Reporter’s Notebook: The Border Creates Tragedy by Design
The border, its dread and its promise: a photo essay from Nogales, Sonora, on the day after the tragedy in San Antonio.
It didn’t take Texas governor Greg Abbott long to blame President Joe Biden for the deaths of 51 people left in the back of a sweltering tractor trailer. He tweeted that the deaths resulted from Biden’s “deadly open border policies,” and that they show the “deadly consequences of [Biden’s] refusal to enforce the law.”
For his part, Biden called the “loss of life” in San Antonio “horrifying” and sent his prayers. “My administration,” he said, “will continue to do everything possible to stop criminal smugglers from exploiting migrants.”
Although it seemed that Abbott and Biden were saying different things, they agreed on one crucial issue: that the “solution” is to build up the border even more. This bipartisan holding pattern has infused almost $375 billion into an enforcement apparatus since the mid-1990s. What the president and governor don’t mention is that for decades the border has manufactured tragedy by its very design—including death as depicted in the photo at the top of a border art exposition called Paseo de la Humanidad located on the Mexican side of the border in Nogales. The “solution,” the art seems to suggest, would be found outside this bipartisan paradigm in which border conversations are so often trapped.
I was looking at this border artwork on Tuesday, June 28, the day after the news broke about San Antonio. I also saw these sculpted papier–mâché faces for the first time. Behind the faces were the rust-colored bars of the 20-foot wall and through the coils of concertina wire (which you can see in the above picture if you look closely), I could occasionally see the green-striped Border Patrol vehicles rumbling by on the U.S. side. The wall, the agents, and a mounted camera up on a nearby hill represented the expensive, profitable, and increasingly digital enforcement apparatus composed of, among many other things, motion sensors, scope trucks, helicopters, integrated towers, command-and-control centers, concussion grenades, AR-15s, forward operating bases, and drones. For decades, the enforcement strategy has deployed agents, walls, and technologies to force people to cross the border away from the surveillance, in the most clandestine fashion possible, whether it be on foot in a remote desert, hidden in the backs of tractor trailers, or from a more global perspective, crowded onto boats at sea. The deaths are not an anomaly. In the United States, 8,000 to 10,000 people have died crossing the border since the mid-1990s. And globally, according to the International Organization on Migration, 32,000 people worldwide have died crossing borders from 2014 to 2019 (though the IOM says this is a drastic undercount).
As border and immigration enforcement scholar Gabriella Sanchez wrote on Twitter on June 28, “What happened in San Antonio is not a coincidence or unprecedented. It was quite predictable.”
Although there was no explanation for the artwork, nor visible credit on site given to an artist (though I later found out that the visual artist was Guadalupe Serrano), the sculpted faces juxtaposed with the wall made me think of people who have died crossing the border. Nearby, small, wooden crosses propped on the steel mesh at the base of the wall commemorated the dead (including one that said “peace”; see above), as well as flickering candle graffiti art on the bars of the wall itself (as you can see in the top picture above). On Tuesday, looking up at these faces against the overcast sky, I saw the most recent tragedies: the people in the San Antonio tractor trailer and the 23 (at least) Sudanese asylum seekers killed after rushing the fortified Spanish enclave of Melilla on June 24. The art worked, the sensations were strong. Far from being a solution, the continual building up of the global border enforcement regime would cause more death and suffering.
But looking at the faces—each one distinct and some serene (like this one)—I also saw something else. I saw something alive, even promising.
I was in Nogales with Randy Mayer, the pastor of United Church of Christ Good Shepherd Church in Sahuarita, Arizona, and he was transporting boxes of food and clothes to different spots around town. We went to a bus station that has turned into temporary housing for 17 families. Across the street from there, the binational, humanitarian, and advocacy organization the Kino Border Initiative said they were feeding 300 to 400 people each day and that 80 people were staying in the shelter. I asked KBI’s director, Joanna Williams, whether she saw any hope in Title 42, the pandemic policy in place that rapidly deports unauthorized border crossers caught in the United States, finally being suspended. She said, “We can make a difference in this, but realistically we aren’t seeing a lot changing right now.” In other words, she suspects Title 42 will remain in place for the foreseeable future. And as a direct result of these policies, swaths of Nogales have become de facto refugee camps.
This blockade of asylum seekers could be seen across town in another shelter know as the Casa de la Misericordia, where there were about 120 people on the day I was there. I met a family who had fled Chiapas (pictured below with their faces blurred) because of death threats from a company constructing a hydroelectric dam on a river where they lived in the Guatemalan borderlands near the town of Guadalupe Tepeyac. Because of the threats, they couldn’t return, they told me, and now were waiting to make their asylum case. The painful irony is that a prowling, sprawling, and expanding extractive industry (often either a U.S. or multinational company) goes wherever it pleases and takes whatever it wants without respecting the border, while the border slams shut for this family fleeing its wrath.
Open borders are meant for companies, not people. If we destigmatize the term open border, and put it in practical terms, we would have one immediate and clear solution to stop tragedies like the one in San Antonio from ever happening again. If people had freedom of movement across borders, the 51 people who died in San Antonio on June 27 would be alive right now. There would be no need to get in the truck, cross a desert on foot, or, as we saw in Melilla, try to storm the border fortress with more than 1,000 people. Impeding the freedom of movement for people under immense pressure—sometimes fleeing for their very lives—is a recipe for the humanitarian disaster that the border so inevitably and regularly produces. The solution, far from what is happening in the bipartisan border gridlock, maybe comes best from the graffiti on the wall photographed above: “Todos los muros deben caer” (All walls must fall).
At the Casa de la Misericordia, we stopped at the garden built by three kids, one from El Salvador, one from Guatemala, and one from Mexico. Director Lika Macías told me the kids had moved on, but they left their garden. I’m not sure why I lingered there for so long. We were in the heat of the day, the sun roaring down, but there was something about the garden, even if slightly wilted in spots, that looked beautiful and resilient. The nopales planted in a row of six were sprouting new pads, new life. I kept thinking, here were three kids, stuck at a shelter far away from their homes and communities, who had come together and built something to make the world a better place. Now the kids were in Missouri, Mississippi, and California, respectively. But they had left an inspiring legacy. Even with the odds stacked against them, they could imagine and create a new world across and through borders better than any politician.
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