The desert, divided

The Borderlands thrive on connections. What would it mean to sever them?

In early January, almost everyone in the country seemed to have the flu, including U.S. House Rep. Raúl Grijalva. “My grandkids made me sick!” he exclaimed over the phone from Washington, D.C., sounding congested. Grijalva, a Democrat, represents Arizona’s 3rd District, which comprises most of the state’s southern border, including Nogales, a town of one- and two-story buildings, nestled in a valley and named for the groves of walnuts that once thrived in the surrounding hills. It’s separated from Nogales, Sonora, by the international border. The binational city is known as Ambos Nogales, or “both Nogales.” When Grijalva asked me how the weather was in Nogales, I wondered if he was homesick.

I sat outside a sandwich shop in Nogales, Arizona, under soft gray clouds that quilted the expansive desert sky. It was just cool enough to justify my jacket. In the distance, sunlight poured onto dark mountains. Grijalva spoke from the nation’s capital, where something called a bomb cyclone was buffeting the Eastern Seaboard with snow, ice and gusts of up to 50 mph.


I’d called Grijalva to talk about the legislative storms also buffeting the capital. Last fall, Donald Trump’s acting Secretary of Homeland Security rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, an Obama administration initiative that offered temporary protection from deportation and work permits to some undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. As Grijalva and I spoke, members of Congress threatened to hold the nation’s budget hostage in exchange for a renewed DACA program. Then, in early 2018, a federal budget passed without a DACA program fix. Dreamers’ fate seemed more than ever to be a bargaining chip for border wall funding and restrictions on legal immigration.

Since Grijalva and I spoke, a federal judge in California ruled that DACA must stay in place while cases against the recission wind through the courts. Still, hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who don’t have DACA status can no longer apply for the program. According to the Center for Migration studies, in 2014, two-thirds of undocumented immigrants entered the United States by overstaying visas — yet somehow, the fates of both Dreamers and the Borderlands have become ensnared in the search for comprehensive nationwide immigration reform.

 “What’s been lost in that process is a real appreciation, an examination, of what the Borderlands are, what they were, and what they can be,” Grijalva told me in January. “That loss of perspective is, I think, what bothers me the most.”

Grijalva, now 70, grew up on a ranch near Nogales. When he was a boy, the family moved to Tucson, today part of Grijalva’s legislative district. Grijalva considers the Borderlands a doorway to Latin America, to trade and commerce, to “integrating all the great diversity we have in this nation.” But he has witnessed the changes that politics have wrought on the region. “My tías lived on the other side in Nogales, Sonora. For us, passing back and forth, it was part of our daily lives. Our family events were on both sides of the border.” While, many Americans have a “dark picture” of the region, he said, its reality is different, and it holds important lessons for the rest of the country. “Diversity is not a plague upon our nation, and in fact has contributed to the uniqueness of the Borderlands,” Grijalva said.

U.S. House Rep. Raúl Grijalva outside his Tucson office. Grijalva grew up on the border. “For us, passing back and forth, it was part of our daily lives.”
Norma Jean Gargasz

Grijalva believes that the people who live here, including tribal members, Mormon pioneer descendants, Latino residents, and others, have the best solutions for the region’s problems, such as using technology instead of a wall for immigration enforcement, and focusing on organized crime: drug traffickers, human traffickers, gunrunners. Instead, people in Washington, D.C., who have never been to the Borderlands, want to militarize it, without consulting local businesses, the faith community or others whose daily lives are affected.

The Borderlands, in other words, is more than a place to draw a line. It’s a region of ancient animal migrations and vital human trade. Now, though, Washington politics bear down on the Borderlands, severing economic and ecological connections, strand by strand. Trump campaigned on a promise to “build a wall,” and his administration has begun projects in Texas, New Mexico and California, invoking post-9/11 legislation to waive more than 30 federal regulations and fast track border construction. The state of California and environmental organizations have pushed back, but in February, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel found that the Department of Homeland Security is acting within its authority.

Grijalva told me how he would like other people to see the Borderlands: as an example of a region that “without any help defines itself, and a region now that is fighting like hell to keep its identity.” Before we hung up, he urged me to get a flu shot.

