The wall of hate
Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th November 2016)
The battered brown bus pulled up shortly before 9am, just by the American Legion building where former soldiers were being served a special Veterans’ Day breakfast.
A guard unlocked the metal cage inside the vehicle, then opened the main door. The first man shuffled down the steps, where another guard ordered him to wait.
He was followed by 31 more men and two women. They included the elderly and teenage boys, most looking dishevelled and distressed as they were disgorged from the bus.
None seemed to have any possessions. Then the miserable-looking group was lined up, made to put their hands behind backs, and marched over the road bridge across the Rio Grande back to Mexico.
These were a few of the millions of illegal migrants that Donald Trump has pledged to stop flowing into his nation by building a wall along the entire 1,954-mile border between the United States and Mexico.
This controversial concept became the most potent symbol of the populist insurgency that carried the billionaire property magnate to the White House.
Trump called the wall ‘beautiful’, while lashing out with some of his most caustic words on the campaign about Mexican ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’ flooding into the country. ‘Some of them are good people, I suppose,’ he added grudgingly.
Critics said the flawed idea and foolish language showed Trump’s unsuitability for highest office, while the media mocked his insistence Mexico would be made to pick up the estimated £20 billion bill.
Certainly it did not take long in the bustling Texan border town of Laredo to see the problems, nor to stumble over the scale of fear and loathing inflamed by last week’s election of America’s most unlikely President.
After watching the first of the day’s bus-loads of illegal entrants – who had been rounded up across the United States – being expelled, I strolled 200 yards to historic San Agustin Plaza.
Beside the yellow-painted cathedral and tree-filled square, clusters of men stood around waiting to be hired for work in homes, fields and construction sites at half the daily rate of native workers.
I asked one group their views on Trump. ‘How did he win?’ asked a middle-aged man named Victor. ‘He is so racist towards Mexicans. He thinks we are all bad people.’
A Cuban waiting with them said Trump could build a wall but they would still get in. ‘We’ll build a tunnel,’ he smiled, before adding: ‘These Mexicans are really hard workers. Who do you think is doing all this country’s dirty work?’
The US is a nation founded by migrants and forged into the world’s biggest economy by their endeavours. Yet Trump used these people to tap into deep rage against Washington felt by many white Americans, especially in struggling rural and post-industrial ‘rust-belt’ areas.
This has caused hurt for many of the country’s 56 million Hispanics. ‘I have discovered what white America really thinks about us,’ said Lazaro Garza-Gongora, 80, a retired lawyer and judge who has voted Republican in the past.
‘Trump is a moron who knows nothing about Mexican culture,’ he added. ‘He used the wall as a rallying cry but he was talking about my mother who came from Mexico, and my friends. These are good and honest people who came here to work and make a living.’
His friend Armando Garcia, 76, a long-serving customs official, said they had not realised how white America was fighting back so successfully with Trump. ‘When they say they want their country back they are a bunch of deplorable bigots.’
Garcia pointed out his family had been in the country since the 1840s, a time when the President-Elect’s ancestors were still in Germany and Scotland. ‘His supporters are white people with limited education who think the country belongs only to them.’
Polling data shows Trump’s margin of victory among white voters without a college degree was the biggest for almost four decades. Yet such is the sense of despair over political failure and economic frustration that three in ten Hispanic voters are believed to have backed the brash, bombastic Republican.
I asked Garza-Gongora if he knew any Trump voters. ‘Yes,’ he replied softly. ‘My son.’
These proud elderly patriots – who insisted on buying me lunch – seemed distraught by an election that exposed such profound divisions in their nation. I felt they were desperate to highlight how most Hispanics are so far removed from Trump’s cruel caricature.
But I found even fiercer fury against Trump in Nuevo Laredo, the scruffy Mexican town that sits across the muddy river dividing the nations. ‘If he comes here we will shoot him,’ said one man. ‘He is a racist man and the American people must be racist to have elected him.’
Some swore, sneered or smiled ruefully when I asked them about Trump. ‘Mexicans were angry at being called bad people,’ said truck driver Virgil Gonzales, nursing a beer in a bar. ‘Anyone can be a bad person, so why say just Mexicans?’
Others insisted that since Mexico could not afford decent schools and hospitals, it was not going to pay billions to build a wall it did not want. ‘We are not that crazy,’ said one student.
A steady stream of Mexicans pour over the Rio Grande bridges. Many work in the thriving Texan town opposite, whose 250,000-strong population is almost entirely Hispanic, with Spanish heard frequently on streets filled with family-run taquerias.
