Once upon a time, not so long ago, Presidio, Texas, was a thriving farm and ranch town, known around the nation for its cantaloupes and its onions. They even had an onion festival every year and crowned an onion queen. Migrants used to wade across the Rio Grande six days a week to clip onions, getting paid 60 cents for every five pound bucket, and then they’d wade back across. They’d wade over again on Sundays to collect their pay- with US social security and “Lincoln Tax” as they called income tax, withheld. Then beginning in 1985, the U.S. began to crack down on these migrants. The labor pool dried up – Americans didn’t want those jobs – and the town of Presidio slowly shriveled away. The packing plant closed. The trucks no longer ran through town, and the population dwindled. And aged. The fields are now mostly barren except for mesquite, and creosote and tumbleweeds. There’s no need for water to irritate crops that aren’t there anymore and so the farmers sell their precious water rights to distant cities because that’s the only thing they can still harvest.
Across the river it’s a different story. There the water still flows through lush fields because they have the labor pool. The Mexican government with the help of the United States is building a super highway from Ojinaga to Juarez, a city of 2 million, that will cut hours from the trip and make the decaying, circuitous US highway all but obsolete. It will whisk the produce grown on the Mexican side to market. And it won’t just be produce they’ll be carrying. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slimm is one of those behind a pipeline that will carry natural gas from the extraction colonies in Odessa and Midland to Mexico, and that will almost certainly spark manufacturing growth in and around Ojinaga. That’s what happens when a place with ready labor builds things. All we want to build anymore is a wall.
As one old farmer whose thousand plus acres on the American side is overrun with thirsty mesquite and Russian thistle told me as we sat in a hardware store on the dessicated main drag of Presidio, “Mr. Trump wants to build a wall. We had a wall. It was that main street out there. As long as there was work, the people who came over never went any further. They didn’t have to.”