Panorama de la Linea: Stories and photos from the U.S.-Mexico border
A teenaged boy runs from the border wall that separates the U.S. and Mexico in Nogales just after illegally climbing over the wall from a ladder. — Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com
On a late January afternoon, a a group of men play soccer along one of the dozens of dusty roads truncated by the steel border wall that separates Nogales, Sonora, from its sister city just to the north in Arizona.
For a few moments, the men joke and laugh and one of them pats a teenage boy, dressed in a black jacket and blue jeans, on the back before saying to him, "It's time, let's go."
Three men pick up a battered ladder, while a fourth picks up a length of yellow rope and as a group, they run toward the brace of steel beams that rise 18-feet tall and mark the protected border of Nogales, Arizona.
The men push the ladder against the wall, and tie the rope around the boy's waist. He quickly climbs the ladder, peeking out over the top of the wall before he decides to leap for it. The rope catches him, and rides up to his armpits. For a moment, he's suspended in the air, his feet kicking out against the metal wall.
As the boy struggles with the rope, a Border Patrol vehicle is coming in from the east, while another is coming from the west.
The men lower him and his tiptoes, clad in red Nikes, touch the ground.
The boy looks in both directions, and he runs for the center — a hole closed by a third Border Patrol truck that has pulled up from the neighborhood. The boy makes it past the agent, but moments later, another agent reports that the boy has been apprehended.
This is just one of the stories captured by reporters and photographers for TucsonSentinel.com, who have spent months along the Arizona-Mexico border for our project Panorama De La Linea, or photographs of the line.
The project to take at least one representative photo of every mile of the Arizona-Mexico border, begun in 2015, has become especially paramount with the election of President Donald Trump, who promised repeatedly during his campaign that he would build a wall along the 2,000-mile long border between the U.S. and Mexico, and that he would force Mexico to pay for it. While work is still underway to capture photographs from some of the most inaccessible areas, here is a progress report.
The double-layer fence near Yuma, Arizona during an early monsoon storm at night. — Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com
Perceptions & reality
While Trump's rhetoric on the wall may have struck many Americans as extraordinary, the reality is that border security — and legal and illegal immigration — has been inextricably tied to the idea that the United States needs a formal bulwark along the U.S.-Mexico border.
For more than 20 years, there's been a bipartisan effort to build up border security along the Southwestern border. Along with the construction of walls in cities like Nogales, Yuma, and Douglas, there's been an increasing array of sensors and infrastructure deployed along the frontier.
As the Government Accountability Office said in a February report, "From fiscal years 2005 through 2015, CBP increased the total miles of primary border fencing on the southwest border from 119 miles to 654 miles—including 354 miles of primary pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of primary vehicle fencing."
From 2011 to 2016, the agency also replaced or prepared to replace another 14.1 miles of fencing at a cost of $68.26.
Following the passage of the Secure Fence Act in 2006, there was a rush to build new barriers along the borderlands, resulting in two major organizational failures that cost millions in overages and extra costs.
As CBP worked to complete 299 miles of fence, it failed to "effectively manage the purchase and storage of steel" and spent about $69 million that "could have been put to better use," said the Inspector General's office for DHS in a 2011 report.
This included the cost of 27,557 tons of extra steel, worth about $44 million, which remained in storage after the agency finished construction, and an extra $9.8 million in additional storage costs because CBP failed to move the remaining steel to a government facility more than 2 years after the original storage contract expired, said the Inspector General's office.
The agency also spent nearly $1 billion on a "virtual fence" program known as SBINet, that was eventually sacked by then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in 2011 after it became clear that project had failed to meet its design goals and covered only 53 mile range.
At the same time, the number of Border Patrol agents more than quintupled from 3,555 agents in 1992 to 19,828 agents in 2016. Much of this growth came after Sept. 11, 2001, leading to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and a reorganization that put Border Patrol and Customs officers, along with the helicopter and boat crews in the Office of Air and Marine, into a single agency known as Customs and Border Protection. From 2004 to 2011, the number of Border Patrol agents doubled, and have continued to expand, though in recent years, attrition and job dissatisfaction has driven down the number of agents.