A young woman surprises her relatives by crossing over from Nogales, Arizona, to Nogales, Sonora, while other relatives look on from behind the border wall in the U.S. The family declined to give their names.
Andrew Cullen

Bruce Bracker’s grandparents moved to Nogales and purchased an Army surplus store in 1924. Over time, Bracker’s evolved into one of Ambos Nogales’s best-known department stores, selling tailored men’s clothing, evening dresses, fur coats. (Grijalva purchased his first pair of Levi’s there.) But in the fall of 2017, Bracker shuttered his store. When I met him at his office, in a quiet municipal complex with a lovely view of the surrounding valley, I asked him why. “Pardon me,” he said, standing up to fish a cough drop from a computer bag slouching on a metal file cabinet. He’d been hit by the flu, too. For three generations, Bracker’s business relied on the easy flow of shoppers across Arizona’s southern border. But more restrictive border policies meant his customers couldn’t reach his store anymore. Eighty percent of them came from Mexico, Bracker said, and the other 20 percent earned their income there. The store was 100 percent dependent on Mexico. “We made it through the Depression, but we could not make it through the last eight years,” he said. With more than 300 vacancies, Nogales has some of the most severe port of entry staffing shortages, according to the union that represents Border Patrol agents. The lines to enter the U.S. for a day have become so onerous that shoppers with money to burn are turning to Mexican stores instead, Bracker said. In the Borderlands, commerce goes two ways, a reality that outsiders sometimes miss.

“The commerce coming into the country, the travelers coming into the country through these ports of entry, are really what create economic security in the border states,” said Bracker, who is now a supervisor for Santa Cruz County, in southern Arizona. While the country debates stopping the flow of people across the U.S.-Mexico border, Bracker works to make that flow more efficient. He focused first on renovating ports of entry in Arizona, and now he wants more Border Patrol agents so that more lanes can stay open. But Border Patrol’s staffing troubles create a shortage that’s throttling local commerce.

More than undocumented workers, Bracker worries about an end to the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. Trade regulations would revert to World Trade Organization rules, which Bracker said would mean that certain manufactured components used in Mexico would no longer have to come from the United States. At the same time, the environmental and worker protections in Mexico that were part of NAFTA would be lost. “If we’re negotiating, if we’re at the table, those things are included in the agreement. If we’re not at the table, those things are not included in the agreement,” he said.

Bruce Bracker, whose grandparents started the Bracker’s department store in the 1920s, closed the store in 2017 because the flow of shoppers from Mexico had dwindled. “We made it through the Depression, but we could not make it through the last eight years,” he says.
Andrew Cullen

The border backup is just one problem that Bracker is wrestling with these days. He and other Borderlands county commissioners have organized a committee to pressure the state to help deal with these issues. Bracker worries about maintaining roads and rerouting traffic when he has the tax base of a rural community and the road traffic of one of the region’s largest overland ports of entry. And road maintenance is absolutely essential: At the height of the busy season, 1,400 trucks per day carry winter vegetables through town. Thousands of eighteen-wheelers rumble down these roads each year, moving produce and supplies both north and south of the border. But Bracker also doesn’t want Mariposa — the Nogales port of entry used by trucks — to lose shipments to Texas or California. Bracker recalled learning of much shorter wait times at other states’ ports of entry and realizing, “We’re gonna get our a--...” He stopped himself, noted that I was recording his words, and tried a different analogy. “Houston, we have a problem.” In 2010, Arizona broke ground on an updated Mariposa port of entry in Nogales. Bracker believes average wait times for trucks have gone down from three or four hours to under one hour, although I could not confirm this, because the Border Patrol does not accurately measure wait times for trucks crossing the border.

The border-counties commission that Bracker started is young, and it’s still setting its goals and finding its voice. Along with road maintenance, commissioners worry about the strain on their judicial systems arresting and trying international travelers who commit crimes in their communities.

At this point, Bracker seems resigned to some form of border infrastructure. But he thinks that most people who support the idea of a wall just want to feel that their government is trying to keep them safe. A physical wall won’t do that, he said: “Technology and manpower is really the answer to make that happen.” What he wishes that people outside the borderlands knew about the place that he grew up — beyond just how important it is for the fruit and veggies that appear on their plate each January — is that “it’s an amazing, amazing place,” he said. A place that, in order to thrive, needs more flow and movement, not less.

After talking with Bracker, I decided to investigate the ports of entry he’d described. I headed south from Tucson one early February afternoon under a cloudless sky. Southern Arizona had barely had a winter. Without more rain to wake them, the desert’s wildflowers wouldn’t make much of a show this spring. Last year’s dead grasses lined the roadway, under leafless mesquites and chamisa just starting to turn bright green.

