COLUMBUS, N.M. (KRQE) – In 2012, their mayor was convicted of smuggling guns for Mexican drug lords.
Nearly 101 years ago, it was the Pancho Villa raid that left American soldiers and civilians dead, and buildings destroyed.
Columbus, New Mexico has an infamous, deeply trenched history along the United States’ border with Mexico, and the neighboring town of Palomas. While many residents say the cities peacefully co-exist today, a change in United States politics has brought new questions to the border-area that feels like a unified local community split between two countries.
President Donald Trump has promised to build a bigger border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Some residents now wonder what it means for the future of Columbus – New Mexico’s village at the end of the line.
About a four-hour drive south of Albuquerque, roughly 1,700 Columbus residents live at the southern edge of New Mexico and the United States. The majority of Columbus’ town site is about three miles from the border crossing, but its village limits stretch down to the actual border.
On the other side is Mexico and the neighboring town of Palomas with about 5,000 people. Its town site sprawls right up to the large fence separating the U.S and Mexico.
“What we always enjoy about being on the border is the bi-cultural aspect, and learning about Mexico and most of us really love Mexico,” said Mayor Philip Skinner, who’s been living in Columbus for 30 years. Skinner used to operate a business Palomas. His wife is also from Mexico.
While the border is clearly marked with fencing, security cameras, and nearby patrols, Columbus’ maintains a close connection to Mexico, that’s regularly evident, especially during the school year. Several hundred kids cross the border to go to school in Columbus. Those students are American citizens who were born in the U.S., but whose parents are Mexican citizens living in Mexico.
“There’s a lot of interaction between the two (towns,)” said Skinner.
Mayor Skinner would know. Not only has he spent the last three years managing Columbus’ town budget of about $1-million dollars all while operating one of Columbus’ two hotels, the mayor also drives a school bus for the Mexican-American students. It’s just one of the partnerships Mayor Skinner believes is crucial between the U.S. and Mexico.
“I think we’re better off educating them,” said Skinner.
Skinner believes the success of Palomas, Mexico matters to Columbus in the long run.
“If they were to close that border, we’d be at the end of the road then, we’d be no reason for us to exist much, and so, we’re very dependent on Palomas.”
With a new $85 million dollar port of entry or border crossing facility set to built in Columbus, Skinner hopes his economically depressed town can benefit from the cheaper labor in Palomas.
“The model is in place all along the border, that’s maybe business and factories in Mexico, and support service on this (USA) side, warehousing, logistics,” said Skinner. “We need jobs.”
While several local residents from Columbus and Palomas told KRQE News 13 their feelings haven’t changed towards their neighbors, people from both sides explained how they’re worried about the United States’ new political rhetoric towards Mexico that’s come from President Donald Trump’s administration.
“I have worried about that lately,” said Skinner. “If the rhetoric keeps going… where we talk bad about our neighbors and stuff like that, or (we’re) not willing to work with them, cooperate with them and respect them, that won’t lead to good relationships.”
The ‘wall,’ today
A 15-foot high, roughly three-mile-long steel fence already divides Columbus and Palomas. Each square pole of the rust colored fence is about six inches thick and filled with concrete. The fence was built in 2006, during President George W. Bush’s administration. That fence stretches at least a mile and a half in each direction from the Columbus-Palomas border crossing.
U.S. President Donald Trump now says he wants a bigger wall to further secure the border. Where the fence ends outside of Columbus, a barrier between the U.S. and Mexico continues that’s made of pipe and steel jacks. While that’s effective for stopping cars, the barrier is easier for people to cross. The barrier also changes, often times using smaller materials in more remote areas.
Still, the U.S. Border Patrol maintains a heavy presence in the areas without fencing. Patrol crews can be seen all hours of the day, looking on the ground and by helicopter for people who are illegally crossing the border illegally. Their patrols continue into the desolate desert further away from Columbus.
KRQE News 13 asked Mayor Skinner if he thought enhanced border protection was needed in Columbus.
“I don’t see much activity here in Columbus,” said Skinner on the subject of illegal crossings and crime-related to that activity.
Mayor Skinner is adamant that he’s against illegal crossing, but he says much of that activity has died down since the border fence went up in Columbus in 2006. Skinner also points to the increased number of border protection agents on the wall over the last decade.
While Skinner says he is not against the idea of Trump’s proposed border wall, and welcomes the construction jobs it could bring, Skinner also doesn’t think a bigger wall would make Columbus any more secure.