The annual budget for border security and immigration enforcement went from $1.5 billion to $19.5 billion.
Despite this spending and hundreds of miles of new walls under the 2006 Secure Fence Act, much of last year's political rhetoric presented an image of a wild and undefended border, where cartel members and terrorists quickly make their way across the the line.
In some places the border between the U.S. and Mexico is marked only by a barbed wire fence in a remote canyon, but in other places, the border is obvious, marked by a rusty steel line that rises nearly 20 feet into the air, and is defended by flood lights, double-layer fencing, protected roads, sensors, locked gates and dozens of agents, each watching their section of border from an air-conditioned Chevy Tahoe.
Many local political leaders and residents who live hard against the border say that a more imposing physical wall is unnecessary, or impossible.
A Border Patrol supervisor said there are "places where it just doesn't make sense." Another BP agent said a wall is "never going to happen."
Just-elected Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, a Republican whose jurisdiction covers 126 miles of the border, called building a wall a "medieval solution," while Sheriff Tony Estrada of neighboring Santa Cruz County, a longtime Democrat, said it was "a fantasy ... (that is) not going to work."
Outside voices —including Trump administration figures such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said in a recent controversial visit to Nogales that "It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand" (Sessions stumbled over the end of the line, omitting the phrase "against this filth" that appeared in his prepared speech) — have pressed to expand the fortifications along the border.
Some local residents have pushed for a wall, too.
Sue Krentz, whose husband was shot and killed by an unknown person on their border-area ranch in 2010, said "People don’t understand. It’s all relative, until its your relative."
The 'big beautiful' wall
In September, Trump told a crowd of thousands in Phoenix that he would seek the construction of an "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, and beautiful southern border wall."
The wall would use "the best technology" along with sensors, towers, and surveillance to protect the new wall, and he insisted, despite Mexico's refusal, that Mexican authorities would "work with" the United States and pay for the wall, Trump promised.
Following his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order directing Homeland Security to "secure the southern border of the United States" with the "immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border."
This order was backed by a request to Congress for $2.6 billion to begin construction, including $999 million for the "planning, design, and construction" of the first installment of the border wall.
In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection began accepting proposals to design and build prototypes for two walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, one a "physically imposing" wall of reinforced concrete, rising 18 to 30 feet high above the desert.
On the campaign trail, Trump estimated the cost of the wall at $8 to $10 billion dollars, but an internal Department of Homeland Security report estimated that the cost of a wall would be $21.6 billion and take three to five years to complete.
However, an estimate released by members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, reported that the wall could cost up to $66.9 billion, with another $150 million in annual maintenance costs.
Last year, the Obama administration agreed to revamp the border wall surrounding the Hector Castro Port of Entry in Naco, Arizona. Built along flat terrain next to the small city of Naco, just south of Bisbee, nonetheless the total cost of the project, which includes the removal of 7.5 miles of old fencing and the installation of 18-foot high bollard fencing, is estimated at $44.7 million.
However, Trump's rhetoric misses an important point about the borderlands: nearly 650 miles are already protected by some kind of barrier, and much of the rest is watershed where rivers like the Rio Grande, make construction of a 30-foot wall along the border nearly impossible.
In 2011, the current commissioner of CBP told Congress that the Department of Homeland Security has "dedicated historic levels of personnel, technology, and resources to the Southwestern border."
"We increased the size of the Border Patrol to more than 20,700 agents today, more than double the size it was in 2004. As of March 31, 2011, we have constructed 649 miles of fencing out of nearly 652 miles where Border Patrol field commanders determined it was operationally required, including 299 miles of vehicle barriers and 350 miles of pedestrian fence, with the remaining three miles scheduled to be complete by the end of the calendar year," he said.
The double-layer fence near Yuma, Arizona during an early monsoon storm at night. — Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com
'We already have a wall'
In Arizona, most of the border is already marked by some kind of barrier.
Of the 262 linear miles of border covered by the Tucson Sector Border Patrol, 80 percent is defended by some type of barrier, including 72 miles of "pedestrian fencing," according to the Tucson Sector Border Patrol's own figures.
