During his campaign, US President Donald Trump captured the imagination of his supporters with the promise of a 1,000-mile-long wall on the border with Mexico. Though construction of an actual wall has not begun, and funding for it has yet to be provided by Congress, the symbolism and reality of what it means has grown. In many ways, a wall already exists and it takes many forms.
Since last March, when Trump visited San Diego to view prototypes of the wall, New York Times photojournalists have travelled to the border to document the struggle of migrants trying to reach the United States and the efforts of authorities to stop them. We asked six of those photojournalists — Mauricio Lima, Todd Heisler, Meghan Dhaliwal, Tamir Kalifa, Lynsey Addario and Victor J. Blue — to write about their experiences at the border and what the notion of a border wall means to them.
Orange bracelets worn as identification. An asylum-seeker grasping a number on a tiny piece of paper. Makeshift shacks. Flooded, muddy fields. Wet belongings. Inadequate meals. Improvised, open-air communal showers. Children, women and men living together in overcrowded tents miles from home.
Among nearly 4,000 migrants living in precarious conditions in an athletic center-turned-shelter near the US border, there was a surprising spirit of generosity and mutual respect. Despite their traumatic tales of violence and persecution at the hands of drug traffickers, and political instability in their home countries, many of the families I came across still dreamed of crossing the border and starting life anew.
In addition to razor wire, fencing and other physical barriers, a vast network of technology and law enforcement guards the United States’ southern border. And beyond that long, meandering line that runs east to west are the poverty, violence and political oppression that drive migrants north, to an economy that is dependent on their labour. There are walls, real and metaphorical, that separate most Americans from the people cooking in kitchens and working in fields, from the children living in shelters, making it hard to comprehend how any of this actually works. There is a great chasm between the rancher in New Mexico who crosses paths with smugglers on a regular basis and Americans who live hundreds of miles from a port of entry. Talk to any of them and you probably won’t hear what you expected. It’s complicated.
It was just after dark, on the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas, just a couple of hundred yards from an outlet mall. Border Patrol agents were walking slowly along the river, following several men on inner tubes trying to cross over from Mexico. “Donde estan?” the agents called into the dark. Voices responded, giving their location. They knew full well they would be caught if they made it to the other side, so they turned back. I was struck by the banter, the banality of this recurring game of cat and mouse along the southern border.
Many of the Border Patrol agents I have met come from the communities they serve and have family on either side of the border. Some are immigrants themselves.
I remember the first time I saw people turning themselves in at the border. It was broad daylight and about 30 women and children from Central America crossed the Rio Grande and walked right up to Border Patrol agents. One woman had a child who was merely months old.
This summer, even after the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents became well known, families were still crossing the border to request asylum. And those who didn’t cross the border illegally, either out of respect for the law or a lack of means to hire smugglers, lined the dozen International Bridges in the Rio Grande Valley. They waited in the scorching heat, sometimes for days, to make their pleas.
The US-Mexico border wall in Tijuana is just that: a wall. But it is also a gathering point, a swirling sea of people waiting for their opportunity to cross — be they commuters heading to work in the morning or asylum-seekers curled in blankets.
Words are spoken, cried, screamed and sung along the length of the fence. Prayers rise up into the night sky from a group of Central American asylum-seekers near one of the ports of entry. Tears stream quietly down the faces of those who know that a new, unknown journey is beginning when US Customs and Border Protection officers finally accept them in to begin the asylum process.
Miles away, on the beach, pressed up against the part of the wall in Mexico that juts into the Pacific Ocean, whispers intermingle with the sound of the waves. A group of teenagers examine the wall, stretching their hands through the bars to touch the chain-link fence reinforcing the other side, while talking about ocean tides. Their eyes measure how far the wall stretches into the sea.
Conversations pass through the bars of the wall, the speakers separated by a few feet and an entire world. Their faces sandwiched between the cold bars of the wall will be the closest some families can get for years — voices reaching one another but still too far to feel the touch of their loved one.
The wall is just a wall, but it is also a silent witness to all those who cross or wait in its shadow.
As the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy occupied the nation’s attention last June, Ismael Grimaldo stood quietly in the shadow of the US-Mexico border fence that runs through Brownsville, Texas, sipping a soft drink from a foam cup. Grimaldo wanted to get a closer look at the Rio Grande while he waited to meet his uncle at a downtown park. He rested his foot on the rust-coloured steel fence, constructed a decade ago to stem illegal immigration, as he passed the time.
Days later and less than a mile away, a group of Central American migrants fleeing political turmoil and gang violence waited patiently before a different type of barrier: two Customs and Border Protection officers and a bronze plaque marking the boundary of the United States and Mexico. There, on the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge, they hoped for a chance to cross and ask for asylum.
That bridge and others across the border between Texas and Mexico have become the last stop on an arduous journey for migrants who choose not to cross illegally and instead are seeking a path to protection in the United States. Many arrive only to be told that entry ports are full. This so-called metering policy forced dozens of men, women and children to wait until there was space for them. Last June, the wait lasted days. Months later, with new migrants still arriving, the wait was significantly longer.
I visited these bridges in June last year while on assignment for the New York Times. As temperatures rose with the sun, individuals and families sought shelter from the heat beneath colourful umbrellas. Plastic tarps were tied to the razor-wire-topped fences to block the afternoon sun. People used water bottles for showers and dental hygiene.