I’d never driven across the southern border before, only walked, and I found the zigzag of white-lane barriers disconcerting to navigate as the sun sank behind a distant ridge of mountains. Almost no one seemed to be crossing south with me, and I questioned whether I was going the right way. Then suddenly I was in Mexico. To my surprise, I broke into a cold sweat, realizing that I didn’t have international car insurance, that night was coming, that the roads were narrow and the traffic fast, and that I had no idea where I was going, other than farther away from the U.S.

I checked my rising anxiety. What was I afraid of, really? A fender-bender? Insurance problems? Or, despite all my smiles, my polite attempts at Spanish, my starry-eyed conversations about living in a multicultural region, was I simply afraid to be hurtling so resolutely into el otro lado — the other side? I tried to imagine that this was a one-way voyage, that the border behind me was a boundary between my past and my future. That I couldn’t go back, not now, not for years, maybe never. I made the first U-turn I could. It took an hour and a half to clear the two miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic back to the U.S. checkpoint.

“What was the purpose of your trip?” the guard, a blond man in his 20s, asked me.

“To get dinner, but I didn’t even get out of the car,” I answered, through my open window. “The line coming back was so long, I turned right back around.”

“People are going over to watch the Superbowl,” he said. “In Mexico. Makes no sense to me.”

Traffic backs up at the border crossing in Nogales, Sonora.
Andrew Cullen

Some things, like football, require picking a side. But the Borderlands residents I spoke with repeated the same underlying message: We’re all on the same team. If this region survives, it will be together. That interdependence stretches into the Borderlands’ natural systems. Southern Arizona is one of the country’s most biodiverse regions, and, as boundaries harden, researchers struggle to predict what will happen to the animals that inhabit it.

On a sunny day this winter, I met Aaron Flesch, an ecologist at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory, a collection of low-slung rock buildings built a century ago to study how plants survive in drylands. Today, the research station is a protected pocket of Sonoran desert just west of downtown Tucson, where scientists still study desert ecology. Dark-haired and lean, in his early 40s, Flesch explained why regional connectivity matters for the area’s unique natural history. “If you just eliminate movement across the border, then continuity is gone,” Flesch said. And that means many species would likely disappear from the Borderlands. As we sat at a table near a saguaro cactus, a bee buzzed around us. “It’ll be dead by tomorrow,” Flesch observed. “There’s a freeze coming tonight.”

For more than a century, biologists such as Flesch have been drawn to the Borderlands by its climate and geography, by the way that life forms from the Americas meet here and mingle. The Borderlands is a mixing place for Sonoran desert and Chihuahuan desert life forms, with incredible biodiversity. And different species grow at different elevations, from grasslands to pine forests. Nearctic and neotropical species intermingle, using sky island mountains as stepping stones. Rivers flow back and forth, crisscrossing the international boundary line, shaping valleys between mountain ranges, adding to the region’s complexity and connectedness.

With so many peripheral species wandering up from Mexico, Arizona is an “amazing place for naturalists,” Flesch said. “Birders from all over the country come here to see all of our special neotropical species that just get up across the border.” I am not a birder, but as Flesch spoke, I remembered, with a pang of guilt, that I’d missed the chance to see an elegant trogon — an iridescent bird with a crimson chest and long green tail, related to Costa Rica’s splendid quetzal — that took up residence in a canyon east of Tucson several years ago.

Because the Borderlands brings together species at the limits of their ranges, as well as relict species marooned on high-elevation islands as the deserts around them warmed, many plants and animals here have very small population sizes. Those species need good habitat and plenty of it, but they also need to be able to move freely between the resources that sustain them. “It’s not just us not benefitting from jaguars moving north,” Flesch said. “Black bears need movement from Arizona into Mexico to sustain populations, in all likelihood, especially in the sky islands.”

Flesch would like to see the Border Patrol use more high-tech monitoring — a virtual wall, employing technological solutions in areas of high animal movements — so that scientists can help the agency limit illegal immigration while minimizing the impacts on wildlife. “People climb walls,” Flesch said. “I don’t care how big Donald Trump builds them. People are going to climb over, tunnel under, for the cost of one load of cocaine. That’s the absurdity of this; we’re designing a first-century solution to a 21st century problem. It makes no sense, and it’s really frustrating.”

Even when a species may not be globally or even regionally rare, the unique natural history of the Borderlands means that local populations may wink out if faced with an uncrossable barrier. When a very small population becomes isolated, it is much more vulnerable to random extinction events. Creatures may struggle to access good-quality habitat, and with just a few individuals spread out across marginal habitat, they can have a harder time successfully reproducing.

