News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What do border politics look like along the U.S.-Mexico border?


Congress is debating immigration again this week, and we have another of our border stories. Immigration looks different depending on your experience. So we've been hearing many perspectives, and today, we meet someone who has lived on both sides of the border. We found her at a bed and breakfast that she owns.

With the American flag out front, a stone porch, brick walls, beautiful old house, early 20th-century house.

In the border city of Nogales, Ariz. While immigration is an issue everywhere, it looks a certain way along the border. And we heard the complexities from a local family that includes Esther Lopez, who's on the Nogales City Council. She met us at her B&B gate.

ESTHER LOPEZ: OK, so welcome.

INSKEEP: Her house faces railroad tracks.


INSKEEP: And trains passed as we talked, pulling products out of Mexico. The living room is decorated with images of one of Mexico's great cultural exports.

Is that a picture of Frida Kahlo over there?

Pictures of the painter are on the walls, the mantelpiece and the tables of this place called Frida's Inn. You could think of Esther Lopez as a product of Mexico herself.

E LOPEZ: Originally, I'm from Nogales, Sonora.

INSKEEP: That's the other Nogales, just south of the border. Some immigrant journeys are thousands of miles around the world, but hers was not.

How many miles from this bed and breakfast was your home where you grew up?

E LOPEZ: A mile (laughter). A...

INSKEEP: One mile?

E LOPEZ: ...Mile and a half.

INSKEEP: A mile...

E LOPEZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...And a half?

E LOPEZ: It's just about - just crossing the border.

INSKEEP: She grew up in Mexico while attending Catholic school in the U.S. She later married and moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s. It was easier to do that when migration was less intense.

E LOPEZ: I don't see the point why people complain about all of the ones that legally come to the United States. I mean, it's an option for us to live wherever we want. So as long as you have an opportunity, a better opportunity, just take it.

INSKEEP: I feel that your story illustrates something. People think of the border as being something with two sides, which it has, but it's also one region.

E LOPEZ: Oh, yeah. That's the way it is.

INSKEEP: And she kept crossing back and forth, sometimes working on the Mexican side and even delivering her children in Mexico, where healthcare is cheaper. Eventually, the whole family became U.S. citizens. These days, her American bed and breakfast sometimes hosts Mexican women who prefer to deliver their children on U.S. soil.

So, they come from Hermosillo to have babies?

E LOPEZ: Uh-huh.

INSKEEP: Meaning they want their babies to be United States citizens?

E LOPEZ: Yeah.


She says some people complain about noncitizens claiming birthright citizenship for their kids this way, but she says the visitors pay their bills and return to Mexico without asking for anything. Esther Lopez takes a different view of people who come from farther away. As a city council member, she knows many residents are uncomfortable with asylum-seekers who've crossed the border in recent years.

E LOPEZ: I'm sorry, but we don't want them around.

INSKEEP: Why not?

E LOPEZ: Because who's going to afford them?

INSKEEP: She says asylum-seekers need shelters or transportation, which some do. Many come from countries beyond Mexico, and she doesn't see them as part of her border region.

E LOPEZ: I know that we're supposed to give opportunity for everybody. First of all, we don't know their language. They don't speak English.

INSKEEP: Esther Lopez is part of a political family. Her son Marco grew up to win election in the year 2000 as mayor of Nogales in his early 20s. His inaugural picture is on the bed and breakfast wall.

E LOPEZ: The face is a baby face (laughter).

INSKEEP: Marco later served as a federal immigration official in President Obama's administration. To hear how he sees border politics, we met him separately at a botanical garden north of Tucson, Ariz.

MARCO LOPEZ: Watch out for this cactus.

INSKEEP: I'm convinced I'm going to get a faceful here.

Marco is a trim man in his 40s and looks only a little older than in that picture on his mother's wall. He says he got into politics for a reason.

M LOPEZ: Giving a voice and hope to the younger generation that they could get involved and they had a place.

INSKEEP: Border issues shaped his career. Security in Nogales tightened after the 9/11 attacks. Later, when he was in the Obama administration, Congress debated reshaping the immigration system but didn't act.

M LOPEZ: Fourteen years later, 13 years later, we're still not any further ahead.

INSKEEP: Now asylum-seekers are arriving in greater numbers than the system was designed to handle, and this has political effects. Nationwide, majorities of Latinos have usually voted for Democrats, but in recent elections, Marco Lopez has watched as some groups of Latinos along the border have voted for Republicans.

M LOPEZ: Why? Because they're leaving home every day, like my dad did at 6:30 in the morning, to go work on a construction site, to go work in an industry, and they see that now they have competition.

INSKEEP: You're saying there are people who say, I worked hard; I played by the rules; and these other people are jumping the line and not playing by that?

M LOPEZ: A hundred percent.

INSKEEP: This month on MORNING EDITION, we heard a Republican member of Congress, a Mexican immigrant who wants more Latinos to vote Republican. Democrat Marco Lopez thinks they might, if Democrats aren't careful. Earlier this year, senators agreed on bipartisan changes to immigration rules. Then presidential candidate Donald Trump told Republicans the compromise was no good.

M LOPEZ: One guy picks up the phone and says, keep this my political issue for my presidential campaign, and so they don't support it.

INSKEEP: Do you think that Trump actually did solidify his support in Arizona with people who might vote for him by rejecting that immigration proposal?

M LOPEZ: So did he solidify his people who were going to vote for him anyway? Maybe. But I think that what you end up doing is - in communities like Nogales - is you end up alienating Latino men because that's the swing that is teeter-tottering between voting Democrat like they traditionally do or going towards Trump.

INSKEEP: Lopez says they want a solution, not obstruction. In the U.S. Senate, his fellow Democrats are pushing that message by calling this week's revote on the immigration bill. Lopez also wants to speak bluntly about Trump and his calls for mass deportation. Lopez portrays such ideas as a threat even to many citizens.

M LOPEZ: There's nothing wrong with saying, you know what? He is a racist. And in Arizona, when these racist policies get instituted, a individual that looks like me, that's Latino, is going to get harassed, whether I have documents or not because there's no, you know, D for documents on my forehead. And I talk to them, and I try to convince them in saying, hey, so you want to vote for this guy. You know that you're just a target as the guy who just came in from Guatemala?


INSKEEP: Arizona is one of the states that will decide control of the Senate and the presidency. Its many Latino voters will make an especially personal judgment about how they see the politics of immigration.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.