Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Arizona : Borderlands

In May of this year I spent two weeks in Southern Arizona working on a photojournalism project about immigration along the Arizona-Mexico border. This was my first experience working on such a project, and it was an amazing opportunity from which I learned more than I probably even realize.

Southern Arizona is literally FULL of fascinating stories waiting to be told. The borderlands have an extremely unique and chaotic history that continues to shape events today. There are so many complex, overlapping themes and angles that one could spend decades down there and still find new, captivating narratives to tell. Drugs, immigration, corruption, politics, land rights, national security, poverty, wealth, Indian reservations, nationality, English, Spanish, Spanglish, death, life - they all shape daily life along the border. And it all happens in a breathtakingly beautiful environment, where the soft glow of orange sunlight filtering through undulating hills of sage and stands of saguaro cacti can almost make you forget that the desert is also a harsh, unforgiving killer.

I have to give a truly huge thanks to Sherman Teichman and Heather Barry of the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University, and to Gary Knight of the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice for making this trip a reality and giving me the opportunity to work on this project. And also, of course, to Sam James and Adam Levy - mis hermanos por siempre - for support along the way.

Below are the photos and essay that I put together following the trip. Enjoy.


The desert of Southern Arizona is a place of harsh juxtapositions. Blistering white-hot days fade into bitterly cold black nights. Jagged mountains erupt out of flat sands. Brilliant blue and red flowers burst from drab browns and mauves. And in recent years a tall steel wall and wide, new dirt road have cut through previously undeveloped desert plains.

The United States government began to construct walls along urban areas of the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1990s to deter illegal immigration. Prior to this, much of the border line was nothing more than wire fencing and cement monuments, and relatively few immigrants crossed illegally. But following the collapse of the Mexican economy in the mid-1990s, the promise of increasing one’s income ten-fold by merely ducking under a few strands of barbed wire was a strong incentive for hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to make the journey north.

Made from surplus steel “landing mats” left over from the Vietnam War, the walls first came to Arizona in 1994 and were installed in urban areas such as Nogales and Douglas. For the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the federal agency charged with monitoring the country’s borders, the idea was that new barriers and security in border towns and cities would force migrants and smugglers into the unforgiving, uninhabited desert stretches where CBP agents could better track them down.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the issue of border security took on a sense of added urgency. Between 2000 and 2010 security measures exploded as the federal government more than doubled both the annual budget of the CBP and the number of agents who monitor the border. The border walls were extended into the desert for miles past their previous stopping points, and jagged steel “Normandy” barriers were erected to prevent vehicles from crossing the into the U.S. Surveillance towers equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging equipment sprouted up across the desert, CBP checkpoints appeared on major northbound arteries, mobile floodlights and deep trenches emerged just inside the border fence, seismic sensors were placed in the ground along popular immigrant and smuggling paths, and over 500 National Guard troops were deployed to Arizona to support the CBP. Last year the CBP spent over $3 billion policing the country’s borders and more than 17,500 agents patrolled the Southwest border. In some areas CBP agents outnumber residents, their white and green SUVs ubiquitous along the country roads and highways. Today, new construction continues to push the reinforced steel wall further and further into the desert hills.

And yet, despite the billions of dollars spent to expand the border fence, deploy thousands of new CBP agents to the Southwest border, and utilize sophisticated technologies and aerial surveillance, it is still hard to say whether the CBP is succeeding in preventing persons, goods, and drugs from entering the country illegally. It is true that larger fences and increased security in urban areas have greatly diminished the number of migrants crossing in cities and towns: overall apprehensions in Arizona dropped from over 720,000 in 2000 to less than 220,000 in 2010. But even CBP officials acknowledge that most migrants and smugglers simply walk to the end of the walls and cross where the only protection are vehicle barriers and barbed wire fence.

Despite fewer apprehensions no one knows the more important figure: how many people illegally cross the border and don’t get caught? And is the huge decrease in apprehensions due more to heightened security measures or other factors such as the collapse of the U.S. economy that has left far fewer jobs for new migrants?