This includes the 18-foot high "bollard" fencing designed to keep people from crossing into the United States; vehicle barriers, known as "Normandy" barriers, named for anti-tank traps used by the Germany military to stop tanks in World War II; and other kinds of fencing, including steel landing mats welded onto frames near Naco, and wire fences.
The Tucson Sector also notes that the remaining 50 miles are protected by "some form of natural barrier" which includes three major mountain ranges that make construction difficult if not impossible, along with vast stretches of open desert.
Along the 126 miles of the Yuma Sector, which extends into California, there is a mishmash of defenses, which includes nearly 40 miles of vehicle barrier, as well as "floating beam" fences that stand 16-feet tall above the sandy dunes, steel bollard fences, mesh fencing, and steel landing mats. All together, there's 107 miles of fencing covering the border in the Yuma Sector.
While the vehicle barrier in Yuma Sector may seem significant, it is backed by an open stretch of hostile desert and the Barry Goldwater Range, a 1.7-million acre chunk of land used as a bombing and gunnery range by the U.S. military.
"We already have a wall," said Dan Millis, a program coordinator with the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. "At this point, we’ve seen nearly three decades of wall construction along the borderlands. Under President Clinton, we built walls, and then President Bush built more walls, and each time those walls failed to address the problem," said Millis.
"At this point, we’re tripling down on failure,” he said.
A sign warning people not to cross the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range, a bombing and gunnery range that butts against the U.S. Mexico border, about 150 miles west of Tucson. — Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com
In 1994, U.S. immigration officials, including Doris Meissner, the commission of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Department of Defense developed the Border Security Strategic Plan, which depended on a strategy of "prevention through deterrence." In the memo, Meissner acknowledged that as the agency increased security in cities like Nogales, Douglas, and Yuma, migrants would be forced into more "hostile terrain," which would place them in "mortal danger."
From 1994 to 2001, two programs, Operations Gatekeeper and Hold the Line, where implemented in San Diego and El Paso. However, as the U.S. General Accounting Office found, there was no decline in crossings along the entire border, instead rather than reducing migration, it simply shifting migration to new areas.
In Yuma, the construction of a "double-layer" fence coincided with a sudden apprehensions from 138,438 in 2005 to 8,363 in 2008.
This trend held until 2015 when apprehensions suddenly ramped up, nearly doubling from 7,142 to 14,170, according to CBP statistics.
Neighboring Tucson Sector increased just slightly, only two percent, during the same period, while El Centro to the west, increased nearly 52 percent.
In 2001, a group of 14 men, many from the Mexican state of Veracruz, perished in the desert near Yuma, the largest group of border crossers to die in Arizona.
In June 2016, the Border Patrol's Search, Trauma, and Rescue unit, better known as BORSTAR announced it was on high-alert because of extreme temperatures in the desert, and would be focus their efforts on remote areas of the Sonoran Desert where the "secluded and dangerous"environment" made the chances of survival "slim for border crossers."
In July, as the temperature rockets upward, Border Patrol agent John Adkisson, a BORSTAR supervisor, stands at the tip of the Tinajas Atlas mountains, more than 170 miles wests of Tucson, and points out Yodaville, the name of a complex used to train soldiers in urban combat tactics.
Then he points to the south to a dark line where the faint colors of semi-trailer tractors pop in the white, sun blasted desert.
"That's the highway in Mexico," he said. "People will try to cross that line, and walk to Tucson or Phoenix from here."
"There's really no water here," said Adkisson, "except for these tanks that are full of really nasty water and if people drink from there, they're more likely to die here."
Just a few weeks before, officials discovered the remains of Eleuteria Santos Mendoza, a 30-year-old woman, who died of exposure in the Goldwater range. A few days later, the body of 33-year-old Juan C. Hernandez was found on private land. Hernandez died from a gunshot wound.
This year, in March officials found the skeletal remains of a man in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, one of at least 29 people who have died since 2001.
Overall, the remains of more than 6,000 people have been found in deserts along the borderlands.
