• U.S.

The Great Wall of America

19 minute read
David Von Drehle

The smuggler was surprised to see us. It’s his business to monitor traffic along his stretch of the border, and he had just watched from his hiding place as a white-and-green patrol truck rolled slowly past on the U.S. side. The day shift was ending for “la migra,” the border patrol, so it was time for him to move.

He urged his clients–11 illegal aliens–to get over the fence quickly. Within minutes, all were safely across the border about five miles (8 km) west of Naco, Ariz.–roughly the same spot where Coronado and his conquistadores made the first recorded crossing in 1540. The smuggler was brushing their footprints from the border road when our four-wheel-drive rental appeared unexpectedly over the hill.

He did what smugglers always do when spotted: he bolted. In an instant he was safely back on the other side, leaving his customers to their fate. They followed him, bewildered, only gradually realizing that we were journalists, not federal agents. In this way, we had a chance to see how a group of ordinary Mexicans–one a grandmotherly woman, another a 10-year-old boy–cope with the U.S. government’s new $1 million-per-mile border-security fence.

First they tossed their day packs over the 12-ft. (3.7 m) barrier of steel mesh. They had chosen to cross at a spot where the fence made a small right-angle jog, because there was a supporting post extending about halfway up the angle. This gave them a foothold, and from there, the strongest members of the group boosted the others to the top. It was no easy transit. One young woman froze in fear, a leg on either side of the fence, her face a mask of panic as she looked at the long fall into one country or the other. Her companions quickly and efficiently coaxed her over. Then the little boy–who wore a knockoff New York Yankees cap–went over, dangling by his hands from the top and dropping bravely into waiting arms. The old woman glared at us as a companion pushed her back up the fence she had just come down. Within three or four minutes–minutes freighted with visions of broken bones and heart attacks–all of them were safely back in Mexico. They would surely try again once we were gone.

A Barrier in the Eye of the Beholder So the new border fence must be a failure, right? If a billion-dollar barrier can’t stop children and seniors in broad daylight, what’s the point?

That would be one way to tell this story–but the truth is more complicated. At the Berlin Wall, guards fired live ammunition, and still an estimated 5,000 people managed to cross. And why shouldn’t the fence be a complicated subject? Everything else about immigration and border security is complicated. The border has become the rice, or maybe the potatoes, of American politics; it goes with just about everything on the menu. It’s an economic issue: Are illegal immigrants taking jobs from American citizens and driving down wages? It’s a health-care issue: Do uninsured aliens in emergency rooms push up the cost of premiums for the insured? It’s an education issue: Are local school districts across the country overtaxed by the needs of immigrant children? It’s a crime issue: Are U.S. cities plagued by Central American gangs? And it’s a national-security issue: Could bomb-toting terrorists cross into the U.S. undetected?

Presidential candidates in both parties have learned this year to be wary of a subject that shows up in so many guises on so many different plates. What tastes like common sense to one voter–cracking down on illegal crossings–smacks of xenophobia to the next, and the same rumble of helicopters and border-patrol Jeeps in the Southwestern desert sounds to some people like America standing up for itself but to others like Emma Lazarus, poet of the Statue of Liberty, rolling over in her grave.

Passions don’t shake out neatly along party lines. Republican John McCain wove frantically through last winter’s debates trying to avoid the scarlet A-for-amnesty. His sin was promoting a “pathway to citizenship” for undocumented workers. Democrat Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, tripped on a debate question about driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. Senator Barack Obama has stepped carefully with the issue, voting for the fence and for more agents on the border while saying that this covers “only one side of the equation.”

In this cloud of intangibles, the fence is something solid. After years of talking about it, Congress last year put $1.2 billion into the project, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) promptly started hiring posthole diggers. DHS aims to complete more than 650 miles (roughly 1,000 km) of barrier by the end of the year, built in sections by National Guard units and private contractors. That represents only about one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border; on the other hand, the fence clearly delineates, for the first time, a frontier that was previously just a four-strand cattle fence at best.

New fence goes up every week in Arizona and California, mile after mile of posts and plates and screens and rails marching across sun-blasted deserts and up rugged, rock-strewn hillsides. No one seems able to keep track of it all. Even agents of the newly reorganized Customs and Border Protection (CBP) department find themselves coming upon sections they’ve never seen before. The work is less advanced in New Mexico and stalled in Texas, where fierce local opposition has delayed construction–a coalition of border-town mayors and chambers of commerce has sued DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, alleging he is trying to seize land at inadequate prices. But Texas already has more than 1,200 miles (almost 2,000 km) of well-marked border in the form of the Rio Grande.