Even as federal border security efforts grow, so has discontent with the government’s efforts. Over the last decade Arizona has seen the rise of numerous civilian vigilante groups who feel the government has failed to adequately protect the border. Using their own resources, they monitor the border through video and aerial surveillance, as well as foot patrols in the desert. Some wish to see the wall extended along the entire Southwest border.

Ultimately, however, not even the most radical vigilantes believe that the U.S. can reduce the number of illegal immigrants or pounds of drugs smuggled to zero. This stance begs the question: How many would be acceptable? Few citizens, politicians, and activists can agree on such a number. Yet almost everyone acknowledges that the current system is far too porous and needs improvement. Some speak of solving the problem by reducing the incentives to cross the border in the first place. But that will always be difficult when an immigrant can earn in American many times that which they make back home.

It seems inevitable that new walls will continue to be built along the border, though it is doubtful that fencing its entire stretch would stop illegal immigration and smuggling completely – already tunnels have appeared under the walls in places such as Tijuana and Nogales. Without a doubt, however, many more billions of dollars will be spent trying to stop immigrants who earn only a few dollars a day from stepping across a line in the sand. Yet another juxtaposition in the vast desert of Southern Arizona.


The border fence snakes its way through the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, splitting them in two. Locals commonly refer to the towns as “ambos Nogales,” or “both Nogales,” in recognition of their closely linked heritage. Before the 1990s there was little fencing or security to prevent residents from crossing on either side, which they did frequently.

A young Mexican girl stares through the fence in Nogales. In 1994 the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) began to erect the wall in Nogales during Operation Safeguard, part of a concerted effort throughout the Southwest to increase security in urban zones and staunch the flow of illegal entrants and smuggled goods. Today the wall stands twelve to twenty feet tall along the entire length of the cities and extends into the desert for miles to the east and west.

In Nogales and other urban areas where the border fence was first built, it was constructed from a patchwork of surplus military “landing mat” material left over from the Vietnam War. In the past year the government has begun to replace the landing mats with linked steel columns that are harder to climb over.

A CBP agent in Nogales stands guard in his vehicle where new fencing is being installed. In urban zones many patrol vehicles are outfitted with heavy wire mesh to protect agents from a constant barrage of rocks thrown from the other side of the wall

Piles of new columnar fencing wait to be erected in Nogales near the commercial port of entry. In addition to expanding the border wall, the U.S. government more than doubled the number of CBP agents along the Southwest border over the past decade to 17,535 in 2010.

A CBP vehicle in Nogales waits near the wall at dusk. One of the agency’s key strategies is to heavily fence and monitor urban areas, pushing immigration and smuggling into rural desert stretches where agents retain a tactical advantage against illegal entrants and smugglers.

At night in Nogales, spotlights flood the fence while CBP agents monitor the wall from their vehicles. The CBP splits its Arizona operations into two “sectors” – Yuma, in the west, and Tucson, in the east. The Nogales CBP station is the largest in the Tucson sector, which itself is the most active sector in the country. In fiscal year 2010, CBP agents in the Tucson sector alone apprehended 212,202 illegal entrants, though this is down from a high of over 600,000 apprehensions in 2000.

Supporters of the border fence credit new construction and the deployment of thousands of new CBP agents and advanced security technology for the decrease in apprehensions. Seventy miles east of Nogales, in Douglas, Arizona, the security presence consists of a double-layer fence, twenty foot deep trench, floodlights, surveillance towers, and CBP agents in vehicles every few hundred yards.

As night falls near Douglas, Arizona, floodlights illuminate the border fence. Despite increased security and surveillance, migrants still illegally cross the fence here almost every night.

In urban areas the CBP employs portable spotlights at night to improve detection of those trying to cross over the fence. While most illegal crossings happen during the dark hours between dusk and dawn, migrants enter the U.S. at all hours of the day.

