By Abbie Burke and Diana Pinzon
NOGALES, Ariz. (WPRI) – Ever since President Donald Trump kicked off his campaign for the Oval Office, a big topic of discussion has been whether or not there’s a need for a border well.
While the debate in Washington rages on, members of the organization The III% United Patriots are taking action. Every year, men and women in the group travel hundreds of miles to volunteer to patrol the border. They say their goal is to try to stop the flow of drugs and people entering the United States illegally.
This year, their mission took them to the Coronado National Forest, just outside the border city of Nogales, Arizona.
A member of the group who goes by the name “Big Bird” explained, “I wanted to meet the rest of the national leaguers. I’m a state leader [in the group] and so I wanted to meet in person the rest of the guys and do my part.”
The group is not sanctioned by any law enforcement agency and members have no authority to make any arrests, but they do run the risk of interacting with the Mexican drug cartels, so each member uses a call sign for safety.
“What we do down here is not vigilante justice, we have no special privileges,” a member who goes by the name “.50 Cal” said. “Our job is to observe. Our job is to collect as much information as we can. Our job is to track these folks, get a location, get it to the Border Patrol and let the Border Patrol handle the arrest.”
Some members have made the trip several times, but almost every newcomer is surprised upon seeing the border for the very first time.
“It’s just strange how you can just hop it, there’s nothing to it,” said a member named “Gimli.”
On site, there were signs that people had crossed through the fence, including barbed wire that had been cut for easier access to the other side.
For 10 days the group patrolled the desert, day and night, looking for signs of life. They didn’t come into contact with anyone, by the group still considered the mission a success.
“We were told last night by the head of the station here in the Sonoita area that we have locked down a 30 mile stretch of border and that they’ve seen no activity come through since we’ve come in and put patrols out and started locking down this border,” said “.50 Cal.” “To me that’s a mission accomplished.”
While some Border Patrol Agents appreciate the presence of these men and women, Border Patrol Agent Daniel Hernandez and Public Information Officer said Border Patrol doesn’t condone anybody trying to help them out.
“Securing our nations borders is very dangerous and interdicting narcotics or deterring or apprehending individuals in the United States requires highly trained law enforcement personnel,” he said. “And we receive the training, the know-how and the resources to conduct interdiction operations with either smuggling of humans or drugs and we don’t want anybody taking that approach on their own.”
Still the U.S. Border Patrol and The III% United Patriots can’t be at the border all the time, so some people believe a wall, or at least a more substantial structure, is needed.
“It will help, it will absolutely help. It won’t stop it, but I think like I told you earlier, I’m real happy if it knocks it down by 80 percent,” said “Ghost.”
Opponents believe a wall is just a waste of money.
“When you have people that are that determined to come over, because of the poverty, the persecution, the drugs, the corruption, the gangs, that there’s no hope at all, do you think a wall is going to stop them?” asked Tony Estrada, sheriff of Santa Cruz County in Nogales.
“A wall is not going to stop them. It’s just going to be another obstacle and it may be the easiest obstacle that they have to face and they will conquer it,” said Estrada.
Congressman Joe Kennedy, a Democrat who represents Southeastern Massachusetts, said he agrees that a border wall is not the answer.
“It is the most expensive and least effective way to secure our border,” Kennedy said. He believes that a lot of today’s immigration problems could have been dealt with four years ago.
“Back in 2013 the Senate passed a bill that had a veto-proof majority, nearly 70 senators, Democrats and Republicans, on board that had enough support to pass a Republican House,” he said. “Speaker Boehner never even let us have a vote on it.”
Kennedy said the bill contained a comprehensive fix that had support from the business community, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor unions, faith-based organizations and immigrant activists.
“That bill created a huge economic boost that then used part of it to increase funding for our border guards, to take some of the economic gains and reinvest it on securing the border,” said Kennedy.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 415,000 people were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol in 2016 for being inside the United States illegally. So far in 2017, that number stands at 170,000 people.
“I want to build the wall. We have to build the wall. We have to stop drugs from pouring in. We have to stop people from just pouring into our country,” President Trump said recently.
Right now, miles of the border are separated by nothing more than a small metal fence – and in other areas, there’s nothing at all.
“We need to protect our border, be it a fence or be it extra border patrol officers down here, we need to do something to secure our borders,” said “Big Bird.”
Kennedy said he believes investing in additional resources, like technology, would be much more effective.
“This country has been for now decades an important signal to the vulnerable, the persecuted, the folks that are living in fear, that this is a country that will welcome, that this is a country where they can invest in themselves and a better future for their children,” Kennedy said. “If we lose that as a nation, we have lost something that you cannot just write a check for and try to win back.”
RI delegation argues wall money could be better spent
Rhode Island’s all-Democratic congressional delegation agreed with Kennedy’s stance against the border wall.
“I have long said that maintaining control of our borders is an essential part of our national security, but President Trump’s claims about a porous southern border oversimplify the challenges we face in our immigration policy,” said Congressman Jim Langevin.
“Relying on a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants is inefficient and ineffective, which is why Congress has consistently focused on using sensors and other high-tech solutions to help monitor the border,” said Langevin. “I remain hopeful that Congressional Republicans will reconsider taking up the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013, which contained provisions to strengthen border security, reform our visa programs, and help address the millions of unauthorized immigrants already in the country.”
“We need real border security and comprehensive immigration reform,” said Congressman David Cicilline. “That means thoroughly vetting anyone who seeks to come to our country and creating a pathway to citizenship for families who are already living here.”
“Unfortunately, President Trump isn’t interested in real solutions,” Cicilline continued. “He wants to spend $20 billion on a border wall that his own Homeland Security Secretary has said won’t keep us safe. The American people deserve better than Donald Trump’s half-baked ideas. They deserve a real plan.”
“President Trump’s ridiculous border wall would be a monument to lousy policy,” said U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. “It would also be a monumental waste of money, financed with funding plucked from programs that are vital to Rhode Islanders and important to our economy.”
“The real immigration solution is more complex, and it already exists in the form of the comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform we passed out of the Senate in 2013,” said Whitehouse.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed hasn’t responded to a request for comment yet, but in the past has said that he thinks there are more effective ways to control illegal immigration than building a border wall.