Column: Build a wall? Trump should talk to the man who spent 25 years fixing it

Albert Garcia, a former Border Patrol maintenance man, estimates he fixed more than 20,000 holes in roughly 25 years working on the border fence near Calexico, Calif.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

Fence builders began submitting design ideas for President Trump’s promised “big, beautiful wall” this week, so I drove to the border Monday to meet with an expert.

I knocked on the door of a small home in the heart of El Centro, and Albert Garcia, a 76-year-old retiree from the Border Patrol maintenance crew, answered immediately and let me in.

I hadn’t seen him since 2004, when I first wrote about Garcia, who spent more than two decades doing a job that never ended.

He was a welder who fixed holes in the fence, every day, including some weekends.

I’ll never forget the day I met Garcia, in August of 2004. He got to the wall at 6 a.m. that day to begin fixing five holes that had been cut overnight through the 16-foot-high fence of steel pickets. He said five holes was a light day at the office. He had fixed as many as 14 holes in a single shift, either along the chain-link or steel stretches of fencing, and he’d often find blades, cutters and other tools near the breaks.


Then there were those who tunneled under the fence or went over the top using ropes. Others rushed through holes in the wall even as Garcia fired up his welder to plug the openings.

For me, the daily game of cat and mouse along this several-mile stretch of the border was a snapshot of the futility of walls, enforcement and immigration policy. But a wall has been at the center of Trump’s platform since the first days of his candidacy, even though it’s not clear how we’ll pay for a project estimated to cost anywhere from $12 billion to twice as much or more.

I don’t think anything they make is going to hold them back.

— Albert Garcia

Is there a way to build a better fence?

Garcia has his doubts, and would rather not see his tax dollars spent on a wall. And this is a man who voted, as a Democrat, for Trump. He liked the Republican’s take on the economy and defense, and even immigration, up to a point.

“I don’t think anything they make is going to hold them back,” said Garcia, who took an extended vacation at one point in his career because the daily undoing of his work was taking a psychological toll. “They’re going to come across and it doesn’t make any difference. If you can see blue sky, they’ll go up and over the top, or they’ll crawl underneath.”

It’s a short drive from El Centro to the wall in Calexico, and Garcia, a native of this area, knows every paved and dirt road in the region. We passed quilted acres of farmland, and Garcia can identify every crop in the fields — alfalfa, ryegrass, carrots, broccoli, sugar beets and every lettuce variety.

He had nine brothers and sisters, he said, and his dad, who worked in produce, brought all the kids out to the fields to sample the grueling, stooped-over work done by pickers. That was his dad’s way of telling his kids to stay in school.

Garcia said he doesn’t know any white people who work as pickers in this area, and he doesn’t think any of them would if all the immigrants in the country illegally were sent home. That’s just the way it is, he said, and rather than fortifying the wall, he would recommend seasonal work visas.

The All-American Canal runs along the border just west of Calexico, serving as a second barrier for anyone coming across. As we drove the levee road against the canal, Garcia’s trained eye spotted things I missed.

“You see that rope hanging from the top of the wall?” he said.

He also spotted the remnants of a raft that was used to cross the narrow canal.

This was a rough place to work, Garcia said, because of the trees on the Mexico side. People could hide in those trees and throw things at him. He was Border Patrol, the enemy, and sometimes rocks would fly at him. He has two dreams even now. In one, the rocks are coming, and in the other, he is wrestling someone who just busted through a hole in the fence, although that never happened.

Garcia said people used to ask him for money through the fence. He never complied, but he used to give fruit to a pack of kids on the other side because they looked so skinny. Years later, he said, those same kids became coyotes and once asked if he remembered them as boys.

Garcia is no open-borders guy, and his son has been an Immigration and Customs Enforcement cop for years. He said he feels sorry for Mexicans fleeing poverty, corruption and violence, and he’d probably do the same if he were in their shoes.

But some of them do become criminals, he said, and some of them do run up social service costs. As a taxpayer, he doesn’t like having to pay for that.

In downtown Calexico, Border Patrol agents swarmed an area near where I saw Garcia fixing holes in 2004. One agent said three guys who jumped the wall had just been apprehended.

Garcia retired 10 years ago and said he got bored within three months. The Border Patrol then contracted the job out to a private company that wanted Garcia to come back to work. He put in four more years doing the same job, then called it quits.

We did the math together and estimated that Garcia fixed more than 20,000 holes in roughly 25 years. An estimated 11 million people are in this country illegally, but Garcia’s hard work kept a lot of people out, no doubt.

But if it were up to him, he’d shore up electronic surveillance, modernize the wall in places and focus on building a vehicle barricade rather than a human barricade. He said humans will always find a way in, or over-stay visas, but vehicles carry drugs.

Garcia would support some form of penalties and legal status for law-abiding contributors here illegally, rather than foot the cost of mass deportation. And he’d institute a seasonal work visa program so workers can cross legally as needed.

Before Trump moves forward with the wall, I think he’d be wise to come west and talk to a man who knows — from years of experience — what he’s talking about.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez


The question is: Who are you rooting for? Two economists, two views on immigration

Trump’s border wall may be controversial, but some Southern California firms want to build it

Facing Trump’s immigration ban, corporations can’t risk keeping silent