The fence is not likely to win any architecture awards. It’s a hodgepodge of designs. The best–sections of tall, concrete-filled steel poles deeply rooted, closely spaced and solidly linked at the top–are bluntly functional. The worst–rusting, graffiti-covered, Vietnam-era surplus–are just skeevy walls of welded junk. Whether you think it’s a sad necessity or a crude brutality, the fence is not a sight that stirs pride. The operative question, however, is not What does it look like? but How does it work?

Something’s Working Two years ago, Yuma Sector was the busiest jurisdiction in the entire border patrol. This 118-mile (190 km) stretch of border in western Arizona and eastern California was a well-known gap through which people and drugs flowed north while guns and money went south. The harsh desert on either side was crosshatched with smugglers’ roads, trampled by the footprints of thousands of “walkers,” some of whom dropped dead from thirst. In the city of San Luis, Ariz., so-called banzai runs were a near nightly occurrence. Scores of people would gather on the Mexican side and dash across a nearly open border toward the American neighborhoods. CBP agents could stop only as many as they could grab; the rest dodged past and melted into the city.

Then came the fence builders. Now a formidable triple barrier runs through town: three fences, the tallest 20 ft. (6 m) high, separated by floodlit corridors watched 24/7 by beefed-up patrols. Agent Eric Anderson, a three-year veteran, recalled a day in his rookie year when Yuma Sector nabbed 800 illegal aliens. “Some days now, we see zero coming through here,” he said. East of San Luis, the triple fence becomes a double line, then a single tall fence, until it reaches the rugged Gila mountains. Beyond the range, the fence resumes, but now it’s in the deep Sonoran Desert. The design here is steel posts, about 4 ft. (1 m) high, filled with concrete to thwart plasma torches and linked by surplus railroad iron. This fence is intended to stop cars, not walkers–but anyone crossing out here must be ready for a parched hike of 30 miles (48 km) or more, through cactus lands and bombing ranges, to the nearest road. That’s a dwindling population, said CBP helicopter pilot Gabriel Mourik. “I used to catch 100 people in a day,” Mourik said. “Yesterday, it was just one.”

It is hard to describe how unwelcoming the western Arizona border is. The budget for replacement tires for Yuma Sector’s four-wheel drives is $10,000 per week. Nearly every living thing either is venomous or has spines–or both–as we discovered when we spent two days at a CBP outpost called Camp Desert Grip. While exploring an ash-blackened waste of extinct volcanoes near the dead heart of the Sonoran Desert, we came across one of the many graves alongside a trail known as the Devil’s Highway. Lava stones on the cindered earth spelled out 1871. Undisturbed 137 years later–that’s how you know you’ve reached the middle of nowhere.

This desert is all about harsh juxtapositions–flat dust interrupted by sudden mountains; a delicate flower crowning a column of cactus spines. And now a new one, man-made: the sight of a smooth, new dirt road, huffing yellow construction equipment and mile after mile of reinforced steel. This, in a place that had never before seen a project more elaborate than a shack.

Critics complain that the fence is funneling migrants into a life-threatening desert, and they may be right, because while the area is difficult to reach from the north, on the Mexican side, Highway 2 parallels the border within sight of the U.S. It’s tempting to catch a ride out here and start walking. Indeed, so many people have died or approached death in the Sonoran Desert that the CBP has installed radio beacons with flashing lights on them for walkers in distress to summon help. A more primitive sos is also common: a creosote bush set on fire at night.

Still, a case could be made that Yuma Sector’s fence is part of an overall strategy that is actually reducing the number of unprepared humans wandering in the Sonoran Desert. As agent Ben Vik explained, by eliminating banzai runs in Yuma and reducing vehicle traffic in the desert, the fence has cut illegal crossings to a level at which the judicial system in western Arizona can actually handle the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by border agents. Instead of loading people onto buses and sending them back to Mexico–after which many immediately try crossing again–authorities are taking them to court. “Two weeks in jail with no income is a real deterrent,” said Vik. This combination of forces–the fence, plus more agents, plus the desert, plus a real penalty–has allowed Yuma Sector to cut traffic 80%, the CBP estimates.

Tucson Sector: Wild, Wild West “Yuma has a lot of it controlled, thanks to the fence, but that has probably just funneled the action our way,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Billy Dart, a chopper pilot in the Army/Air National Guard. His voice in the headset seemed far away through the muffled roar of rotors. In nine months of patrolling Tucson Sector as part of Operation Jump Start–which deployed National Guard troops to bolster border security–Dart has, by his rough estimate, helped stop “thousands of tons of marijuana, tons of methamphetamine” and countless human beings. It’s no coincidence that the CBP’s new busiest sector, in both human and drug traffic, is the one next door to Yuma. Crossings didn’t stop–they moved.

