The Thing About Walls

The act of adding a new layer of fortifications to the U.S./Mexico boundary has become an executive branch tradition, akin to the legacy gift of a presidential library, as every commander-in-chief since Jimmy Carter has, quietly or with pronouncement, plied something to the border complex. Carter’s founding contribution was a chain link fence that was quickly dubbed “Carter’s Curtain.”

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton ordered a wall to be built on the boundary between Tijuana and San Diego as part of an enforcement effort called Operation Gatekeeper. The wall comprises corrugated iron sheets that had been repurposed from mobile landing strips. These had been deployed in oversees conflicts, some say they were used in Vietnam, which lends a metaphorical layer to the concept of militarizing the border.

No one would describe Clinton’s addition as “beautiful.” The sheets soon oxidized into one long stripe of rust across the landscape. Due to the undulating foothills and canyon lands, it resembles a woebegone roller coaster careening off into the interior. As an image, it’s become iconic, but it was never effective. The corrugations were set horizontally, making it easy for border-crossers to get foot- and hand-holds and pop right over. Smugglers used welding equipment to cut garage door-sized holes and drive right through. The wall has been deconstructed, mended and augmented, and continues to morph and change, as though it were alive. At some point government workers cut thin, rectangular holes in the bottoms of the iron sheets. Supposedly these holes were made for the sake of wildlife, so critters could pass freely (nothing as big as a bobcat or cougar could pass through). Most border dwellers believe the holes were really cut so agents could see the knees and shins of potential crossers.

One day, photographer Maria Teresa Fernandez and I discussed the suspect viability of these wildlife portals as we hiked along the Operation Gatekeeper wall to the top of a small rise known as Bunker Hill. This was on the Mexican side, west of downtown Tijuana, and within sight of the Pacific Ocean. The hill had been named for the WWII-era bunkers positioned to defend against sea attack, still in existence on the American side. The hill allows fine views of the Tijuana River, the stateside town of Imperial Beach, and the skyscrapers of San Diego Bay. Directly below us, the bullring in Playas de Tijuana looked like a saucer we might easily flip a coin into. For unknown reasons, the second and third layers of the wall ordered by President George W. Bush had not been erected along this stretch, possibly because the landscape made the effort a touch too expensive. His wall averaged $3.5 million per mile to build, but one section in San Diego surged to $55 million due to the terrain.

No one I’d encountered in my years of researching our border structures was more familiar with them than Fernandez. About 15 years prior, she’d started out wanting to photograph architecture in Tijuana. She soon came upon a Mexican home that used the American border wall as the back wall of the house, and this incongruity caused Fernandez’s interest to skip tracks, and she became obsessed with the border structures themselves. She always shot very close, focusing on small details: rope ladders used by migrants, shoes lost in the chase. To my mind, this made her a better informed guide than any Border Patrol agent might be.

A couple of details struck me about Clinton’s wall up this close. One was that, despite the sea breeze, wild flowers and coastal sage, the area smelled of a human musk. Secondly, sections of the corrugated iron looked like the guest registry of an international hotel: hundreds of crossers had etched their names and the dates of their passage into the rusted metal.

The Clinton wall was built three feet north of the actual border, to allow for construction and repairs to proceed without requiring permission from the Mexican government. Inspired by the natural-born-citizen clause of the U.S. Constitution, an idea circulated that should any woman give birth in that three feet of American territory on the Mexican side of the wall, the resulting child would be a U.S. citizen by birth right. At one point, border activists talked about planning a mass-birthing of dual-citizen children along the Operation Gatekeeper wall, which would give the term “Mexican-American” a whole new meaning.

While hiking, Fernandez and I noticed two men approaching us from below. There were no trees or impediments to line of sight, so we could easily watch them advance up the hill. Our isolated position concerned us, as this was known as a dangerous area. Then Maria Teresa spotted a Tijuana policeman following behind these two men. It dawned on us that we weren’t the ones being followed. Instead, we stood in the way of a very slow-motion police chase. The officer looked out-of-shape but determined. There were few avenues for escape available to the fleeing subjects. Yet the men appeared unreasonably at ease. In fact, when they reached us, we exchanged chipper hellos. Fernandez pointed out the policeman below, and the men acknowledged that, yes, he was on their trail. Unfazed, they made time for small talk. Neither man carried anything. The younger one said he was trying to get back to an onion sorting job he’d had in Southern California. The older man said he was trying to get back to his school-age daughter, who he had been separated from by deportation. But this policeman wanted to extort them, they said. The bulky figure of the cop drew nearer. We said good luck and good bye, and the men continued up the hill. Not long afterward, a second policeman popped up from the east side of the hill. He held a walkie-talkie. So did the officer below. The migrants looked to be in a pickle.

