SAN LUIS, Arizona – As the sun fades along the triple border fence that divides the towns of San Luis in Arizona and San Luis Rio Colorado in Mexico, there's little of the chaos and danger that reigned in these streets just 10 years ago.
Thousands of day workers and students with U.S. permits or passports return to Mexico each evening along the main street, which flows into a border crossing for people and vehicles.
A food truck on the Mexican side can be heard pushing its offerings: “Tortillas! One hundred percent corn. Tasty and Nutritious.”
Between the two towns is the most protected part of the 2,000-mile border – a nine-mile section of three parallel fences 18, 16 and six feet high. Another 115 miles in the surrounding Yuma Sector have different fencing, adapted to the desert geography.
Towers with surveillance cameras and lights, sensors, drones, helicopters and nearly 1,000 U.S. agents monitor the Yuma sector – the example that President Donald Trump has used for the wall he plans to build to shut off the flow of undocumented migrants.
In Crippled America, the book he published in 2015 to promote his presidential campaign, Trump described the Yuma sector as a “model” for his wall and highlighted the sharp drop in undocumented crossings in the area since 2006, when the U.S. government approved a special plan to reinforce the border. Before 2006, the Yuma sector had an eight-foot fence along the urban core of the two towns of San Luis, which was easy to jump. Scores of undocumented migrants jumped it, and Border Patrol agents were clearly outnumbered. At the time, the 126-mile Yuma sector had 547 agents, compared to 804 today. The agents detained 138,438 migrants along the sector in 2005, compared to only 7,142 in 2015.
“The Yuma sector saw an incredible drop in the number of people trying to enter the country illegally,” Trump wrote in his book. “And mine will be even better.”
Border Patrol agent Fidel Cabrera told Univision Noticias during a visit to the triple fence area that although the new technology helped to reduce the number of undocumented crossings, the drop would have been impossible without the large increase in the number of agents.
“Cameras and fences don't arrest people. We need agents to continue the surveillance, because we obviously don't want to return to what happened in the past,” Cabrera said.
Fences are not the only factor that determine the level of protection along the border, but there's no doubt the Yuma sector has the toughest physical barrier. There's only one other triple fence sector anywhere on the border, only six miles long. The San Diego sector in California has a double fence, 14 and eight feet high, but more human resources with about 2,400 agents.
Jumping over the triple fence along the San Luis urban sectors has became so difficult that residents said they are surprised if they spot undocumented migrants on the U.S. side of the border.
Gabi Felix, a 22-year-old employee at a Main Street shop 250 yards from the border gate said she sold a pair of cheap slippers recently to an undocumented migrant who had crossed barefoot. When she was a child, Félix added, she often saw groups of undocumented migrants walking along the streets of the town of 30,000 people.
Trump has never visited the Yuma sector, and his only visit to the border area came in July of 2015, when he visited Laredo, Texas. But he probably used the sector as an example because it's frequently mentioned by those who argue that improving the physical barriers cuts down on undocumented crossings.
Trump described the keynote proposal of his campaign only in the broadest of terms. He repeatedly insisted he would build a “real” wall that Mexico would pay for and that would have “a beautiful, broad door” to allow legal migrants to enter.
During the campaign, his website described his proposal only as “a physical and impenetrable wall,” a description that could mean anything from a medieval wall with towers to a triple fence with the technology used in the Yuma sector. During the campaign, Trump also said the wall would be made out of cement and put its height at 30 or 55 feet.
Trump's critics see his promise of a wall as an attempt to halt ethnic changes in the U.S. population and argue that there are many practical objections to the idea of building a physical wall along the entire 2,000-mile border. They say the wall will be expensive, because Mexico will not pay for it, and inefficient because 40 percent of the undocumented migrants in the United States arrived legally and overstayed their visas. It's also not viable, they add, because of the rough topography that includes the Rio Grande and other factors.
Trump's critics also question the success of the Yuma Sector. They argue that all of the border and not just the Yuma sector has seen a drop in undocumented crossings, largely because the slow recovery after the recession discouraged potential migrants.
And they point out that whenever the Border Patrol cracks down on undocumented crossings in one sector, they tend to increase in others. In McAllen, Texas, the number of undocumented crossings rose from 134,186 in 2005 to 147,257 in 2015, becoming the favorite spot for illegal crossings.
Supporters of the Yuma example as an effective border control also tend to overlook the fact that drug seizures rose over the same 10-year period when undocumented crossings dropped. Marijuana seizures rose from 36,000 pounds in 2005 to 53,000 pounds in 2015, and seizures of methadone rose from six pounds to 631 in the same period. At least three tunnels were detected in the center of San Luis after the triple fence was built, said Cabrera.
Arizona resident Abraham Guzmán, 25, laughed when asked by Univision Noticias about the effectiveness of the triple fence. He pulled out his cell phone and showed a 2012 photo of a four-wheel drive vehicle stuck atop the 14-foot border fence in western Arizona. Two suspected drug smugglers who escaped had been using ramps to try to drive over the fence.
“It's a waste of money. They will always find a way to get across,” Guzmán said.
Cabrera, who is not allowed to express his opinion of Trump's proposed wall due to U.S. government regulations, said Border Patrol agents sometimes feel impotent in the face of cross-border smugglers. “They are not limited by anything but their imagination, and they have a huge incentive because of the money they make,” Cabrera said, referring to the tunnels, ultralight airplanes and other methods used to smuggle drugs across the border.
Trump supporters across the country shouted “build the wall!” during his campaign rallies, and some see the promised barrier as a cure-all. But his supporters in Yuma County are much more realistic.
Ken Darby, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps and founder of a Facebook page for Yuma County residents who support Trump, said the barrier will not be completely impenetrable, but will help to dissuade undocumented crossings. “Who doesn't have a lock on their home?” he asked.
Not even Border Patrol agents who support Trump believe that a real wall along the border is required. Shawn Moran, spokesperson for the Border Patrol Council, a labor union that endorsed Trump, told Univision Noticias that the union supports building a wall only along certain stretches of the border, and that it plans to advise Trump on the issue.
“We believe a physical barrier in some places is one of the things that is needed,” Moran said, adding that there's also a need for more human resources and tougher laws. His union has lobbied for the return of Operation Streamline, a federal program that made undocumented crossings a crime. It was put in place in 2005 along some sectors of the border. Only repeat offenders are now charged as criminals.
Recent polls also showed the people who live on either side of the border see themselves as a single community and oppose a wall. About 72 percent of U.S. residents and 86 percent of Mexicans in 14 border cities oppose the wall, according to a July poll by Cronkite News, Univision Noticias and The Dallas Morning News.
On the Arizona side of San Luis, Leticia Bella, who can see the triple fence from her clothing shop, said she dreams “of a world free of barriers.”
“I really like the John Lennon song Imagine because it speaks of a world where there's no violence or barriers,” she said.