There’s a lot of fence going up here in central Arizona too, but conditions are less favorable along this 264-mile (425 km) stretch. In the sector’s largest border town, Nogales, homes and businesses crowd so close to the border that nothing like the triple barrier in San Luis can be built unless buildings are bought and knocked down. Tucson Sector also has more paved roads through its desert, making it easier for walkers to reach pickup points. And there are more hamlets along its border. Smuggling is a major part of the local economy in Arizona towns like Naco, where the busiest saloon is decorated with a burlap marijuana sack and a sign for Coyote brand beer. (People who don’t know that coyote is slang for a smuggler of illegal aliens won’t get the joke, but then those folks have no reason to visit Naco in the first place.)

You don’t hear many complaints about boredom from Tucson Sector agents. Lukeville is getting a double barrier, Dart explained, but “as fast as they put it up, on the southern side they take plasma torches and cut holes.” There’s a vehicle barrier south of the tiny town of Menninger’s, but drug smugglers use hydraulic ramps to boost cars over for a quick dash into town. In the rolling pasturelands east of Nogales, the fence is a so-called Normandy barrier of crisscrossing railroad iron. Smugglers like to cut this fence with torches, then carefully put everything back in place so the border patrol won’t notice. In parts of the sector there is still no fence at all. This includes a 28-mile (45 km) stretch near Sasabe where a multimillion-dollar pilot project to create a virtual fence of radars, sensors and cameras ended in failure earlier this year.

We were barely airborne at 6 a.m. when Dart got his first call, from a CBP agent asking for help tracking a group of northbound footprints. After nearly an hour of fruitless searching, Dart decided the walkers must have had a big head start. He peeled off to refuel. Along the way, we passed over dozens of abandoned cars and bicycles left behind by smugglers. Aloft again, Dart picked up word from CBP agents who were using four-wheel ATVs to track a large party of fresh prints. The newcomers were moving single file toward a mesquite thicket. From the air, it’s extremely difficult to see a human being hidden under a tree, but having a helicopter overhead freezes walkers in place. The agents hoped Dart’s arrival would pin down their quarry. So we circled for a while–until another agent radioed for help in finding a nefarious red car in the vicinity of a nearby crossroads. Dart banked toward the dusty village to perform a census of red vehicles. As the pilot headed back toward the thicket, his sharp eye spotted a flash of silver under some trees in a dry wash. Turning for a closer look, he found a clean, late-model sedan, slightly askew, apparently left in haste. Barely 10 a.m., yet it seemed the entire sector–a classic Western landscape of rimrock, saguaro and sage–was already swimming with fishy activity.

Meanwhile, the ATV team had reached the thicket. As always, the smugglers bolted, but agents Jeff Sargent and Samuel Estrada rounded up nine of their clients and were marching the group to a nearby road when Dart returned and set down his chopper.

The eight men and one woman appeared to be between the ages of 20 and 50. Sargent quizzed them in Spanish. They said they had crossed the border the previous morning, bound for Phoenix. From there, they had expected to disperse in search of work harvesting crops. They had covered some 25 miles (40 km) before being caught. Standing with their plastic jugs of water, a few meager supplies on their backs, they looked dazed by the array of force that had gone into their capture: the trucks, the ATVs, the radios, the guns, the bird. If they had been picked up in Yuma Sector, they would have been headed for jail. But there aren’t enough courtrooms and cells to handle Tucson Sector’s traffic. “They’ll probably be on the bus back to Mexico by noon,” Dart said.

Dart was busy all day. So busy, in fact, that it’s hard to say honestly who controls the central-Arizona frontier. It’s a no-man’s-land where the law is only as real as the nearest cop. Dart took us to an ancient volcanic dome north of the border. It was nearly 40 miles (64 km) inside the U.S., but it was effectively the property of Mexican smugglers, who station spotters atop the hill. From there, a man with binoculars can monitor the movements of every CBP agent in the desert below. We climbed up and found a radio and a car battery to power it, along with garbage from countless meals–beer, soda, fruit cocktail, beans, tuna, sardines, coffee creamer–and blankets, sweaters, gas stoves and propane bottles. The spotters hide in caves on the hillside whenever a chopper flies by (they “rock up,” in CBP lingo), but Dart said he had managed to catch three men there the previous month. By the next day, there were signs that a new spotter had arrived.

