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Border Communities React To Trump's State Of The Union Address

President Trump claps at his first State of the Union address in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol to a joint session of Congress Tuesday.
Win McNamee AP
President Trump claps at his first State of the Union address in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol to a joint session of Congress Tuesday.
Border Communities React To Trump's State Of The Union Address
Border Communities React To Trump's State Of The Union Address GUEST:Jean Guerrero, Fronteras Reprter, KPBS News

Our top story on KPBS Mid-Day Edition, the president's first state of the union was longer than usual and well received by Republicans. The booming economy, the new tax law, and national security were big themes last night, along with immigration, but many of the presidents claims had fact checkers a scrambling and typically some of the claims were not supported by independent facts. Jean Guerrero spoke with a number of San Diego's who watched the address, and she joins me now. >> Thank you Marine. >> What were the San Diego's you spoke with hoping to hear the president to say before the speech? >> Obviously the border wall, the topic of the border wall was of major concern for people here in San Diego, primarily because that is what is holding up negotiations in Congress in regards to the dreamers, the people who Trump has said will get a pathway to citizenship. About 1.8 million people who were brought here illegally as children. Those negotiations have reached a standstill over the subject of the wall, because there is so much disagreement about it. And I think that a lot of the San Diego's that I spoke with prior to the state of the union address were saying that they are interested in hearing if he brings that up again or if he is going to be tough on demanding the wall or if he is going to back away from that. >> Of course the president did bring up the dreamers and the wall. What kind of reaction did you hear about that from the people you spoke with? >> People are divided. There are people in San Diego who do support the wall, largely people who live in East County and rural areas who have seen an uptick in illegal cross-border traffic since the first wall was built in the 90s and early 2000's. A sort of rerouting of illegal traffic that we saw from San Diego into rural areas. And they say that they definitely want a wall and they were hoping that Trump would bring it up, and they were glad that he did. That he said the border wall is essential for securing our borders, but then a majority of those I spoke with were actually upset that he brought up the wall because they felt that it would stand in the way of finding an agreement in Congress in regards to the dreamers. >> Here is what the president said about border issues. >> For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives. >> And there was an audible hiss from Democrats in the chamber when the president spoke incorrectly about the way the immigration program of family unification works. All of this gene, to the people you spoke with think there will be a deal between Democrats and Republicans for the DACA recipients? >> There is mostly uncertainty right now over whether there will be a deal, while the tone was generally temperate, compared to other speeches, when it came to immigration, it really wasn't. At least that is what the people who watched it were telling me that they felt -- the tone in regards to immigration was actually very divisive. When he talks about the innocent lives that have been claimed by the MS-13 gang which she repeatedly mentioned in this speech, people were very alarmed about his repeated mentions of MS-13. They felt it equated illegal immigration with criminality, and kind of stoked fears and outrage about immigration in general, so that divisive tone is something that was very concerning to people here in San Diego. >> You also spoke with business leaders about what they were hoping to hear about border trade. The president did not mention NAFTA in the speech, but he did mention trade, here's a clip. >> The era of economic surrender is totally over. From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and very importantly -- reciprocal. >> How did the business people you spoke with react to that? >> So, they were pretty relieved that Trump did not come out and specifically say anything negative about NAFTA, but that comment that we just heard in particular was pretty concerning to the business community in San Diego, because we do have so many industries here that rely on cross-border trade, on immigrant workers through NAFTA. So, one of the main topics of concern for people watching the state of the union was NAFTA, and whether Trump was going to take a more favorable stance towards that treaty. We have more than $40 billion worth of goods that are imported and exported every year beef -- between San Diego and Tijuana and integrated supply chains and auto-parts and aerospace. A lot of these businesses are concerned about how Trump is going to move forward with that treaty and they were listening to the state of the union, hoping that he would not say anything negative. He did not say anything negative about NAFTA specifically, so that was relieving to a lot of the people I spoke with. >> The president made a statement about his commitment to Americans. >> My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities. And also their right to the American dream. Because Americans are dreamers too. >> The statement that Americans are dreamers too, what did the people you spoke with take that to mean? >> A lot of people found that comment to be offensive, particularly in the immigrant rights communities that I spoke with because it sort of excludes the dreamers from the concept of Americanism. And a lot of the dreamers here in San Diego, they consider themselves to be American. They have been here since they were children, in many cases they do not speak Spanish, so they consider themselves to be Americans, and when the president says that Americans are dreamers also, it kind of excludes them from that concept, so people did not know how to interpret that comment, but a lot of people did interpreted negatively. >> I have been speaking with Jean Guerrero, thank you. >> Thank you. Mesic Mac.

