A Line in the Sand
A trip along America's southern border reveals how tough it will be to seal it against unwanted visitors
If you build it, will they come? That's the question facing the Senate this month as lawmakers consider broad immigration reform, including a proposal to build a reinforced fence along the full length of the Mexican border. The three sponsors--Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Sessions of Alabama--hope the barricade will allay a growing national concern: that our southern border is a free and easy conduit for terrorists, drug smugglers, and millions of undocumented workers.
For most of the nearly 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico, there are no guards, no man-made barriers, no nothing. The Senate's plan, for a dual-layered, $5 billion fence, aims to fix that. So does a plan approved by the House late last year, for a 700-mile-long fence. Drive the length of the border from El Paso, Texas, to San Diego, Calif., though, and the stark landscape casts doubt on the utility of both plans. West of the Rio Grande, the border is an invisible line in the sand. It exists only on paper, drawn straight as an arrow, without regard to topographic variations. In New Mexico, it crosses a pale desert of rock and shrub , in Arizona an undulating sacaton sea. In California, it rides the crests of endless dunes.
A primitive road, deeply rutted, runs parallel to much of the border on the U.S. side. This, in the truest sense of the term, is no man's land. Would building a wall or fence out here really make a difference? Would a migrant from Guatemala, confronting such an obstacle after his long journey, just throw up his hands and head home? That's the bet.
In populous areas like Naco, Ariz., there's a 14-foot-high steel wall, complemented by infrared sensors, stadiumlike lighting, and a semi-paved road for the steady back and forth of the Border Patrol agents' dusty Chevy Tahoes. Here the number of migrants caught crossing the border has dropped. The number found dead in the nearby desert, however, has risen sharply. Migrants, and maybe bad guys, are opting for harsher climes, skirting the bright lights and big cities.
This, despite the fact that the wall in Naco is easily breached. Standing next to it at dusk, my camera on a tripod, I heard a sudden clamoring of feet on metal. The next thing I knew, a twilit man was pulling himself up and over. He dropped nimbly to the ground, then strolled off into the desert with all the urgency of a Sunday shopper.
The issue, of course, is not barriers but economics. In 2004, the median hourly wage for a Mexican was $1.86 south of the border--and $9 in the United States. That's one of the greatest economic differentials of any border in the world--and one no man-made barrier will change. History has not been kind to the builders of barriers, mainly because nearly all have failed to dam the flow of a determined people.
In the farthest reaches of the American southwest, a landscape whose aesthetic divinity comes as much from its severity as its resistance to development, the plans for a barrier, in some ways, bear the seeds of their own defeat, attempting to satisfy our need for security by creating the illusion of it.
For now, the borderland looks pretty much as it always has, harsh, naked, and, perversely, inviting--a no man's land shared by America and Mexico, with liberty to roam between the two. For those who would build a barrier on the border, of course, that liberty is a quaint relic of a more innocent time, the empty landscape an emblem of our vulnerability. The barrier builders' desire is not one of romantic ideals but of post-9/11 protection: a place where the sand is orange, the wall high, and the only things coming and going are the birds, the wind, and the bright white clouds.
This story appears in the March 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.