Typical was 16-year-old Alex: born in the US, living in Mexico, attending school in Texas. She told me that her teacher had reassured pupils that Trump would not carry out many of his most contentious campaign promises.
These include expelling 11 million illegal immigrants, among them children like her, born in the US. It would be a reversal of current citizenship policy that provoked bitter debate. Will they become victims of what one analyst called a ‘whitelash against a changing country’?
On the Texan side, border guards sit in cars scanning the river, helicopters fly overhead and powerful boats sit at the water’s edge.
Some stretches of border are patrolled by guards speeding up and down on quad bikes. Various sections are staked out with corrugated iron fences, and others with razor wire, in an attempt to stop the desperate risking everything for the chance of a new life in what will soon be Trump’s America.
‘I can’t talk to you,’ said one guard. ‘But there’s good reason I’m sitting here with three helicopters parked just up there.’
They have more on their mind than migrants. Nuevo Laredo is infamous for vicious turf wars fought by drug cartels for control of the lucrative border crossing – and these gangs are behind a heroin boom lacerating the US, and fuelling despair felt in many communities.
But no one I spoke to thought a wall would make a real difference. One municipal official told me that even undocumented migrants can get papers that allow them to travel between the two nations, underlining the web of links spanning the border.
There is good reason why so many Latin American migrants risk life and limb to reach the supposed Land of the Free. Mexico’s minimum wage is £3.37 a day – barely half the hourly rate across the border, where they fill low-paid jobs unwanted by local people.
Back in Laredo, Robert Cano, a 35-year-old sales director and member of the Bandidos ‘outlaws’ biker club, admitted that his wife was angry after he voted on impulse for the former reality television star.
‘We can’t have more of the same,’ he said. ‘The economy is stuck and we don’t see our borders being controlled.’
Yet he confessed to using migrant labour like many others in the town when needing work carried out on his house – since it was cheaper.
Trump visited Laredo last summer, six weeks after he launched his campaign by claiming Mexico was ‘sending people that have lots of problems’ to the US and that he was going to build a ‘great, great wall’ to stop them.
The trip was hosted at short notice by mayor Pete Saenz, who told me he was invited to join Trump on his £80 million Boeing 757 plane, filled with fine art and golden accessories.
‘Within a minute he asked me if it was safe,’ the mayor told me, although the border cities are among the state’s safest. ‘Then he asked if Mexico had a policy of sending its bad guys over here. I told him that was wrong.’
The two men got on well, however. Trump smiled when a man made a rude gesture at him, then told Saenz people loved him when they passed a cheering crowd. ‘I told him not to get carried away – it was just that they’d never seen a rich white Republican around here.’
Trump insisted the US needed the wall. So was the mayor convinced? ‘No, it’s a horrible idea. The majority of people around here don’t want it, except for some landowners who support it to stop trespassing by migrants.’
Others point out the impracticality of building a wall along a winding river’s creeks and gullies, plus the harmful impact on wildlife.
About 650 miles of border is covered already by fences but Trump has insisted ‘a wall is better than fencing and much more powerful’. There is scepticism over whether it will really get built. Mexico insists it will not pay, while Republican lawmakers want to meet Trump’s advisers to discuss cheaper options.
Few people I came across on either side of the river expect to see it materialise. But there is no doubt the idea struck home with ruthless force for disgruntled voters: angry at the changing face of their country, fearful over the future, dismayed by rising drug addiction, depressed by political stasis, and distressed by economic stagnation.
Trump reached these people by talking also about jobs ‘exported’ abroad, threatening a trade war with China and ripping up free trade agreements – especially the 1994 treaty with Mexico and Canada that he called the ‘worst trade deal ever made in the history of the world’.
Yet in Laredo they see it differently, as 14,000 trucks a day trundle over the border loaded with car parts, electronics and fruit – more than three times as many when the deal was signed. This makes it the third biggest US customs port after New York and Los Angeles.
Last year a Congressional report summarised studies into the landmark treaty’s impact, concluding that it ‘did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics.’ Now Trump seeks rebirth of US protectionism, which is alarming for Britain as it seeks post-Brexit deals.
But it is the wall of hate that may define Trump’s takeover of his country.
If built, it will be standing testimony to his shock triumph, a new national symbol for the Disunited States of America.
If he fails, or fudges, it will prove he fools voters like all those mainstream politicians he swept aside with such contempt during the campaign.
There is just one certainty over Trump’s proposed monument stretching from Texas to California – as pointed out to me by a cheerful expelled migrant I met in Nuevo Laredo. ‘It would be built by undocumented Mexicans,’ he said. ‘Like everything else in America.’