Adkisson works each year to rescue people in the desert, and over the years, the Border Patrol has worked to deploy more BOSTAR agents, and agents with emergency medical training, along with more than 34 emergency beacons, which allow border crossers to call for emergency help.
Last year, Yuma Sector reported that agents had rescued 10 people and discovered the bodies of seven people. Tucson Sector reported that agents had rescued 1,409 people, and discovered the bodies of 84 people.
However, that's only part of the 170 remains found in 2016 and tracked by Humane Borders and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Since January, officials have added discovered remains for 40 new cases of remains found in Arizona, a gruesome discovery that comes even as the number of apprehensions continue to decline.
"We have seen billions spent wasted on an attempt to control the optics of immigration, but that doesn’t mean that people are not crossing, we know people are crossing because we get bodies in the medical examiners office nearly every single week," said Kat Rodriquez, a family network coordinator at the Colibri Center for Human Rights, a non-profit that has worked since 2006 to identify people using detailed missing persons reports, forensic science, and overlooked details like tattoo and unique belongings.
"The reality is that militarization has not been an effective way to deal with immigration, instead militarization has become a death sentence of thousands of people," Rodriguez said.
"We're asking the wrong questions. We're asking how to keep them out, rather than why they are coming," she said.
Robin Reineke, the executive director of the Colibri Center, has likened the deaths of people crossing the southwestern desert a disaster, akin to the crash of an airliner that happens again and again each year.
"This issue doesn't have a name, it doesn't have good visibility. In Southern Arizona, at least 2,000 lives have been lost in the last decade. It's a disaster, but it's happened drip by drip by drip."
"And, potentially, we've normalized this disaster locally, we've had to create systems that nobody wanted to create," Reineke said. "The rest of the nation doesn't realize just how big this is, and there's this problem of visibility when you get hung up on the numbers. Some people will say, 'well, an average of 400 deaths along the border isn't that big of a deal.'"
"But this is part of the problem, we're focusing on the wrong thing," she said. "Not only is this a person who died, this is a person who died alone in the desert. This was a person who was preyed upon by animals. This is a person who is still unidentified years later, and the family is still looking for them.”
“And, when they finally get the answer they need, they’re finally given a box of ashes, or a really painful assemblage of parts—the remains of someone that they loved," Reineke said.
Unpopular, but still likely
National polling shows that Trump's proposal to build a wall remains unpopular.
Just before the election in October, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll surveyed Arizonans and found that 47 percent believed that the wall would be a waste of money.
Asked if a wall would be "an effective barrier or a waste of money," 47 percent of Arizona residents picked "waste of money" and 34 percent picked "effective barrier", with the rest picking neither, according to the poll.
Among Republicans, 21 percent picked "waste of money" and 57 percent picked "effective barrier."
The Pew Research Center conducted its own poll in February and found that Trump's inauguration hadn't changed America's opinion.
Around 62 percent of Americans opposed building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, while only around 35 percent favor the construction of a 2,000-mile long barrier, Pew said.
Additionally, about 70 percent think the U.S. would ultimately pay for the wall, compared to just 16 percent who think Mexico will pay for it, Pew said.
Despite the lack of public support, Homeland Security may still build parts of Trump's "beautiful wall" because border fencing is often a short hand for border security.
The'Gang of 8'
During his 2010 run for re-election, Arizona Senator John McCain used the border as a backdrop for an ad starring himself and border security hawk Paul Babeu, the sheriff of Pinal County.
As the two men walked along the border, Babeu rattles off parts of McCain's border security plan, which included the hiring of 3,000 additional Border Patrol agents, the deployment of National Guard units, and a plan to "complete the danged fence."
McCain repeats the phrase: "Complete the danged fence."
"It'll work this time," says Babeu. "Senator, you're one of us."
Three years later, McCain was one of eight senators pushing for an 800-page immigration bill that included an expanded visa program and a "path to citizenship" for the 11.2 million people already in the United States without authorization. However, the bill also included $3 billion for new customs officer and Border Patrol agents, and another $1.5 billion for a double-layer border fence, infrastructure, and technology.
