In the border towns of Texas, President Trump’s proposed “great wall” has been greeted with a mixture of indifference and derision.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district includes a stretch of South Texas borderland, calls it a “14th century solution to a 21st century challenge.” Construction worker Rolando Almaraz says he doesn’t see the need; a fence already splits up his hometown of Brownsville. Jim Darling, the nonpartisan mayor of McAllen, Texas, says he’d be in favor of a wall—if it were constructed along the city’s floodway system.
“To the average person—just like, the average voter in Wisconsin—the wall is a great idea,” Darling told TIME in late January. “They ought to ask the people on the border.”
Trump is moving forward to fulfill one of his signature campaign promises. In one of his first executive orders, the President instructed the Department of Homeland Security to begin construction on the wall. Officials across the federal government have traveled to border towns to examine the terrain. DHS has already identified locations in Texas, Arizona, and California where existing structures need fixing. And Customs and Border Protection officials recently began soliciting plans for the border wall’s design and construction of a border wall.
But residents and officials in the communities that will be most affected by the project would prefer a more nuanced approach. Illegal immigration is a real problem, says Darling. But the mayor notes that recent surges in border crossing have come from Central Americans seeking asylum—a problem he says calls for a foreign policy solution rather than a wall.
“I always thought they should have sent social workers down,” he says, “as opposed to CBP officers whose job is really to be protecting the border, not processing people seeking asylum.”
Mayor Peter Saenz of Laredo, Texas, an independent, told NPR the wall would be a “disaster” for his city’s trade relationship with Mexico, which generates . “We’re a trade town. That’s our backbone, and our bread and butter, frankly,” Saenz said. “It’s very offensive, frankly.”
Not everyone is against the idea.
Chris Cabrera, the deputy spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, has said he is “100% in favor” of a border wall. Saenz, a Trump supporter, also told NPR he’d be in favor of a “virtual wall,” which would entail more surveillance technology and more border agents. Darling says he believes ranchers in McAllen favor a wall.
“If anybody faces the brunt of illegal entry at least initially, it’s probably the ranchers,” he says. “I’m sure they’re in favor of whatever it would take to reduce the amount of illegals coming across.”
Sergio Sanchez, chair of the Hidalgo County Republican Party, told TIME that the opposition to a wall has been a “knee-jerk, emotional response.” He sees the proposed structure as a partial solution.
Though the Department of Homeland Security has begun identifying where a wall would go, what it will look like is an open question. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has conceded the wall won’t be built all at once, and that parts will be “see-through” so that border agents can surveil the Mexican side.
During his first address before a joint session of Congress last week, President Trump said construction would “soon begin.” But what “soon” means is also up for debate. The wall could cost up to $21 billion,and the federal government, according to Reuters, has so far only identified $20 million on hand to pay for it.