Soon, the first policeman huffed by Maria Fernandez and me. His disgruntled expression suggested there would be hell to pay if the migrants were caught (I would later learn that this cop was locally known for harassing migrants). When their situation appeared most dire, however, the two men we’d talked to turned to the rusty American wall, helped each other over, and disappeared.

Minutes later, the buffeting sound of the wind was suddenly cut through by the whine of Border Patrol ATVs, as U.S. agents approached the wall from the other side. Clearly, our migrant friends had been spotted on top of the wall. From the sound of the ATVs, the Border Patrol agents seemed to be searching still, and not yet on the migrants’ tail. After twenty minutes or so, the agents came to a halt directly across the wall from us.

The two Tijuana policemen also met at the top of Bunker Hill. It seemed impossible that the migrant men had disappeared, but with two agents on one side of the wall, and two empty-handed cops on the other, it was apparent that they had. Then the police spotted a homeless man laying out in the open on top of the hill. I had thought his camp was just a pile of dirty blankets, not realizing there was a man there. The Tijuana cops pulled this man to his feet and began to rifle through his pockets. From his body language, I could tell the man had nothing to take.

I became curious as to what was going on with the agents on the American side. I bent low and peered through one of the rectangular portals at the base of the Operation Gatekeeper wall. To our mutual surprise, an agent in helmet and goggles had decided to do the same. Our faces met on either side of the structure. The agent looked and me, and in English, he said, “What’s up, man?” This casual address shocked me, but I suppose it shouldn’t have. There was no hiding the fact that I was an American tourist on a self-guided tour of the border industrial complex. The agents then mounted their machines and took off. The Tijuana cops dropped the homeless man on his blankets, and began to descend the hill. The chase was over.

By the time we reached the bottom of Bunker Hill, the event seemed to have evaporated into the desert air. The Pacific was expansive, the blue sky clear and open. Tijuana is, like many border towns, a place where events and people seem to be whisked away by the wind. It sometimes seemed as though a man could open his jacket, catch a draft, and disappear. Why not these migrant men as well? Eventually, we struck up a conversation with one of Fernandez’s contacts, a man who lived at the hill’s base. As we spoke, another man ambled up to the property rather incidentally. This was the older migrant, it turned out, who’d jumped the wall into the United States with his buddy. He smiled broadly, said jumped the wall to evade the Tijuana police. When they heard the ATVs, they ran down Bunker Hill on the American side, and seeing that the coast was clear, they popped back over into Mexico. He said how pleased he was to have ducked the Tijuana police, for he was certain he’d have been separated from his travel funds. He and his partner split up, but they would meet up later and try again that night, when it would more difficult for the American agents to spot them. The traveler seemed nonchalant and, having seen their skills, I was pretty sure the pair would make it over.

Many Americans think of the border as a simple line in the sand, and that a wall along its length will solve problems associated with cross-border traffic. But there are bottomless canyons, surging cliffs, and watery boundaries where walls cannot be built. Perhaps as importantly, there are stretches of pristine wilderness where walls simply should not be built. Sonoran Desert pygmy owls don’t fly, but hop, and could never complete their migration over a wall. Likewise, large predators like mountain lions, jaguars and Mexican gray wolves, would be separated by the proposed barrier, causing inbreeding and decline. Moreover, the boundary is not merely a line. Instead it is a complex fissure, some sort of liminal morass where to be poor is the initial crime, and finally, where the distinction between a “wall” and a “fence” blurs into the ultimate realization that physical barriers, in the end, solve nothing and prevent little. The actual boundary is the worst place to solve policy problems.

According to Customs and Border Protection, this summer contractors will build prototypes for Trump’s wall along the San Diego section of the boundary. This is Maria Teresa Fernandez’s turf. As a photographer, she’d committed herself to documenting the border complex. She’d become enthralled with its ever-changing character. It was as if she’d been marking its growth spurts the way a parent sets a child in the door jamb, etching height with a pencil, surprised by each new inch. And here it was, in 2017, threatening to grow again. This new fit of concrete and steel, a mass proposed to writhe across ancient sea beds and up volcanic slopes, is to Fernandez a “living, growing entity.” Certainly, since President Carter set his curtain upon the land, the border fortifications have only grown, but they have also molted and shed layers. Ultimately, Fernandez believes that the wall, like any living, breathing thing, will grow frail and die. It will return to ashes and dust. And indeed, no wall, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Berlin Wall, to the walls of Jericho, has stood the test of time. No matter what it is constructed of, Trump’s wall will meet the same fate.

—Kimball Taylor

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