As one of the bill's stated goals, the increase in border security was designed to blunt a "third wave" of immigrants crossing the border illegally.
The bill passed the Senate, however, the House of Representatives sacked the bill, killing any possibility for comprehensive immigration reform under the Obama administration.
In Arizona, the wall doesn't feel like a solution.
"The minute that you lay eyes on the border is the minute that the border wall ceases to make sense," said Millis. "We already have 650 miles of fencing and concrete barriers, but if you build a giant wall, especially across the flood-prone Rio Grande River, you’ll have the world’s biggest dam—it’s total folly."
Millis said that researchers have found that the current pedestrian barriers already keep some species from crossing the borderlands, and that a hardened wall will affect more species.
"Along the border, we have national parks, we have more than 1,000 miles of river, and we have wildlife that cannot be found anywhere else in the country," Millis said. "And, to push all of these closer to the brink for something that really wouldn’t work?"
Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Migrant Status Inc., a humanitarian group, and co-founder of Humane Borders, a group that has been putting water into the desert to mitigate the number of deaths in Arizona’s deserts since 2001, calls Trump’s policies "nonsense."
"Whatever we’ve done along the border has backfired," Hoover said. "There’s evidence that the fencing and security we’ve already completed has cost the lives of more than 5,000 people. The wall changes were people cross a little bit, and that just pushes them further into the desert and increases the likelihood that they’re going to die."
"Same thing I've been saying for a decade, a wall just keeps people in. As you build the fence, and do more enforcement, you make it too expensive and dangerous for people to go home and come back. That has a negative effect. Migrants will abandon their families in Mexico to start new families here and there’s a social cost that no one talks about," Hoover said.
Though she isn't always sure about Trump's stances, Sue Krentz, whose rancher husband Robert Krentz was shot and killed in 2010 by an unknown assailant when he was checking stock ponds, supported Trump's run for president. Now living in Douglas, she wants a wall and additional Border Patrol agents along the border.
“I understand why people are coming here, I understand, but when you’ve got 150 people in your front yard, on your land, and the sheriff won’t do anything about because its Border Patrol’s job, what are you going to do?," she asked.
“I’ve got six generations in this community, but we stand to lose everything, our water, our land, everything because there are people just coming into our land. And we’re 30 miles from the border.”
"This problem is so much bigger than you and I and it’s out of control, when Rob was killed, we lost everything, we lost our history, a part of our family."
She pauses, "People don’t understand. It’s all relative, until its your relative."
For Glenn Spencer, the construction of the 18-foot high bollard fence along his property line made a huge difference.
"Before it was built, it was the wild west down here," he said. "Now with the bollard fence, it's a gated community."
"Twelve years ago, when we purchased this land and started putting up video cameras, we just saw the wildest things, Border Patrol agents were chasing people through the desert, there were helicopters, vehicles, canine units, just everything," he said.
Despite the construction of the bollard fencing, Spencer has spent years on a quixotic campaign to develop his own sensors and drones along the U.S.-Mexico border with the ultimate goal he said, to detect every person who crosses the border.
Spencer supported Trump in the election, at one point flying his small airplane overhead with the words "Go Trump" painted beneath the wings, but he said a solid concrete wall was "crazy."
"That will never happen, he's using the word wall as a marketing tool," Spencer said. Fences might lead people to think of "picket fences" rather than the steel bollard fences deployed along parts of the border.
"The president is doing exactly what needs to be done to reach his goal of securing the border," Spencer said. "I'll be very interested to see what he does."
In an interview with the New York Times "The Daily" podcast, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier said the plan to build a 30-foot was was a "medieval solution to a modern problem."
"I mean, 10,000 years ago we were building walls around things, and here we are in 2017, and this is the best idea we can come up with?" asked Napier.
His colleague, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, called the wall "a fantasy."
"It’s not going to work. the wall has shown people down and diverted people to dangerous areas, but the wall has not really the answer. People who live along the There’s a lot of ways that people come through, climb over the fence, go around the fence, or go under the fence."