Border Communities React To Trump's State Of The Union Address
Across San Diego, the President's comments during his first State of the Union address may have deepened rifts on border security.

The morning after President Trump's first State of the Union address, San Diego's divisions on the topic of border security were literal and stark.

Home to the country's busiest port of entry and the prototypes for President Trump's border wall, the site of the first U.S.-Mexico border fences in the early 20th century, San Diego is often ground zero for policy changes pertaining to immigration and the wall.

Immigrant rights activists organized watch parties, whacking apart piñatas of the wall prototypes with wooden poles. Some watched from inside their homes. Others went to bed early, more interested in getting up before dawn for a glimpse of the super blue blood moon, than Trump's remarks.

Many San Diego residents saw Trump's address as polarizing when it came to the topic of border security. The President highlighted the case of two teenage girls murdered by the MS-13 gang, featuring the grief-stricken family's faces on national television.

"It just painted such a negative picture, and it doesn’t acknowledge any of the economic benefits of immigration," said Paola Avila, vice president of international business affairs for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Avila said she found it "dangerous" that Trump repeatedly mentioned the violent MS-13 gang and the American lives it has claimed, a feature of the speech she thought was designed to fuel fear and outrage about immigration in general.

She said the business community in San Diego was alarmed by this because of the local economy's dependence on cross-border trade and immigrant workers.

"You’re feeding into fears or misperceptions for people that will take you out your word, for people who don’t specialize in these policies," Avila said. "They have busy lives, they have their own jobs, they rely on leaders for information, leaders such as our President."

A San Diego resident breaks a piñata of one of the border wall prototypes during a State of the Union watch party, Jan. 30, 2018.
Pedro Rios / American Friends Service Committee
A San Diego resident breaks a piñata of one of the border wall prototypes during a State of the Union watch party, Jan. 30, 2018.

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While Trump reiterated his commitment to finding a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million "Dreamers," or people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, he also repeated his demand for a border wall. Disagreements regarding the border wall have repeatedly kept Congress from reaching an agreement on immigration this month.

In San Diego, many residents were hoping Trump would avoid the topic of the wall because of its inherent divisiveness and the fact that it has become a roadblock in negotiations regarding the fate of the Dreamers.

Some immigrant rights advocates in the region found that most of them support increased border security measures such surveillance technology and more U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the ports of entry, but not a physical wall.

They believe a wall stronger than the existing one would be needlessly expensive, leading to a rerouting of illegal traffic into the ocean (via panga boats), into the sky (via drones), into the earth (via underground tunnels) and into the remote desert — a trend seen in the 1990s and early 2000s.

"They built fences where they needed to build them," said Jason Wells, chief executive of San Ysidro's Chamber of Commerce. "Now we need to be looking at technology."

SPECIAL PROJECT: America's Wall: Decades-Long Struggle To Secure US-Mexico Border

Calls for a wall and Trump's hardline stance on immigration have hurt business in south San Diego, Wells said. Mexicans are boycotting U.S. products and choosing to shop in Tijuana instead of San Diego. Others are crossing the border less frequently due to fears about having their visas taken away by customs officers.

Wells said Trump has already built a "psychological wall" that caused a 35 percent drop in revenues for businesses in San Ysidro during the first year of his administration.

Resentment about Trump's rhetoric in Mexico has also fueled the rise of a populist candidate for president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who appears less willing to cooperate with the U.S. than any Mexican president in recent history. This could have a direct impact on the number of jobs and the cost of goods in San Diego.

RELATED: Tijuana Retail Reaping Profits That Once Flowed To San Diego

"We're not opposed to border enforcement per se," said Christian Ramirez, the human rights director for Alliance San Diego. "What we're saying is let's have border policy that is not going to undermine our environment, that is not going to stifle the economic vitality of the region."

But some San Diego residents were happy about Trump's mention of the wall, particularly in East County's rural areas, where much of the illegal cross-border traffic was pushed after border enforcement was ramped up around the city of San Diego under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

"I resent having a wall, but with the talk of amnesty, our illegal immigration traffic has increased out here, and I've had to call Border Patrol more in the last month than in the last year," said Donna Tisdale, a Boulevard resident.

Joshua Wilson, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council's San Diego chapter, said the speech left Border Patrol agents hopeful that a wall will be built, making their jobs safer and easier.

"It’s just nice to have a commander in chief who supports us in our mission," he said.

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