They Shall not Pass
Bill Hartley reconnoitres Trump’s wall
Periodically there are stories on television about President Trump’s plan to fence off the US-Mexico border. These are often illustrated by aerial shots of migrants trekking across country or of groups being held in detention by immigration officials. But the fence, the border and the way it affects lives is a more complicated story.
Migrants attempting to enter the US undetected have to cross unforgiving country. The Great Sonoran Desert which sweeps up from Mexico into Arizona is a harsh and beautiful place. Here the desert mingles with isolated mountain clusters called Sky Islands. The climate and limited water resources make this a thinly populated place. For example, Cochise County, which runs down to the border, covers 7,000 square miles and has a population of only 136,000. This has always been a country for wanderers, from the Apache whose land it once was, to prospectors seeking mineral wealth and today the profusion of trailer parks, accommodating people who migrate down from the frozen north during the winter months. For the permanent residents there is an opportunity to find space. Travel along Route 82 towards Nogales through some of the more verdant parts and the hills are littered with isolated ranch house dwellings.
Anyone attempting to cross the border from Mexico avoiding the roads is in for a tough physical challenge. Lack of water is an obvious problem but sometimes too much water can bring other hazards. Arizona has its monsoon season and whilst much of the rain is captured by the mountains, when it falls on the hard desert floor via intense thunderstorms, then a dry gully which seems like a good path can be turned into a raging torrent within minutes.
The fence is designed to be 30 feet high and this is something which alarms Conservationists. They anticipate construction will bring intense human activity into pristine desert. It may look like a fairly lifeless place when driving through but this is a delicate ecosystem and evidently it requires help. There are bodies such as the Arizona Conservation Corps and Borderlands Restoration Network whose volunteers work tirelessly. They run educational programmes raising awareness of what is out there and involve themselves in the preservation of native plants and the clearance of watercourses in order to restore habitat. Conservationists see a fence as a barrier to biodiversity as animal and plant species may be reduced to isolated populations.
There is money to be made in keeping out the migrants. Arizona shares a 372 mile long border with Mexico and in April of this year USA Today reported that a contract for the Tucson-Yuma 80 mile fence section has been let, valued at $372,000,000. One wonders if this Maginot approach to the problem will simply prompt more ingenious ways for people to get through. The statistics are quite extraordinary. The USA Today report also added that in the previous six months, 27,873 ‘families and unaccompanied children’ had been apprehended trying to cross in that section alone. The human cost of attempting to traverse this harsh terrain is appalling. One estimate is that in the last two decades, 7,000 people have died trying to get through the desert. This is a stark illustration of just how tough it is trying to cross such country unsupported. It would test the resolve of soldiers on an escape and evasion exercise, never mind families with small children. Out here even a short desert hike requires carrying a large quantity of water.
Other than the Border Patrol there are two groups with migrants in their sights and they hold opposing views. Arizona has a history of vigilantism. Some locals have formed bodies calling themselves Arizona Border Recon and Civil Homeland Defence. Essentially these are groups who come together to locate and detain migrants for the authorities. This being Arizona they are armed to the teeth and festooned with military kit. Looking at pictures of how they dress one might be forgiven for thinking they are about to take on the Taliban rather than desperate migrants. The authorities seem powerless to stop these people hunting expeditions. Some believe they are performing a useful service augmenting the Border Patrol, others view them with disdain.
Firmly on the other side is a group called No More Deaths. Founded in 2004, it is an advocacy group based in Tucson and Phoenix and led by human rights activists in the Unitarian Church. Members are also proactive and have set up foot patrols in the desert with the aim of assisting migrants. In 2005, an attempt was made to prosecute volunteers for ‘transporting migrants’. Their defence was that they were merely providing medical attention. The charges were subsequently dismissed. In 2010, rather more creatively, a member was prosecuted for littering, having been caught leaving bottles of water in the desert. Meanwhile at the University of Arizona law school another body, the Border Action Network, takes a more legalistic approach challenging the US government whose actions it alleges are violating human rights.
The motorist cannot avoid the presence of the Border Patrol. On the roads running north from Mexico there are semi-permanent checkpoints with travellers being stopped and their vehicles inspected. One wonders if this static approach simply alerts illegals who may have assistance that this is a barrier to be circumvented. Perhaps the idea is to catch migrants who may be given lifts by sympathetic locals. The scale of Border Patrol activity is obvious when passing their base at Sonoita where there is a large depot with a huge collection of vehicles. If nothing else they must be providing a lot of employment for the locals.
Among this mixed bag of conservation groups, vigilantes and human rights organisations are the locals, some of whom may have been indifferent to what is going on in their midst. They are now starting to take notice. Methods of surveillance include captive balloons, helicopters and drones. Recently, the Border Patrol have come up with a new idea: cameras on towers. Presumably these are seen as a more cost effective way of observing large tracts of desert than officers in vehicles. The problem with these cameras is of course that they track everyone’s movements. In southern Arizona they tend to be an independent lot who stay in touch with their frontier heritage. Locals with a long history in Arizona like to tell visitors about when their families settled in the area and the hardships they overcame. A Border Patrol spokesman was on television recently attempting to reassure people that they are not being spied upon. It’s unlikely anyone was fooled. The locals don’t like the idea of driving through this vast desert landscape with their movements being logged by a government agency.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service