Flesch previously researched ferruginous pygmy owls, one small, feathered piece in the Borderlands’ biological mosaic, and concluded that a border wall could prevent young birds from crossing the international boundary to find new territory. Most people don’t think of a wall as an obstacle for birds, but most people don’t know that these palm-sized raptors live in woodlands and other dense vegetation, where they fly amid and even under low plants. This helps them catch small prey, such as insects and lizards, while avoiding the bigger raptors’ talons. Ferruginous pygmy owls use what Flesch called a “perch and pounce” pattern, where they sit on a perch in search of prey, then fly in a low U-shaped pattern to the next perch, rarely getting more than a few feet above the ground. Flesch estimates that some 50 pairs of pygmy owls dwell on Arizona lands, with an unknown additional number on Tohono O’odham nation land. For them, Trump’s proposed wall could prove insurmountable.

Even the infrastructure that accompanies a wall — the roads, lights, traffic — poses formidable challenges to the diminutive birds, which, unlike most owls, are diurnal, and stick to cover as much as possible. “They don’t readily leave areas of dense cover,” Flesch said. If a young male in search of his own home range found himself crossing open ground, he would fly even closer to the ground than usual, and time his flight to the waning light of dusk or dawn. Some young birds seemed to lose their nerve entirely, retreating at the sight of open farm fields and heading back the way they’d come.

A border fence runs west from Sasabe, Arizona, before ending abruptly on a hillside.
Andrew Cullen

The truth is, no one truly knows the effects of border infrastructure on wildlife: In 1996, Congress authorized building fences on the nation’s borders. Then, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed further legislation allowing the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive any federal laws slowing down that construction, including the Endangered Species Act and other environmental regulations. Now, more than a decade later, the U.S. has no large-scale or systematic scientific studies to examine the impacts of border fencing. The Trump administration has invoked the decade-old legislation to once again build unregulated border fencing in California, Texas and New Mexico.

To truly understand what fencing would do to the Borderlands, researchers need more data. But some worry that cross-border research will see a chilling effect brought on by the Trump administration. Louise Misztal directs the Sky Island Alliance, a nonprofit focused on researching and conserving the biodiversity of the mountain ecosystems that dot the arid Southwest. In the sky islands, Misztal told me by telephone, neotropical species such as trogons and jaguars live amid black bears and mountain lions. Stressors in the Borderlands, such as climate change, cross boundaries. But with the growing politicization of the region, research on these connections becomes harder. Travel is increasingly difficult for U.S. government employees and their Mexican counterparts, in part because of longer wait times at understaffed border crossings. Funding for projects that support travel, interpretation or translation for Mexican partners receives more federal scrutiny and is harder to get, Misztal said. “There’s a lot of fear and caution in staff I’m working with about not putting it in the budget or talking about it.”

A mountain lion balances on a border fence near Naco, Arizona.
Arizona Game and Fish Department

Randy Serraglio, who works on the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaigns against the wall and border militarization, told me that building infrastructure willy-nilly has had real consequences for the residents of the Borderlands. In all, 650 miles of barriers were built in the mid-2000s without environmental analyses. “It was all done for mostly political reasons, the ‘Mexican Invasion,’ ” Serraglio said. “A lot of politicians in Washington were using that fear and that xenophobia to win points and whip up support with constituents.”

In Organ Pipe National Monument, for example, the Border Patrol built pedestrian fencing without the kind of inspection mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. During heavy flooding in 2008, debris piled up against the fencing, inundating the park’s headquarters and Border Patrol facilities. “It was very embarrassing for Border Patrol,” Serraglio said. “If they had done a NEPA (review), it wouldn’t have happened.”

Border construction also has proven dangerous. During a 2008 construction push, the Border Patrol, without informing Mexico, built a 5-foot concrete barrier inside a storm-water tunnel that undocumented migrants used to move between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, effectively creating an underground dam. That July, monsoon rains flooded eight feet deep on the streets of Nogales, Sonora, buckling roads, destroying homes and cars and causing $8 million in damages. Two people drowned. It turned out that the barrier was built on the Mexican side of the border, not the American side, “but that’s just salt to the wound,” Serraglio said.      

“This whole drumbeat of fear that comes out of D.C., it’s just so hollow,” Serraglio added. “It just distorts and misrepresents what the reality in the border region is. It would be a real shame to sacrifice this region on the pyre of politics.”

