As the White House’s anti-immigration stance stokes fears along the border, it’s also highlighting the relationship between Mexico and New Mexico—and exposing how vulnerable the rest of the United States may be to increased security and surveillance.
Earlier this week, a coalition of state legislators introduced a bill to prevent the federal government from constructing a new border wall or fence across New Mexico state lands.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Javier Martínez, a Democrat, today represents Albuquerque. But he was born in El Paso and grew up in Ciudad Juárez.
When President Donald Trump talks about building walls and criminalizing immigration, that speaks to Martínez’s personal experience of growing up along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the president’s hostile stance toward Mexico also threatens New Mexico’s economy, Martínez said.
The state has significant investments along the border, he noted, like the Santa Teresa Port of Entry and Borderplex. Under both Govs. Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez, New Mexico built and nurtured trade relations with its southern neighbor. In 2015, for example, the state exported $1.7 billion in goods to Mexico.
“For the president to come in and change that undermines all that work,” Martínez said. “That is not what we’ve been working for all these years.”
Martínez said Trump’s repeated claims that “immigration is out of control,” don’t correspond with the facts.
“If the problem [Trump] seeks to solve is undocumented immigration, that’s a reflection of a broken immigration system,” he said.
That requires comprehensive immigration reform, he said, not construction of a new wall along the border with a trade partner.
“Where I’m standing right now, in Santa Fe at the state capitol, not far from here is the Camino Real,” Martínez said.
For more than 300 years, that road connected Mexico City with Santa Fe via El Paso along the Rio Grande.
“That was one of the most prolific trade routes,” he said. “Building this wall really undermines that history, it undermines our cultural ties, our economic ties.”
Cutting a deal
After Martínez introduced the border wall legislation at the Roundhouse, New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn sent a letter to President Trump proposing a land trade.
In anticipation of the border wall’s construction, Dunn would like to exchange state trust lands within three miles of the border for “more desirable” federal lands.
“With all the talk of the current administration [to build a wall] and the actions of the state Legislature, I wanted to get our lands out of the fight,” Dunn told NM Political Report.
New Mexico and Mexico share 159 miles of border. Of those, 22 miles are state trust lands, Dunn said.
Within three miles of the border, the state administers 32,000 acres of surface rights. Within 10 miles, there are about 112,000 acres.
“We started about a year ago, studying tracts within that area that were being affected by the Border Patrol and immigration,” Dunn said. “We’re getting lots of trash in certain areas, where people are coming across and leaving backpacks and bottles, and when Border Patrol goes after an individual, they’ll drive straight across lands where there are no roads.”
According to Dunn, all of those state lands are currently leased for grazing and farming.
“Overall, there’s been a lot of trespassing and actions on our state trust lands that are not good for them, that make it harder for us to manage those lands and keep them as pristine as we’d like,” Dunn said. “And it affects our ability to generate the most from those assets.”
The money the state earns from leasing trust lands for grazing and oil and gas drilling goes toward funding schools and hospitals. Companies or agencies that build roads, pipelines, power lines or fences across trust lands also must pay the state for that right-of-way easement.
Dunn said that he has not yet identified which federal lands, currently overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, he would like to trade.
But, he said, they would be within Lincoln, Otero or Chaves counties, which he referred to as “my home area.”
Of those three counties, only Otero shares a border with Mexico.
In Dunn’s letter to Trump he wrote, “I do not wish to be part of the political fodder for any side of the issue.”
When asked what that meant, Dunn said that he doesn’t want to be part of the discussions on whether the wall should be built or not.
“I wanted to make everybody aware that this is trust lands involved in the discussion,” he said. “And my goal is that we trade those out and don’t have the lands on the border. That’s what’s best for our beneficiaries in the long-term.”
Beyond the border
Within five days of his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order about “border security” that called for immediate construction of a wall along the southern border.
That sent shockwaves across the nation. But for many people living along the border, the sentiment behind the order wasn’t new.
The border region has long been targeted as a threat, said Sarah Silva, executive director of the Las Cruces-based Comunidades en acción y de fé, or CAFé. “Democrats and Republicans have both chosen to trade away the border for what they think are good policies,” she said, whether those are comprehensive immigration reform or increased surveillance and security.
Even President Obama’s 2014 rule curtailing the use of racial profiling within federal agencies exempted Customs and Border Protection, which is now the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.
Along the border, the agency is referred to as “The Green Monster,” said Silva.
“The agency is so agile because it doesn’t need congressional action, it just needs orders from DHS and the president,” she said. “Imagine the largest law enforcement agency telling us where we can and cannot go, depending on what you look like, now under the service of President Trump.”
Established in 2003 as part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection agents have jurisdiction within 100 miles of the border, including the coasts, and can search for anyone believed to be a noncitizen on private lands within 25 miles of a border. They can also make arrests for offenses or felonies unrelated to undocumented immigration if the person is likely to escape before an arrest warrant can be obtained.
Today’s more aggressive language from the White House comes even as most of the border is already secure, and there’s little net migration, Silva said.
For Silva and others who live along or study the border, there’s more at stake right now than just construction of a new wall.
“The border wall and border security isn’t the end,” she said. “We believe it’s a means to be furthering a narrative: that people who were not first-born in America don’t belong here.”
Official federal actions are worrisome enough. Then there are people who interpret policies and “self-deputize” themselves as enforcers of those new orders.
“That is menacing—that is the most dangerous thing to come out of this,” she said. “People who decide who belongs and who doesn’t.”
Silva has heard of MVD employees illegally blocking people from getting a driver’s license because they lack a Social Security card. While at the El Paso International Airport, even her own staff members have been subject to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents hovering over TSA employees, checking documents. Already, people driving in southern Arizona and New Mexico must stop at interior checkpoints.
Silva’s family recently advised her grandfather, a legal permanent resident of the United States who has a green card, not to travel anymore.
“We don’t know what might happen,” Silva said. Many people are afraid, whether they are legal permanent residents or DREAMers, the name given to undocumented immigrants who qualify for conditional or permanent residency under the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
“Some of those threats are real and some are imagined, but definitely, people are frightened,” she said.
“People need to notice closely what Customs and Border Protection is doing across the country,” Silva added. “It’s what they’ve done in border lands for years.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Javier Martínez said it’s critical that the Legislature take a stand on the border wall right now. Next year’s 30-day legislative session will focus only on the budget and issues Gov. Susana Martinez approves.
The governor has refused to comment on the border wall, but her spokesman told reporters last week that she supports “strengthening our border and giving the federal government a variety of tools.”
If the president’s call to build the wall becomes a reality, Rep. Martínez said, “this is our only chance to speak.”