NOGALES, Arizona — The February sun reflects off the concertina razor wire strung across the U.S.-Mexico border wall like razor-sharp tinsel. The wire seemed to bloom overnight, six rows of it, placed all the way to the ground, within reach of playing children or wandering dogs.
On the sidewalk where I stood in Nogales, Arizona, a storefront window displayed mannequin brides, dressed in white wedding dresses. Not 50 feet away, the coils of glinting wire expand like a lethal slinky.
It was morning, and the town of 20,000 was just beginning to wake up. Downtown in the shopping district, a garbage truck rumbled past, and Norteño music played from stereos outside of just-opening shops. Shuttle drivers congregated along the sidewalk, waiting for Tucson or Phoenix-bound passengers to fill their vans.
In November 2018, the Trump administration ordered that the wall at the Nogales port of entry be topped with concertina razor wire. Last week, more rows of wire were suddenly added to the Arizona side of the wall, and stretched much further than the immediate port of entry. And this time, the wire was placed all the way to ground level.
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Concertina razor wire is a form of coiled barbed wire, first used in World War I. It gets its name from a musical instrument which much like an accordion has bellows that expand to produce its sound. It would be a pretty name, if it were not so dehumanizing and brutal an object.
Nogales residents alerted Mayor Arturo Garino, who said he was not told that more wire would be added. “Let me tell you,” he told Arizona Public Media, “They didn’t even have the courtesy to tell us they were doing this in the first place.” He requested to meet with federal officials to discuss the issue but was refused.
A unanimous vote by the Nogales City Council on Feb. 6 resulted in an official resolution demanding that the wire be removed from city limits.
“Concertina wire has sharp razor-like blades that are coiled [and] is designed to entangle its victim as the razors slice/cut deeply into the flesh and causes indiscriminate injury which can be fatal,” reads the resolution. “Placing coiled concertina wire that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death in the immediate proximity of our residents, children, pets, law enforcement and first responders is not only irresponsible but inhuman.”
Indeed, we could follow barbed wire backward in time and find it present during our worst moments as a nation. First patented in 1874 by Joseph Glidden, it was used by land grabbing homesteaders to corral their animals and section off land parcels across the indigenous-occupied West. Thus, Native Americans referred to barbed wire as “devil’s rope.”
Barbed and concertina razor wire have been used to ensnare unsuspecting men on battlefields in faraway places, to imprison Japanese-American families in World War II-era internment camps, to secure modern-day prisons which disproportionately incarcerate people of color. And surely, we have all seen photographs of emaciated children penned into Nazi concentration camps by such wire?
Now, it’s being used to further cut a city in two. For many residents, who have long called their city Ambos (“Both”) Nogales, the border between the U.S. and Mexico is a forced line separating what has historically been a single bi-national community. While in 1918 — after a misunderstanding resulted in a fatal cross-border gunfight — the two countries constructed a mutually agreed-upon fence, the barrier was porous and meant as a friendly method of keeping order. Residents were easily able to cross the border to visit family members or to shop, supporting the economy of both cities.
Fast-forward to the 1990s, when the Clinton administration adopted a border security policy called Operation Gatekeeper, which severely increased Border Patrol presence and turned the friendly line into a fortified wall, made from steel landing strips left over from the Vietnam War. Crossing the border became complicated, and in some cases, impossible. Some families were split up, no longer able to visit with one another.
So began the ritual of visits to the wall, to hold hands and talk between the slats. “Especially on weekends, it’s not uncommon to see people camped out in plastic chairs on the U.S. side, while loved ones in Mexico set up tables and lay out a family meal on the other,” wrote Arielle Ziontes in a 2017 article for the Nogales International.
But Ziontes described the installation of metal sheets of mesh along International Street at a popular meeting place, which reduced visibility and prevented families from being able to touch or hold hands.
Now with the addition of the concertina wire along the Nogales wall, any other meeting places have effectively been sabotaged.
As I stood on International Street, staring through the mesh where family members used to hold hands, I noticed a Border Patrol agent parked in the shade of the wall. He rolled down his window as I approached. I asked him about the wire — when it went up, who installed it, if it will be placed at ground level for the entirety of the wall. He shrugged. He didn’t know anything about infrastructure, he said; that’s not part of his job.
“Is it the National Guard’s?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, and he rolled up the window.
If the Trump administration refuses to tear down the wire, Mayor Garino said he’s prepared to go to court. And it’s not just here in Nogales that officials are pushing back against federal directives to militarize the border. Just before President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered most of the National Guard troops stationed along the New Mexico border to withdraw from their posts, citing a “charade of border fear-mongering.”
In a speech on Feb. 12, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he was withdrawing the 360 National Guard troops stationed at the Mexico-California border. “This border emergency is a manufactured crisis,” he said. “California will not be part of this political theater.”
After deploying additional troops to the southern border in November 2018, Trump spoke at a rally in Bozeman, Montana. “The Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to flood into your communities,” he told the crowd. And then he seemed to reassure them, saying, “We have our military on the border. And I noticed all that beautiful barbed wire going up today. Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.”
But from where I stood in Nogales, the wire was anything but beautiful. The metal coils caught the blinding glare of the sun, and the mid-morning light through the wall made shadows on the ground that looked like jail bars. Just yards away in Mexico, on the other side of the wire, children filed out into a schoolyard. I could see them dribbling a basketball, jumping rope. Their sing-song voices traveled over and through the wall.