For nearly 700 miles along the U.S. border with Mexico, a wall already exists.
It passes through the silt deserts of Sonora, where cactuses grow like organ pipes. Farther east, heavy steel X-frames cut through the flat miles of sun-bleached grass like battlefield markers. In Texas, the red-tinged beams that make up parts of the border fence are cold, hard and rough to the touch. In Tijuana, two fences — one old, the other more recent — plunge all the way into the ocean, where waves corrode the stanchioned metal.
The border spans 1,900 miles across four states — California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Where a fence already stands, the surrounding dirt and grass tell the stories of those who try to cross it, those who patrol it and those who live next to it.
There are old cellphones between the beams. Wind-torn plastic bags with toothpaste and toothbrushes inside. Discarded clothing. Scattered sunflower seeds, spit out by Border Patrol agents sitting in their vehicles as they watch, and watch, and watch.
About 40 miles past Ciudad Juárez, the wall of metal mesh abruptly ends, like a half-finished thought. The remaining border is marked by the Rio Grande. But hundreds of miles in rural Texas, including Big Bend National Park, are unfenced and lack any man-made barriers or walls whatsoever.
In Tijuana, two border fences run the length of the city: one of corrugated metal rusted by time, and another, a few hundred feet away, of dense metal fencing draped in concertina wire. The walls sweep past homes, highways and parks before plunging into the ocean. One resident recalled a few migrants drowning in the surf while trying to cross, subsumed by waves.
“Build two walls, or three walls, it’s not important. Those who want to cross will cross.”
— ROBERTO RAMÍREZ
Roberto Ramírez, 46, remembers when there was no wall — just cables running between posts to mark the division. Children played soccer in the fields while parents planted tomatoes. Now, with two walls, he wonders what the point of another would be. The desperation that forces migrants to seek opportunity in the United States will not be stopped by physical barriers, he says, no matter how big — or how numerous — they are.
Like a metal curtain, the wall cuts through the hills of Nogales, a border town where long lines of vehicles and people on foot make the daily trek from side to side. The wall here is made of tall steel beams in rows. Outside town, it slices through the vacant countryside. From a hilltop, the vista is one of division, separating communities on either side.
“Through each year of my life, this wall has grown. I don’t know, it seems like the distance between us just keeps growing."
— JOSÉ PABLO SANCHEZ CARILLO
José Pablo Sanchez Carillo, 18, lives beside the wall in the Buenos Aires neighborhood, where he grew up. He bristles at the idea that Mexico will be forced to pay for a new wall. Recently, he spoke with friends about President Donald Trump’s promise to bill Mexico for it. “This guy is supposed to be a billionaire, right?” he asked. “Why the hell can’t he pay for it himself, then?”
Through deserts, mountains and pastures, the border wall changes from 20-foot metal panels, to sheeting along stretches of sand, to X-shaped barriers on the plains. About 40 miles outside of Ciudad Juárez, a midpoint along the border, the fence halts abruptly. Many towns have been emptied by crime. Elsewhere, there is farmland along the edge of Mexico.
“If the president of the U.S. throws out all of the Mexicans, who will harvest the fields?”
— CATARINO NUÑEZ
Catarino Nuñez, 74, was working his land, preparing to irrigate a field of wheat. He inherited the land from his father and has worked it for most of his adult life. He recalls when the wall went up behind his parcel, and the effect it had on migration and labor. Migrants passing by on the way to work in American fields stopped and helped with his harvest. Now, finding the extra help has grown harder.
A small, colonial town, Guerrero sits on the edge of the Rio Bravo. Though named a Pueblo Magico — a designation granted by the federal government for its historic preservation and charm — fear lingers on the streets, thanks to increased crime along the border. Residents say armed men and gang members have appeared in the past five years, seizing farmland.
“I am actually glad he is building that wall, because maybe it will help undermine all those illegal activities.”
— ENRIQUE CERVERA
Enrique Cervera, 78, the town chronicler in Guerrero, works at an archive in City Hall. He recalled when Americans visited their relatives on Christmas, trips that ceased as violence increased. As a historian of sorts, he takes the vow to build a wall in stride, at least when compared to past hostilities with the United States — like the Mexican-American War.
In Reynosa, drugs, illegal immigration and weapons converge. Stores have closed, and though the main international crossing stays busy, many residents say movement across the border has slowed because of a turf war between cartels. Americans used to fill nightclubs, and dentists and medical offices were once filled with U.S. patients, residents say.
“There would be very, very few of us over there if the borders were as protected and surveilled as they are today."
— AGUSTÍN RAMÍREZ
Agustín Ramírez operates tractors in the corn fields on the outskirts of Reynosa. He says he used to be a migrant smuggler and lives about a half-mile from the Rio Bravo, the border with the United States. “We used to swim this river all the time in the old days,” he said. “No one cared. No one was watching. That all has changed. Now they catch everyone.”
El Paso, Texas
In this city of 680,000, the border fence juts up against neighborhoods, playgrounds and $400-a-month apartments. It is a two-story wire-mesh structure atop a concrete slab, with layers of older chain-link fencing in front of it. After school, the ice cream van makes its rounds parallel to the fence on Charles Road.
“We’re so used to seeing people crossing over that we just see them and say, ‘Oh, OK.'”
— MANNYS SILVA RODRIGUEZ
Mannys Silva Rodriguez, 58, and her husband were in their backyard when their dog started barking one afternoon. As they watched, a group of people on the other side of the border fence hooked a ladder to it and climbed up. Then, three men and a woman used one of the fence beams to slide down as she and her husband, Miguel, worked on their son’s truck. “We could see them jumping over,” she said.
At the edge of this Texas town of 13,000, the border fence lines the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, a decommissioned water-irrigation facility that is now a museum and birding center. One afternoon behind the pump house, teenagers on hoverboards sped by on the biking trail, as residents ordered teriyaki chicken at the nearby Rock & Roll Sushi.
“This is basically saying, ‘Don’t come here. You’re not welcome here.'"
— SELENA AGUIRRE
Selena Aguirre, 20, a student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, stood on the biking trail, pondering the fence here. It was not a cohesive barrier but a jumble of obstacles — a stretch of chain-link fence on one end, a towering steel-beam fence directly behind the pump house with a vehicle-entry gate, and a chest-high concrete wall at the other end. “It’s a metaphor,” Aguirre said, adding, “This is basically saying, ‘Don’t come here. You’re not welcome here.'”
Here in the southernmost point on the border with Mexico, the fence serves as the backdrop of daily life. It forms the back of bus stops and cuts alongside schools and an old golf course. One day in this city of 180,000, two horses grazed in a rural area while tied to the fence’s steel beams, with the border fence as a hitching post.
“The fact that the construction and the investment of billions of dollars is going to begin again is almost laughable."
— TONY ZAVALETA
Tony Zavaleta, 69, drove his pickup truck here on a dirt road. He looked out toward a spit of overgrown brush with a border fence — vertical spikes atop a concrete base. This used to be his late father’s land, until the federal government seized it to build the fence during the Bush administration. His family was paid $3,500 for roughly three acres. Zavaleta is opposed to Trump’s wall.