position at Denny’s.

Ultimately, Alvarado wishes there was more assimilation from those who cross the border and stay in Douglas.

Still, this mixing of cultures between American and Mexican, specifically between Douglas and Agua Prieta, is what “makes Douglas, Douglas,” says Alvarado, a lifelong resident. The culture is a part of his livelihood, but he feels there’s a tension between culture and the desire for more safety.

Across the street, Karen Hopson is talking to the last patron from First Baptist Church’s Sunday service. Hopson, the wife of John Hopson, the church’s pastor, has many concerns about the safety of not only Douglas, but also the United States.

Hopson “doesn’t believe in open borders,” and feels that “the word is out” that America lets anyone in. And to her, people are taking advantage.

ISIS, refugees, illegal immigrants — all of it needs to stop, she believes. Hopson wants to lock down all U.S. borders to disrupt the flow of people and implement a vetting process to sort through who’s already here and separate the good from the bad.

Hopson says she “has a huge heart” for the terrorism issues in other parts of the world, and specifically cites her compassion for and contribution to the Syrian refugee crisis. She says she doesn’t ignore what’s going on in the world, but believes such refugees should be supplied help where they’re from, rather than come to the United States and potentially bring or attract danger.

Hopson, who lived in Douglas 30 years ago and then returned again two years ago, admits that the border is safer now than it used to be.

She says she’s a friend to multiple Border Patrol agents, but Hopson resents the catch-and-release policy, which she says limits the ability for agents to do their job and brings down morale. She says weak border policies affect those most vulnerable geographically: isolated ranchers, of whom she knows at least one killed by illegal immigrants, she says.

In another stretch of highway near Douglas, the mountains are less rocky and more hilly. The sign declaring the city limits of Naco is unassuming. Next to Naco’s U.S. Customs and Immigration building, there is a bar, a building with boarded up windows that have “for sale” and a number sprayed across them, a closed Sonora Café — and Raul Paredes.

Paredes is tinkering with his red pickup, working under a cream tent that beats back the worst of the heat. His house is within 70 feet of the U.S. port of entry. He and his daughter have lived in Naco for 10 years. His family, including his wife and sisters, still live in Sonora, where he grew up.

The fence presents no problem for Paredes in his day-to-day life. He finds the idea of a physical border between the U.S. and Mexico laughable, and thinks it should be eliminated. He is disenfranchised with politics, and says that no matter what politicians promise, there is no change for the lower class, because politicians end up pocketing the money for themselves.

He cites his wife’s experience with the lengthy and nuanced process for applying for a U.S. residency card as an example. After much time and money, he says the government rejected her based on technicalities they were told wouldn’t be an issue. Paredes thinks he and other immigrants are intentionally kept in the dark about how such processes work so that people can take their money. As a result, his wife was deported.

To Paredes, the “U.S. is getting to be like Mexico, where if you have the money you get the good stuff from the government.”

The turn off from the main highway down a winding road that backs up against a huge mountain is easy to overlook. Beyond the road’s dips and curves lies the Coronado National Forest, a natural wilderness treasure caught up in human politics.

The border fence lies a mile in from the park’s outer limits. As such, border crossers sometimes choose the forest as their route into America. Those that do avoid detection at all costs and therefore don’t disturb people who visit the park to hike, camp or explore, according to Ann Huston, a park ranger at Coronado National Forest.

Border Patrol cars drive down these roads, apparently looking for suspicious people among the greenery.

Huston says that in the short time she’s been a ranger at the park, the only impact she’s observed from the fence’s intrusion has been environmental. The border destroyed some of the habitat around it, including agave plants, and disrupted animal migration.

There is now an agave restoration project underway to re-establish a healthy population to the area. To certain animals, a road is a barrier, let alone a fence. As such, the fence can affect “the genetic diversity of animal populations that live both in Mexico and the U.S.”

The last expanse between the forest and Nogales is a one-lane, heavily treed area flanked by reddish-brown rocky mountain walls. Emerging onto the main roads in Nogales, there are people retreating into their homes to enjoy the ending of the day. Ruben Gonzalez and his wife and child are playing on a plot of grass next to the police station. The border checkpoint is a quarter-mile down the road.

Gonzalez and his family are from Nogales, Sonora. He lives and works at Kimberly-Clark, a U.S. company, in Sonora. Gonzalez says many American corporations choose to set up near the border, making job opportunity high. He and his family have U.S. visas, and his older son is a U.S. citizen because he was born here.

Gonzalez doesn’t think the fence works for the purpose people set out, and says if officials really want to lock down the flow of people, they should increase manpower and checkpoints. But as the policies get stricter, Gonzalez says he’s noticed that everyday people in Nogales, Arizona, get more hostile toward him. Like Alvarado, he thinks the border problem is really a deeper societal problem that should be addressed more holistically.

In his experiences, Gonzalez says many people want to cross the border for access to small things to get the benefits of each place, not to permanently move. He and his family come up to grocery shop and play at the park, but are happy in Mexico. His oldest son goes to school in the U.S. but lives with him across the border.

To the elder Gonzalez, the border is fluid. There is a lot of exchange between the two Nogales towns, like language, which he says leads to increased opportunities. The U.S. schools offer sports programs, which schools in Sonora don’t have, he says. He cares about these opportunities because he wants to give his children a better life than what he had.

In a last look at the border checkpoint, cars stream on both sides of the lane, to and from Sonora. The lines of vehicles move smoothly and steadily. There are no visible border patrol officers searching cars, carrying weapons or detaining suspects. The people coming into the U.S. from Mexico don’t look as if they have undergone a harrowing experience. Their facial expressions convey a sense of routine resignation.

One day, three cities, five people. None share the same background or beliefs. All agree that some kind of change is needed.

Full slideshow below.

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Cali Nash is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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