A woman who declined to give her name talks to relatives through the border wall separating Nogales, Sonora, from Nogales, Arizona.
Andrew Cullen

In the Borderlands, walls divide cities, deserts — and people.

Apprehensions of undocumented migrants in border states have fallen over the past decade to levels not seen since the early 1970s. Yet the number of people who die attempting to enter the United States through the desert keeps growing, as border crossers follow increasingly rugged landscapes. These are places that, a decade ago, no one thought anyone would cross — jagged mountains rising from remote desert, empty washes, open range. They include the Tohono O’odham tribe’s ancestral land, which was divided by the U.S.-Mexico border. Following Trump’s election, tribal vice chairperson Verlon Jose told YES! Magazine that the U.S. would build a wall across tribal land “over my dead body.”

Last November, I went hiking with my boyfriend in the Baboquivari Wilderness Area, Tohono O’odham ancestral land now administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Baboquivari is a chiseled, squared peak that rises dramatically from the surrounding shrublands of southern Arizona, some 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. It holds the tribe’s place of emergence and the home of its Creator. As the Border Patrol squeezes migrants away from easier terrain, more and more people venture across this extremely remote, almost roadless landscape of rugged peaks and steep trails. Near the top of Baboquivari we found many traces of their passing — always slightly off-trail, in shady spots, under bushes or hidden near trees: a gallon jug holding down a black garbage bag, an antique glass juice bottle, an anti-diarrheal medication pouch, children’s clothing, a denim slipper with carpeting sewn to one side, worn to hide tracks in the sand.

In the evening, as we headed downhill to the trailhead, the light turned to liquid gold. From the side of the mountain, Arizona looked like a green sea, dotted with islands of jagged red rocks. One distant fin resembled a hunched inchworm, munching its way through a carpet of emerald mesquites.

Someone was waiting near the car.

“Hablas español?” the man asked. I walked closer in the fading light. He wore camo-print pants, a dark colored shirt, and had short hair and a black plastic water bottle. In Spanish, he continued: “I want to go to La Migra. I want to turn myself in.” His words tumbled and caught, like flotsam in a flooding stream. His name was Cosme, and he was in his mid-20s. He’d been traveling with a group for two weeks from Michoacán, Mexico. Two days earlier, the Border Patrol had chased his group with helicopters, motorized vehicles and dogs, scattering people in the desert, a tactic of “prevention through deterrence” that human rights groups blame for many deaths. As he ran, Cosme slipped and caught his backpack on a bush, tearing it. He lost his phone, which he used as his map, and all his food. He had no idea where he was. Hungry and lost, he was ready to surrender, but he couldn’t find anyone to surrender to.

I gave him what food I had: some trail mix, two apples. I assured him that if he stayed where he was, at the base of a trail near a stone house where a caretaker lived, La Migra would come. He only had to wait until morning. I tried to dissuade him from walking anywhere. We were at least a 20 mile trek to the nearest town.

As we spoke, the temperature dropped and the sky darkened to an onyx black awash with stars. I suddenly saw how forbidding the sky was, how small we were, how long the night would be. He asked me to drive him to Indiana. I pulled out my phone. We stood, shoulders pressed together, as I showed him where we were, where he’d started his journey two weeks ago, where Indiana was. He began crying again. “Take me to Tucson,” he begged. “Take me to Tucson. Take me to Tucson. Take me to Tucson.”

To get back to Tucson, my boyfriend and I would drive through a Border Patrol checkpoint, but I did not want to give Cosme a ride; I was worried that I could be charged with trafficking. In the summer of 2005, the Border Patrol charged two No More Deaths volunteers with federal crimes, including aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice, for trying to drive three severely dehydrated undocumented migrants to emergency medical facilities. Instead, we would leave him at the empty trailhead. Cosme turned and looked up and said a prayer I didn’t understand. He seemed to be speaking directly to Jesus. I rummaged through the car for things he might need — Band-Aids, a daypack, electrolyte tablets, a headlamp. Nowhere in my car could I find what I needed — the sense, when I encountered a stranger suffering so close to my home, that I was free to help. Cosme stood in the headlight beams, watching us back away, and then the darkness swallowed him.

A tall mesh border fence and a lower vehicle barrier separate Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, from Sonora, Mexico.
Andrew Cullen

Associate Editor Maya L. Kapoor writes from Tucson, Arizona.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.


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