Former President Donald J. Trump paved a path to the presidency in 2016 by calling for a “big, beautiful wall” along the United States border with Mexico.
His 2024 rivals in the Republican primary election, scrapping for every advantage against him, looked north.
Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, has frequently told voters that it’s not just the southern border that needs stepped-up enforcement — “it’s the northern border, too.”
“I think we do whatever it takes to keep people out,” she told reporters on Saturday when asked if her comments meant she supported building a wall. “If that’s what it takes to keep them out, we will do a wall, we will do any sort of border patrol that we need to have.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who ended his bid and endorsed Mr. Trump on Sunday after battling with Ms. Haley for second place behind the former president, had recently suggested building a wall along some trouble spots of the U.S.-Canada frontier. Vivek Ramaswamy, a tech entrepreneur, dropped out of the race last week, but not before trekking up to Pittsburg, N.H., a tiny town that sits just below the jagged, 5,500-mile line that divides the United States and Canada, with a camera crew in tow. He later drew criticism from Canadian journalists and pundits when he proclaimed that the United States should not just build one wall, but two.
In Pittsburg, where residents like Beverly Martin, 79, and Chip Jones, 74, sat at the bar in an eclectic, barnlike restaurant on a recent snowy afternoon, the idea of a border wall along New Hampshire’s northernmost boundary, an isolated, forested region, was anathema.
“Then you have this armed national army that can be used against you and your rights,” Mr. Jones, a Republican and retired fire chief from Massachusetts who winters in the town, said in an interview at Full Send Bar and Grill off Route 3. He paused, mulling it over: “A border wall in Pittsburg — does it just not feel right?”
“It doesn’t,” replied Ms. Martin, who is also a Republican and taught home economics for 18 years at the Pittsburg School down the road. “A lot of people in Pittsburg have relatives on either side of the border, and people from the border towns in Canada come here to work.”
Mr. Trump does not talk about that northern dividing line himself. But he has promised to revive some of his most criticized immigration policies and has escalated his rhetoric, echoing the racial hatreds of Adolf Hitler when he said undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”
The nation’s southern border has loomed large in the psyche of the American electorate. The issue has contributed to President Biden’s low approval numbers and threatened his foreign policy platform. It has also entangled Congress and burdened mayors and local leaders grappling with packed shelters and strained social services as more and more migrant families have been bused to cities around the country.
The now-dwindled G.O.P. field united behind calls to end sanctuary policies and advocated for militarized crackdowns on drug cartels and mass deportations of millions of people who have entered the United States under the Biden administration.
Republican warnings of terrorists, criminals and traffickers have drawn a national spotlight to places like New Hampshire’s northern edge, frustrating some of the people who live along it. Unlike the largely Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, they are not used to being such a prominent part of the national immigration debate.
Pittsburg, which registered a population of 830 people in the most recent Census Bureau report, is the largest township by area in New England, and is known as a destination for snowmobile and ATV enthusiasts, hunters and fly fishers. Longtime border residents can remember when the dividing line up north was, as their counterparts far down south like to say, but “a line in the sand” — or the snow. As in the border towns of states like Texas and Arizona before any barriers were put up, it was not uncommon, some Pittsburg inhabitants said, to see what appeared to be migrants walking or wading across the border.
And like those southern border towns, Pittsburg sits on land that was once fiercely contested — first between the French and British and the Abenaki, who used its wilderness to the north as their hunting grounds, and later between the British and the Americans. The Treaty of Paris, which was signed in 1783 and ended the American Revolution, left the dividing line between what is now Quebec and New Hampshire ill-defined. Frustrated over the disagreement, the residents caught between two nations established their own government, the Indian Stream Republic.
In October, Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who has endorsed Ms. Haley and has been stumping with her across the state in recent weeks, and other state officials announced a tenfold increase in patrols along the northern line. “The vast majority of border crossings come from the southern border, but the majority of border crossings of folks on the terrorist watch list come from the northern border,” Mr. Sununu said in an interview.
The latest statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed that last year’s apprehensions of people entering illegally in the sector that covers New Hampshire, Vermont and parts of upstate New York had reached the highest levels in at least 16 years. Between October 2022 and September 2023, agents intercepted 6,925 people crossing illegally, an increase from 1,065 in that time span one year earlier.
Around the stores and shops that line Route 3, several clerks said they had noticed a few people passing through who did not appear to be locals or the typical winter tourists. But for many, the crossings elicit a shrug. “People have always been coming through Canada,” said Carolyn Therrien, who was ringing up customers at Young’s General Store. “I don’t think the residents are really worried.”
Inside Pittsburg’s town government office on Main Street, a long, wood-paneled building with a pitched roof that also houses its police department, Linda Clogston, the tax collector and treasurer of the local historical association, has worked with community leaders and officials on both sides of the border to set up markers commemorating the Indian Stream Republic and other historical sites. Across the street, the Pittsburg Historical Society Museum houses canoes, drag saws, spiked boots and other artifacts from times when people flowed more easily through the wilderness of the border.
On a recent afternoon, she said Pittsburg residents seemed more concerned with rising property prices than with who was coming across the border.
Around town, there is anecdotal evidence of the Trumpian wave that has hit other rural parts of New Hampshire and the United States. Pro-Trump flags and signs hang from the walls of some homes and stick out of yards. On the side of the road, a “Build the Wall” sign was tacked to an evergreen tree. With the primary coming up, immigration was cited by several voters as a top election concern — but they were usually referring to the southern border.
Wayne Dorman, 71, a conservative Democrat and owner of a concrete business, said he was not opposed to the government stepping up resources along the northern border. But he contended that the harsh wilderness was enough to keep people out. “I mean, we’re not Texas,” he said.
In New Hampshire, the issue of immigration has gripped the Republican electorate since Patrick J. Buchanan, a conservative commentator, clinched an upset victory in the primary in 1996. Mr. Trump won in 2016 with views on the issue that tapped into the party’s base of white working-class voters who felt alienated from the political system. A recent Boston Globe/USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that a majority of the state’s Republican voters said it was the most important issue facing the country.
“It could be the single largest issue in front of us in this election,” rivaled only by the economy, said Chris Ager, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
But nearly two-thirds of those surveyed were not concerned about the state’s northern border with Canada.
Ever since state polls showed Ms. Haley cutting into Mr. Trump’s lead in New Hampshire, he and his allies have been on the attack — in particular, going after her record on immigration as governor. Ms. Haley, asked Saturday at a campaign stop in Peterborough, N.H., if she would support a wall along the Canadian border, was noncommittal.
“Whatever it takes to keep people out that are illegal from coming in — we’ll do it,” she said.
Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting from Manchester, N.H.