Further away from urban centers, security becomes less dense and the border is harder to patrol. As such, the more remote sections of the border have become more popular for illegal entry in the past decade. Here, in the desert to the west of Douglas, the headlights from a lone CBP vehicle illuminate the border fence.

One of the numerous CBP checkpoints placed on nearly every northbound highway along the border in Arizona. Some checkpoints are located up to 50 miles away from the border in an effort to detect drugs, illicit material, and illegal immigrants that have slipped past other security measures.

A surveillance tower looms over the border fence to the east of Douglas. The CBP has created an interconnected network of towers along sections of the border, utilizing video and heat-imaging cameras to detect illegal entry. In some areas, the towers are connected to mobile ground sensors placed in the desert, allowing agents to zoom in with high-definition cameras when a sensor is tripped.

A mobile patrol station looms over the landscape near Douglas, giving agents a higher view of the surrounding desert. The dark glass prevents spotters that work for immigration and drug cartels from telling which way the agents are looking.

In the hills east of Douglas, columnar and landing mat fencing give way to steel vehicle barriers. While the barriers do little to prevent the illegal entry of persons, they are far cheaper than taller fencing and have been successful in stopping cars and trucks full of illegal immigrants and illicit goods from speeding across the border.

Harsh landscapes dictate the security presence along many parts of the border. In the mountainous terrain west of Sasabe, Arizona, the wall transitions from robust steel columns to simple barbed wire. Despite the hostile environment, this area of the Tucson sector sees some of the highest rates of illegal entry and drug smuggling in the entire country due to the relative ease of crossing the fence.

In some parts of Arizona, patrolling the border is not solely a government effort. Here Glenn Spencer of Hereford, Arizona describes how one of his employees pulled a gun on a truck that had illegally crossed the border and nearly ran him over. Spencer is the founder of American Border Patrol, a civilian NGO that uses advanced imaging and ground sensor technology to monitor the border. Like a number of Arizona residents, Spencer feels that the government has failed to secure the border against economic and security threats from the south.

Glenn Spencer and Mike King of American Border Patrol demonstrate aerial surveillance technology used to locate trails made by illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Spencer routinely flies along the border in a small airplane to document sections that the organization considers to be poorly protected and insecure. Spencer and King want to see the government to build a double-layer fence topped with concertina wire along the entire 1,969 miles of the border.

Other residents worry about the costs, both economic and environmental, of extending the border wall. In many locations, including here in Naco, Arizona, the fence is perforated to allow water to pass through during periods of heavy rain and flooding. Critics claim, however, that the wall impedes natural water flow and the migratory patterns of many animals, harming the natural ecosystem.

CBP agent Jim Stout looks toward the Baboquivari Peak to the north of Sasabe, where numerous migrant and smuggling trails cut through the desert. Stout believes the wall is successful and should be expanded, but thinks the issue often distracts from other important aspects of border securitization. “The truth is, you could hold hands across the border and people would still get in,” says Stout. “The real question is how you reduce the incentives to cross in the first place.”

West of Sasabe, the border fence comes to an abrupt end. While some envision the fence as a wall across the entire desert border, in reality it is a series of walls interspersed by long stretches of vehicle barriers and barbed wire.

In August of 2010 over 1,200 National Guard troops were deployed to the Southwest border– 500 to Arizona alone –to buttress security efforts in key locations. Here sandbags ring an Arizona National Guard bunker along the border in Nogales. Some residents felt the move an unnecessary militarization of the border, while others viewed it as both necessary and too long in coming.

National Guard troops man an outpost in the hills east of Douglas.

Vehicle barriers in the mountainous desert east of Douglas.

1 comment:

black_krow said...

I was not aware that the border fence was such a patchwork effort, with different kinds of fence dictated by the environments through which they pass. Any idea on how much of the border is completely open? Also, I read this interesting article about how climate change is going to drastically increase the number of Mexicans trying to escape increased drought in the coming decades, pretty interesting.