“I don’t think so, no, I just don’t see the (illegal crossing) activity here,” said Skinner.
Skinner’s comments come even with Columbus’ history in mind. In 2011, Columbus made national headlines after federal investigators caught ex-mayor Eddie Espinoza, the Columbus police chief and a town trustee smuggling guns to a Mexican drug cartel.
Skinner doesn’t think a bigger wall would stop that kind of crime, or what some call “narco-corruption.”
“I think it was an example of people doing things wrong, or against the law, but I think we can go anywhere and everywhere and see that example,” said Skinner.
Local residents weigh in
The mayor isn’t the only local thinking about Trump’s wall. A fellow 30 year Columbus resident and historian, Richard Dean says it’s hard to tell what kind of an impact investment in an enhanced border wall would have.
“Do you think that people are ‘pouring in’ from Mexico into this (Columbus) community?” asked KRQE News 13 reporter Chris McKee.
“Well, I think… not into our community, all they do here is they go through,” said Dean.
Dean runs the Columbus, New Mexico Historical Society and its museum inside the town’s old train depot. His great-grandfather, James Todd Dean was one of the civilians killed in the Pancho Villa raid. Today, the great-grandson Richard Dean says he doesn’t feel safety is an issue in Columbus today.
“We’re not too concerned about safety and security,” said Dean.
He believes anyone crossing the border illegally, isn’t sticking around in Columbus.
“If we see them (people crossing the border illegally,) we see them on the run, going north, heading to Albuquerque or again, wherever they have to go, so we are not really affected by it,” said Dean.
Other Columbus residents who spoke with KRQE News 13 weren’t keen on a bigger border wall, either.
“I think Trump is way off base in his fears about immigration,” said Ken Emery of Columbus.
Emery, who’s lived in Columbus for 20 years, says the dynamics behind “illegal immigration” have changed.
“When I first arrived in Columbus, we had a steady stream of undocumented people coming across the border,” said Emery. “A large number of them were family groups, they weren’t considered to be, at least… I didn’t consider them to be dangerous in any way, nor did I find them offensive. That has slowed down, we don’t get that much anymore, for various reasons, probably.”
Emery says he’s also worried about what it means for him as an American citizen who frequents Palomas.
“I feel welcome in Palomas. I don’t want to — as an Anglo, Gringo — I don’t want to be, six months down the road, feel unwelcome when I walk over and I’m afraid that (Trump) may cause adverse feelings on the part of a lot of local Mexican people about Americans,” said Emery.
Another Columbus resident, Carlos Sepulveda says while he agrees with President Trump on somethings, like the president’s stance on the free trade agreement between U.S. and Mexico, Sepulveda says he does not believe a bolstered wall is needed on the border.
“I think there’s diplomatic ways of doing things,” said Sepulveda. “A lot of people in Palomas are American citizens and they work on this side.”
Meanwhile, Palomas resident Jacob Marquez, who helps people carry luggage across the border, says he’s worried about how U.S. – Mexican relations will impact the local communities.
“It’s going to be pretty rough with this new guy in,” said Marquez.
Rafael Calderon wonders what Trump’s proposed wall means for the local, future generation.
“I think, Mr. Trump, what he’s doing is breaking a relationship between Mexico and America,” said Calderon.
Calderon is one of many Mexican parents whose kids go to school in the Columbus / Deming area.
“It’s hard for us. My wife, she’s American, my kids are American, and I’m Mexican, that’s why I’m over here in Palomas, right? I think there’s going to be a lot of people hurt,” said Calderon. “Our kids are Americans, they need school over there (in Columbus,) I tried to put my kids at school here (in Palomas,) they don’t want to go to school in Mexico.”
With hundreds of students to educate in a poor corner of the United States and Mexico, a bus driver who didn’t want to share his name, told KRQE News 13 he thinks money spent on an enhanced wall, could be spent elsewhere.
“To take those millions and billions of dollars, to put up a fence… don’t you think that we could invest that money in something maybe you could use? Or your family could use?” asked the bus driver.
For now, Columbus and Palomas will have to wait for answers from Washington D.C.
Currently, the only plan the U.S. Federal Government has to change Columbus’ border with Mexico is to build the new port of entry or border crossing station near site of the current crossing. Construction should start on that project in early 2017, and is expected to finish in 2019.