COLUMBUS – The gargantuan steel posts in the midday sun cast an imposing shadow across the tan earth. With feet bound in concrete, the towering structure cuts along the desert, with unfinished spaces revealing blue sky and Mexico on the other side. As the country is ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest and an economic downturn, the border wall is well underway in southern New Mexico. And James Johnson couldn’t be happier.
The third-generation farmer, wearing sunglasses, blue jeans and dusty work boots, beamed as he talked about the wall that winds alongside the southern edge of his farm, about 12 miles west of Columbus.
“It’s beautiful. I mean, we’re ecstatic,” Johnson, the owner of Carzalia farms, told the Journal.
The border wall, which was promoted as a measure to crack down on illegal immigration, was a focal point of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. It remained as a major issue long into his presidency. The wall has garnered less attention this year as the COVID-19 pandemic and an invigorated fight for social justice rose to the forefront of media coverage and political discourse.
It was just over a year ago that Johnson told the Journal he was “eager” to see the wall built and even granted the federal government an easement to get the ball rolling.
Johnson said that construction began on Aug. 5 and that he was told the portion along his farm would be finished by January. Officials could not be reached to confirm how much of the wall has been completed.
“It was a shock to us because it’s been tied up in politics for so long that we were afraid that it wasn’t going to happen,” Johnson said, adding that he’s been frustrated by the political back-and-forth on the wall.
“I’m dismayed by our representation in Washington that, in the past, supported this, and now they act like it’s such a bad thing,” Johnson said.
Across the state, residents are on the fence about the issue.
A little more than half of likely voters in New Mexico would prefer to stop building the wall, according to a recent Journal Poll. And 38% of voters support the wall, while 10% don’t know or said “it depends.”
Local leaders say the construction has brought a slight boom to small towns hit hard by the pandemic. Wildlife advocates warn that the wall will harm a variety of animals and their migration patterns.
For Johnson, the wall will take a “massive weight” off his shoulders after years of dealing with theft, abandoned immigrants and wayward cattle. The farmer estimates that in the past 40 years the farm has lost alfalfa, cattle and thousands of bags of onions to thieves from across the border who sell the stolen goods in Mexico.
Johnson said the wall will also serve a “humanitarian” purpose by dissuading human smuggling.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve found wandering in the desert because their coyote left them, abandoned them, dehydrated, hungry,” he said. “Now that the wall is built, we can focus our efforts on a good guest worker program and a good immigration program.”
Mario Escalante, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, could not give exact numbers of how many people attempt to cross into the area from Mexico. He said rural stretches such as this one are always attractive to smugglers.
“That’s the perfect environment for criminal organizations to operate in, because they can try and go undetected,” Escalante said, adding that the agency deploys its resources – border wall, technology and manpower – to areas where the greatest need is seen.
Johnson said the wall will prevent his cattle from wandering into Mexico.
Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, said the wall will also stop animals that need to cross for survival. In the long run, he said, it could lead to species being wiped out.
The border hosts a variety of wildlife, he said, and around the Bootheel are whitetail deer, jaguars and Mexican gray wolves. Those animals move back and forth across the border to access water, food and mates.
With the wall, Bixby said, populations of those animals will be divided into smaller populations, increasing the risk of their “disappearing” over time.
In the case of the wolves, which are endangered, he said the border wall will split the Mexican gray wolf population south of the border from the reintroduced wolves in New Mexico and Arizona and reduce their genetic diversity.
Bixby said it’s too soon to tell what the full impact will be, especially considering that there have been no standard environmental impact studies as are usually done for a major federal construction project.
“They’re not occurring because the administration has waived all those laws that require those studies,” he said. “So it’s just being built without consideration and any research into what the impacts are.”
As for the people who live just north of the wall, Columbus Mayor Esequiel Salas said it has contributed to his town’s survival.
“If it hadn’t been for all the people that are working on the border wall, Columbus, I think, would’ve dried up and blown away by now,” he said, adding that the town would be in “dire shape” without it.
Salas said that the effects of the pandemic – closing of businesses and restaurants – hit the town hard but that residents have benefited from a little boost in business since the wall workers came around. For example, he said, the grocery store in town is doing so well it was able to get a new fleet of carts.
In addition, he said, some of the locals and tradespeople, such as welders, in the community now have jobs in wall construction.
Salas said the new business from those working on the border wall has somewhat “balanced out” the loss of business from Mexican citizens who could no longer cross to shop after border policies were tightened.
“Not 100%, but enough to keep the business from failing,” he said.
Although business has increased, Salas doesn’t think it will counter the eventual damage wrought by COVID-19 – which he believes will last well into 2021 and, possibly, beyond.