I asked one 30-year-old man, who left Honduras with his wife and four children, why he had chosen to wait. He told me he wanted to do the right thing and provide a positive example for his children.
Conditions were grim but spirits were not. A steady flow of supplies and food donations from passers-by and local aid groups boosted morale. As temperatures fell, laughter punctured the tense atmosphere and children turned the bridge’s narrow walkway into a playground. At one point they saw a Border Patrol boat passing below them and waved enthusiastically. The agents waved back.
Eventually, an officer’s voice would cut through the noise and in a moment, there would be a few less people on the bridge the only reminder of their passing, the piles of blankets left behind on the pavement.
For these migrants, the hope of asylum was more effective at preventing illegal entry than a physical obstacle. Still, those desperate for a better future will continue to risk everything, including the possibility of deportation, for a chance at life in America.
I used to imagine the wall as an infinite line of two-storey-high concrete that traced the United States-Mexico border without a break. But when I finally went south, I realised that a wall can take many forms. There are places _ roughly 700 miles of the almost 2,000-mile border — where the wall is indeed a hulking structure of concrete or steel, shooting up into the sky along invisible lines that divide towns, property and, sometimes, extended families. This wall appears as abruptly and jarringly as it disappears, simply giving way to the rigours of the terrain: a natural reserve, someone’s backyard, private land, a berm.
But along other parts of the border, the “wall” is a patch of dense, gnarled thorn brush. Or a blimp or a drone in the sky. Or a movement-triggered device tethered to a tree at common crossing point. Sometimes it seems as if the wall is the Rio Grande itself. I often also felt that the wall was human: At any given hour, thousands of Border Patrol agents drive along the periphery of the United States in trucks and ATVs, or they ride atop horses led by dogs trained to sniff out migrants running for their lives.
As I trailed agents to-and-fro at all hours of the day and night through the southern edge of the Rio Grande Valley, the vigilant hunt for people reminded me of the countless military patrols I accompanied while embedded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Information is passed from Border Patrol command centres through earpieces and radios. When the orders came and the chase began, we jumped fences, ran through opaque fog, crawled on our hands and knees through the woods guided by a headlamp or flashlight. Instinctively, I tried to avoid nonexistent land mines and improvised explosive devices by following precisely in the steps of the agents running ahead of me — a habit I haven’t shaken from my years covering war, where IEDs killed and maimed soldiers and journalists routinely.
Sometimes we scrambled for hours, and sometimes the chase was quick. As we crisscrossed people’s properties and searched abandoned sheds — often used as temporary safe houses for cover — local dogs betrayed migrants’ positions with their frenetic barking. Once, we found an abandoned ladder on the American side of the wall, and several times we happened upon footprints across a grassy field, headed toward the unknown. They made it.
A wall — in whatever form it takes — may be a deterrent to those trying to enter the United States illegally, but after covering refugees and migrants for almost two decades, in countries all over the world, I know there is a common thread that binds them all: No wall can stop a person fleeing violence or persecution or extreme poverty — or pursuing the dream of a better life.
VICTOR J. BLUE
There has long been a wall in place between the United States and Mexico, and it’s made of many things. Steel, concrete, gravel, sand. Scrubland, mountain, river.
In some places the wall is made of excess, in others it’s made of privation. It’s been built up by the uncertainty of our future, and rises from the accretion of our history.
Vice and virtue. Innocence and experience. Irony and paradox, mendacity and protection. The wall is the cartels and the coyotes and our darkest impulses. It’s our appetites and addictions. It’s made of promise and fantasy and hard, hard reality. The wall is protests and detention centres and car chases and sorties. It travels on horseback, on ATVs, in white and green Suburbans; it is raised by the surveillance of drones and spotter planes and helicopters.
Maybe more than anything, the wall is made of longing.
When you drive west out of El Paso, Texas, across the New Mexico line and follow State Road 9, then turn south a bit after Puerto Palomas, you will run into the border. Drive long enough on the dirt road and you will come to where the wall grows. From a distance it looks like a thin row of dark, rusting pines joined at the top. It replaces a long, low barrier stretching east. The panels of the new sections lie stacked on the other side of the road like a long freight train frozen in the dust. Harsh and beautiful treeless desert spills out on all sides, indistinguishable in flora or feature from one side of the border to the other. Depending on your perspective, the new wall gapes like a wound or binds like a bandage as it rises against the falling sun.
If you spend any amount of time reporting on the border and the people living on either side of it, eventually you are struck by the realisation that it’s much wider than it is long. The actual wall — the sum of official and unofficial policy, of economic and family ties, of criminality and enforcement, of deprivation, and plenty — stretches much farther north to south. I’ve seen it reach deep into misty mountain towns like Todos Santos in rural Guatemala, 1,000 miles from the Rio Grande, where Mam-speaking villagers have scrambled along it for decades to build new communities in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Oakland, California. Or wind its way north, across the Idaho plains to St. Anthony, 1,100 miles away, where it divides families living between there and Jalisco, Mexico.
We have built this wall over decades. Whether this new phase of it rises or falls, the wall will continue to grow or diminish according to our fears and values. It remains an expression of our most public and darkly private ideas of what it means to be a citizen, an American, a foreigner, a family, a neighbour or a stranger.
–New York Times News Service