On the border, waiting for the big, beautiful wall

·National Correspondent
Border wall on the California side near Yuma, Ariz. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
Border wall on the California side near Yuma, Ariz. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, Yahoo News visited towns and cities across the country, speaking to voters who had supported Donald Trump in the election. As the shape of his administration emerged, we asked voters if they were happy with their choice and optimistic about the future. Here is some of what we found:

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YUMA, Ariz. — He once referred to it as “The Great Wall of Trump.”

Of all the promises Donald Trump made during his insurgent bid for the presidency, it was his pledge to build a “a big beautiful wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico that voters tend to remember the most. “Not a fence,” the president-elect scolded a reporter during his pre-inauguration press conference last week, with a wag of his finger. “A wall.”

In small towns and large, in border states and those closer to Canada than Mexico, the New York billionaire talked vividly at every single campaign stop during his 17-month quest for the White House about the wall. He deemed it vital to not only curtailing illegal immigration and the flow of drugs but to protecting the country from hardened criminals, terrorists and “God knows who else” — people he claimed were pouring over the southern border in droves, largely unchecked.

Though its height often varied, ranging from 10 feet to 20 feet and sometimes taller, depending on if he’d seen someone criticizing it on cable news that day, Trump, never one to shy away from hyperbole, insisted the wall would be “incredible” and “magnificent.” It would be tough and strong and “great, great, great.” “Nobody builds better walls than me, believe me,” the real estate mogul frequently bragged. “You are going to be so happy.”

But here in Yuma, one of the few towns along the southern border where the New York businessman triumphed over Hillary Clinton last November, a man named Robert, who enthusiastically voted for Trump, offered just one criticism of the incoming Republican president — though, he allowed, it was a big one. The wall that Trump has vowed to build is “bullshit,” he bluntly declared. “The wall is never gonna happen.”

And he has more expertise on this subject than most. Robert, who declined to use his full name because of sensitivity about his job, has worked on the border here for more than 10 years, dating back to an era before the existing fence was built, when it was, as he described it, a true “frontera.”

Border Wall on the California side near Yuma, AZ. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
Border wall on the California side near Yuma, Ariz. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

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Located about 15 miles from the heart of downtown Yuma, the stretch of border here is among the trickiest in the country to guard, running from deep in the rocky desert to the sweeping vistas of the Imperial Sand Dunes, where the wind transforms the landscape by the hour. Drug runners from the cartels used to freely smuggle their bounty across the border in dune buggies, through an area that was the setting for Jabba the Hutt’s sandy lair in “The Return of the Jedi,” as they made for nearby Interstate 8, which parallels the border all the way to San Diego.

A decade ago, President George W. Bush, after zooming around the area in a Border Patrol dune buggy, allocated money for a “floating fence” that some call the Sand Dragon, built of 16-foot-tall concrete-filled steel tubes that rise and fall with the dunes.

Completed in late 2008, the floating fence has been credited with dramatically decreasing the number of migrants trying to sneak across the border and is said to have slowed what used to be an open road for drug trafficking — though the cartels are still out in force, sneaking marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the U.S.

Workers are on the border here daily, using equipment to move and shift sand in a tedious effort to keep the fence clear for the Border Patrol, which monitors the area with agents in special four-wheel-drive trucks and dune buggies and by electronic surveillance, including tower-mounted cameras and sensors that detect movement in the dark.

It’s a dangerous job for everyone, according to Robert. Even in broad daylight, people working the border have been shot at by the cartels, which have tried to breach the fence by burrowing underneath or by using welding torches to cut holes big enough to racecars through. A few years ago, in the middle of the night, someone tried to drive a Jeep Cherokee over the fence by hanging a makeshift ramp from the Mexico side into the U.S., but they took their bounty and ran when the vehicle got impaled on the fence.

Border Wall on the California side near Yuma, AZ. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
Border wall on the California side near Yuma, Ariz. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

Robert is the first to say they need more help here. Though the number of people trying to cross the border here has slowed, people still come — fewer Mexicans these days than people from Central America and points further south. Not long ago, he watched a visibly pregnant woman climb the fence and fall, breaking both of her ankles. And that was one of the less grisly injuries he’s seen. He does not dispute Trump’s assertion that anybody could sneak through, especially less fortified parts of the border further east toward New Mexico, where there are spots so insecure that that you can jump over barriers “like you’re stepping over your sawhorse in your garage.”

Trump, Robert said, is just wrong when he uses the word “wall” to describe what needs to happen on the border. “It can’t be done. [Unmanned aerial vehicles], sensors, technology, that will be the wall. But you say ‘wall’ to people, and they picture the Chinese or the Berlin wall. Or the Israeli wall. Now the Israeli wall, there’s a wall,” he said. “But that’s not gonna happen in America. We cannot do it. We’d have to kill half the environmentalists … and go against treaties. And then you have geographical issues.”

Still, he voted for Trump because he believes he can help secure the border and invest in a project that he describes as being as important as the Statue of Liberty. Trump’s “direction is right,” Robert said. But to use the word wall is “misleading.” “We need exactly what he’s talking about … But it’s not going to be a wall.”

Border Wall on the California side near Yuma, AZ. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
Border wall on the California side near Yuma, Ariz. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

That is the only criticism that Robert has of the incoming president. Though he thought Trump was unqualified at first, he came to like the New York businessman for his blunt talk and focus on job creation and border security. After eight years of “mismanagement,” he sees Trump as the “prescription this country needs right now.”

“I hope he kicks ass,” Robert said. “I hope he kicks ass like no other. Is he going to be successful in every one of his braggadocious claims? Hellll nooo! But if he does 60 percent, that’s the switch we need.”

Slideshow: Along the U.S.-Mexico border >>>