Even farther north, within sight of the Tucson suburbs, Dart took us to a wash where walkers dump their incriminating desert gear at the end of their crossing. Thousands of cheap backpacks littered the ground, as did countless soiled sweatshirts, water and whiskey bottles, toothbrushes and socks. Gesturing toward the city, Dart said, “Guide groups are buying $250,000 houses up there just to use as layups for these walkers. People who make their living at this are going to find a way through.”

A Matter of Force The desert borderlands are ribbed with mountain ranges that go north and south without a care for national frontiers. Too rugged for Jeeps and fences, these areas can be secured only by boots on the ground. Steve McPartland leads one such force: the CBP’s élite Air Mobile Unit operating out of San Diego. McPartland is a man of the world–born in Canada, raised in northern England and now an American citizen. After serving in the U.S. Army, he joined the border patrol 11 years ago. “Immigration was a natural for me,” he explained, because having gone through the proper channels himself, he resented people who walk into the country illegally. McPartland’s sector was the first to put up a border fence, as part of Operation Gatekeeper in the 1990s. Before that fence, San Diego Sector processed close to 1,000 captured illegal aliens on busy nights, but Gatekeeper cut that number while pushing illegal traffic into the mountains west of the city. The Air Mobile Unit was created to get teams of agents into the rugged countryside.

He told his story while climbing briskly up a ridge in the Tecate mountains of southwestern California, with their commanding view of nearby Mexico. The afternoon was hazy, and the hills were the colors of camouflage. Taking up his position, McPartland trained his binoculars south. He had pairs of agents deployed strategically over a couple of miles of the surrounding terrain. They would lie in wait until the walkers appeared, usually around dusk. As 6:30 p.m. came and went and all was still quiet, McPartland muttered, “Well, if they’re not crossing here, where are they crossing?” Minutes later, he added, “I suppose I should be happy that it’s quiet.” As it turned out, that night was not completely quiet, but the fact remains that McPartland’s piece of the border is tighter than it used to be. “What we’ve done down here works,” McPartland told us. “If you have the right combination of personnel, infrastructure and technology, you can get it done.”

But even as he spoke, he was worried about the impending end of Operation Jump Start. The two-year National Guard initiative expires on schedule this month, after Congress and the President turned down a request from the governors of California, Arizona and New Mexico to extend the program indefinitely. Homeland Security officials are hopeful that an aggressive recruiting program to increase the number of border-patrol agents will make up for the loss of the National Guard. But new agents don’t arrive with their own choppers or bulldozer drivers. And it’s risky to hire too many agents too quickly–as the growing number of corruption cases along the border attests. The bottom line is that resources are being pulled out of the border-security effort just as the fence is becoming a reality. That’s why at one border-patrol station, agents made a wall calendar whose every page was May–so the National Guard’s June departure date would never arrive.

Finding a Way–at All Costs What the fence tells us, then, is that marking the border and aggressively patrolling it can reduce illegal activity. The fence also carries a lesson about limits, for it is only as effective as the force that backs it up. Even the Great Wall of China was not impermeable. Osmosis explains why concentrations of water seek equilibrium across a barrier. Something similar applies to money. The difference in per capita income between the U.S. and Mexico is among the greatest cross-border contrasts in the world, according to David Kennedy, a noted historian at Stanford. As long as that remains true, the border fence will be under extreme pressure. People will climb over it; they’ll tunnel under it; they’ll hack through it; they’ll float around it.

“We want to secure our borders, but we can’t wall ourselves off from Mexico,” says Representative Ciro Rodriguez, a Texas Democrat whose district covers 585 miles (941 km) of the southern U.S. border–more than a quarter of its total length. Given the historic ties, family ties and economic ties connecting the two countries, the long-term solution to border security is a robust Mexican economy. “Mexico is the No. 1 trading partner of Texas,” Rodriguez says. “If they do bad, we do bad.”

Poverty makes people desperate. We got a glimpse of that when we watched a family boost their 10-year-old boy over a 12-ft fence, where a slip could easily mean a broken leg, miles from the nearest doctor. Or when we stood at the rusty steel barrier between the U.S. town of Calexico and the Mexican city of Mexicali in California’s Imperial Valley. Through a gap in this wall flows the New River, perhaps the most polluted waterway in North America–a foamy, green mix of industrial waste, farm runoff and untreated human sewage. This river has been found to carry the germs of tuberculosis, encephalitis, polio, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid. We’d heard stories about people entering the U.S. by floating along this nightmare stream with white plastic bags on their heads to blend into the hideous foam. A CBP agent in a Jeep sat overlooking the spot. We asked him, Does that really happen?

“Every day.”

Building a Wall For more photos of life along the border fence, go to time.com/fence

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com