"It’s a good political strategy, but it’s just not realistic for people who live along the border," Estrada said.
The wall may also face serious opposition from people living along the borderlands.
The double-layer fence near Yuma, Arizona during an early monsoon storm at night. — Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com
While some Texas residents have balked at the possibility that their land will be absorbed into the project, the members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which is already cut in two by the current border, may actively fight against the wall.
During an interview with KJZZ in November, Verlon Jones, vice chairman for the tribe, described the sentiments of some community members: "Over my dead body will a wall be built," Jones said.
"I don’t wish to die but I do wish to work together with people so we can truly protect the homeland of this place they call the United States of America. Not only for our people but for the American people," Jones said.
During a ceremony at the San Solano Missions in Topawa, about 20 miles from the border, and 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Jones said "There is no word for wall in our language. Because there’s not meant to be any walls."
The Tohono O'odham Nation's people have their own crossing point near San Miguel, and the border is already marked by miles of anti-vehicle barriers, including metal posts filled with concrete, however a wall may set of major protests by tribal members.
"Taxpayers of America if they don’t wake up and realize $30 billion dollars of their taxpaying money is going to go to something that is not going to be 100 percent effective," Jones told the Arizona Republic.
While the National Border Patrol Council, the union for Border Patrol agents, pushed hard for Trump's presidency, there are signs that agents would rather have equipment and infrastructure, along with "tactical" walls, rather than wall along the entire border.
During the Border Security Conference in San Antonio, the head of acquisitions for CBP, Mark Borkowski, told the Guardian that there is "a fair debate over whether this is how the U.S. should spend its treasure."
"I’m a career civil servant. My boss is the president. He was elected, I was not. He has given me an order. We’re following that order," Borkowski said, adding that he wants to integrate physical barriers into a system that adds "operational control" along the border
In Nogales, Border Patrol agent Tim York, 32-year veteran of the Border Patrol and a division chief, said that border fencing was just "part of the spectrum" of infrastructure and technology needed to defend the United States against transnational criminal organizations. "There are mountains near here where we really can't build a wall, and places where it just doesn't make sense," York said.
In Naco, an agent on patrol is driving slowly in his vehicle with his window rolled down. He's looking for signs that people have jumped the fence and have crossed the sandy road before going into the grasslands to the north.
The agent, who said he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that the wall was "never going to happen."
Nearby, contractors with Granite Construction are tearing out 7.5 miles of "outdated" pedestrian fencing near Naco's port of entry, removing the current wire mesh and "landing-mat" fencing and installing an 18-foot high bollard fence capped by steel plates to make climbing over them more difficult.
The plans for the replacement began four years ago, and the funding for the project was just approved last year by the Obama administration.
A new wall could make it difficult for agents to see "who is on the other side," he said.
A few years earlier, he tried to apprehend a man along the fence near Naco. As he held the man to the ground, a group of men hiding behind the fence tried to stop him by climbing up to the top and hurling rocks at him.
"They were yelling in Spanish, 'kill him' and 'hit him in the head,'" the agent said. He drew his sidearm, and the men stopped.
"We need something like this," he said, pointing to the bollard fencing behind him. "We need radios to keep in touch with each other, we need sensors, we need infrastructure, but we don't need a wall."
On April 5, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that "It is unlikely that we will build a wall, a physical barrier, from sea to shining sea."
"The President knows that I'm looking at variations on the theme, and I have no doubt that when I go back to him and say, 'Wall makes sense here, high-tech fencing makes sense over here, technology makes sense over here,' I have no doubt he'll tell me to go do it," Kelly said.
This echoed similar comments Kelly made during his confirmation hearing. "A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job," Kelly said.
Newly installed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that the border was "complicated, as far as building a physical wall."
"The Rio Grande, what side of the river are you going to put the wall? We’re not going to put it on our side and cede the river to Mexico. And we’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river," Zinke said.
Crosses marking the border fence in Nogales, Sonora. — Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com
TucsonSentinel.com’s Rebekah Zemansky, Joseph Oland and others contributed to this report, which was supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.