December 28, 2020 & February 9, 2021.
The end of 2020 found us in the desert outside of Ajo, Arizona. We were camped with our friends celebrating the Christmas holiday. The desert there is beautiful. We did daily walks, looked for birds (didn’t find many), hung with our friends, ate good food, and watched nightly sunsets over a boundless wilderness.
On our last full day in Ajo, the whole gang drove down to the visitor center at Organ Pipe National Monument about 30 miles south of where we were camped. After picking up some brochures and hiking a couple of nearby trails, everyone piled back into their vehicles and we drove another 4.5 miles to the very southern end of the park where the United States and Mexico meet.
A dirt road runs along the southerly edge of this remote section of the monument. We had driven this road on a previous visit to Organ Pipe four years ago on our way to a ranger talk at Quitobaquito pond, a small oasis in the middle of the desert. But this time our destination wasn’t Quitobaquito or a ranger talk. We were going to see the new wall.
We lucked out on our timing on this little adventure. The road had been closed while they were building the towering structure on the border but construction had stopped for the holidays.
On our previous visit, a vehicle barrier separated the two countries, Mexico and the United States. Rows of bollards planted in the ground were erected by the park to deter frequent cross-border car chases caused by illegal activities. The bollards were spaced far enough apart to allow the migration of animals. Now, that Barrier had been replaced with a towering 30-foot tall border “wall”.
The United States shares a 1954 mile border with Mexico. Every month tens of thousands of migrants attempt to illegally cross the southern border into the United States. As most Americans know the former President Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016 with the promise of building a “Big, beautiful wall” that Mexico would pay for. In the end, the American taxpayers ended up footing the bill. In 2019 President Trump declared a national emergency and diverted a portion of the funds needed from counternarcotics and military construction budgets. Altogether $15 billion dollars were earmarked for 738 miles of new barrier.
By the end of Trump’s four-year term as president 455 miles of wall were constructed but only 49 of those miles were brand new barrier. The other miles replaced old wall and vehicle barriers and created second barriers behind the first ones.
I hadn’t really intended to write about our trip to the wall but after one of my friends who visited the wall with us that day posted her a story about the wall on her blog, Roaming About, I realized that many people have never even seen a picture of the wall, much less have had the opportunity to visit it in person. And after seeing the new barrier construction on our many border crossing trips in January to Greg’s dentist in Los Algodones, Mexico, I started to think about the wall even more.
One day while we were still hanging out in the area where we had made our home base for our dentist excursions, I mentioned to Greg that I’d like to see the wall near Yuma, Arizona. Yuma uniquely sits directly east of Mexico and the city of Los Algodones. The Colorado River sets the boundary of the two countries which travels down along the Arizona/California border and into Mexico spilling out into the Sea of Cortez.
We drove to the outskirts of Yuma, down a dirt road flanked by produce fields being tended to by migrant laborers. At the end of the road, we found a towering wall with the Colorado River and its eastern banks clearly ceded to the Mexican side. The wall was incomplete with significant gaps. Looking west in those gaps I could see Los Algodones’ water tower and some of the buildings we walked past on the eastern side of the city when we were there weeks earlier.
The border wall not only divides nations but also divides people. Some people feel the border wall will control illegal immigration and reduce crime. But according to some sources over 60 percent of illegal immigration is due to visitors who enter the country legally and overstay their visas. And there have been reports of drug smugglers who use reciprocating saws, that can cut through the new steel bollards in minutes, allowing them to slip through the fence after which they then replace the cut piece of steel to mask the breach.
Many people are concerned about the environmental consequences of this enormous construction project. Animals like ocelots, pronghorns, javelinas, black bears, and mountain lions that can’t see the dividing line have had their habitats reduced and destroyed. While building the wall in Organ Pipe National Monument, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, ten of millions of gallons of water have been pumped from a deep aquifer of thousands of years old “fossil water” threatening to dry up Quitobaquito pond and destroying the habitat of the endangered species that live there, the Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta mud turtle.
Recently I watched a movie with a couple of scenes set during the building of the Berlin Wall during the cold war. People were desperate to escape to the other side, jumping from apartment windows that looked west over the wall and scrambling under concertina wire to reach the barrier, only to be shot as they attempted to summit the top. As many as 327 people lost their lives at this wall before it came down. After watching these scenes it made me wonder whether governments that think a wall is the answer to their problems really understand what the question is.
I see a humanitarian crisis at the border. People are fleeing crime, violence, intimidation, poverty, the threat of death. People from countries like Honduras and Guatemala are leaving everything they know and are walking the length of Mexico to reach a place they hope can keep them safe and provide their families with a better life. And so many of them are doing the right thing, stopping at the border and asking for asylum. But instead of refuge they are either imprisoned or pushed back into Mexico where they live in camps or under bridges where they have become targets for the same kind of crime and intimidation they had been fleeing in their home countries. Desperate, they decide to cross the border into the desert.
According to the Missing Migrants Project, at least 2961 people have died making the trek across the border since 2014, including 45 people so far just this year. The desert is harsh and unforgiving. Two gallons of water might last a person a day, maybe two. Getting to the next water source can take up to five. The Border Patrol has placed rescue beacons in remote areas and humanitarian groups drive deep into the desert to leave gallon jugs hoping to save someone’s life.
Despite a spike in border apprehensions in 2019, the number of migrants caught crossing the border has come down significantly from a monthly average of over 81,000 in the early 2000s to a monthly average of around 32,000 in the last 3 years. On the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) website, a scene is described from 1992 of thousands of people rushing the border en masse, overwhelming the agents trying to stop them. The border patrol believes that the higher fence in combination with new technology, access roads, and personnel will give them more time to react. The CBP believes that the new wall will make their jobs more effective and keep their agents and the country safer.
On inauguration day, President Biden halted wall construction and in February he rescinded Trump’s emergency order. Many people want him to go further and take the wall down.
Ultimately I believe in laws. I think they make our world a more secure place to live in when we can all agree to certain rules. But I believe many laws don’t adequately address the real problem which in turn makes the laws ineffective.
There are 280.6 million displaced migrants around the world. The United States has a large share of them. My hope is that one day people won’t have to make these dangerous decisions to keep their family safe and to put food on their tables. I hope that the US can be a leader in making this hope a reality. And that one day whether the wall continues to stand or not that we can visit the border to learn, perhaps turning whatever remains into a National Historic Site. And like so many of the other National Historic Sites and Parks that Greg and I have visited on our journey, like Manzanar and the Manhattan Project, it will become a place where we can come to understand the many issues about the place, the people, the hopes, and the fears.
I did a lot of reading for this post. It was a little like writing a research paper. I found lots of articles online about lots of different aspects of the border and the wall. If you are interested in doing more reading about the border wall, the best resource I found was this Wikipedia post. It includes 259 references.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about this post. Have you been to the US border wall? Have you been to a historical border wall or any of the other 69 border walls around the world? Do you think migration is a humanitarian concern or a criminal one?