Even as borders around the world become more militarized, activists, long-time residents, and migrants in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands engage in acts of resistance.

Illustration by Rachell Sumpter

By Maura Fitzgerald

Once the sun sets in Nogales, Mexico, if you look north toward the United States it’s hard to see much of anything. In other places night “falls,” but here in Nogales, says Jeannette Pazos, it “activates.” We cannot see them, but in the darkness migrants are setting out, shouldering backpacks, grasping water, prayer cards, and children’s hands. The women and girls tuck birth control pills into pockets (they’ve heard about the coyotes). Members of the Sinaloa cartel who control these hills levy $2,000 to $3,000 “tolls” on each migrant who tries to pass, while U.S. Border Patrol agents check infrared cameras and wait in idling SUVs for a sensor to trip or a call to crackle over the radio.

If the group of Harvard students seated in front of Pazos has any image of where they are, it has something to do with poverty, with violence, and with deportation. Nogales has plenty of all three, Pazos acknowledges. Her dark hair is pulled back, revealing a smooth, open face. But as we sit on folding chairs at Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (“Home of Hope and Peace,” the community center she runs), Pazos wants us to see what she also sees. The community where we sit, Bella Vista, was named for its beautiful view.

Soon the stories we hear about Nogales will overpower the little we can make out. But in the late afternoon, from the top of a Bella Vista hill, we might glimpse Nogales as Pazos wants us to. The border wall is still there, in the distance, but for a moment a shadow seeps into it. For a moment Nogales looks as it once did. As it has to people here for most of their collective memory. Like you could walk down this hill and keep walking.


With her ready smile and the braces that cover her teeth, Pazos could be mistaken for a high school–aged volunteer at the center. But she speaks with the cogence and pragmatism that comes from decades of work in this besieged community. She shows us pictures of a drama therapy program the center had put on for neighborhood kids. As part of the performance, the children pantomimed a kidnapping. A particularly shy girl played the hit man. A fake gun in her hand, her face painted white and black like a mime, the five-year-old was, Pazos recalls, “very professional.”

Children in Nogales today do not see the city as Pazos remembers it. They see kidnapping and violence, a landscape of walls and maquiladoras, the factories that have proliferated in the border region and that have dominated the landscape since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Nogales children grow up in a center of specialized production. Their city makes cell phones, computer and engine parts, paper, clothing, dentures, and death. Even in death, Nogales specializes. Pazos enumerates the forms of death in the region: death in the desert, from dehydration and cartels; death through the exhausting work in maquiladoras; the slower death-in-life of wasted opportunities.

For a moment in the late afternoon, depending on the light, Pazos sees Nogales as it used to be. The wall is gone, and the city is once again a ranch full of hills and the walnut trees for which Nogales is named. Come morning, children in Nogales will ask Jeannette what a nogal is. They’ve never seen one.


The U.S. government built the first barrier between Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona, in 1996, just two years after NAFTA came into effect. That first barrier was made of surplus military mats left over from the Vietnam War. In 2011 it got a redesign. Concerned that smugglers were easily breaching the previous barrier—for example, by having migrants climb to the roof of vans and hop over while smugglers threw rocks at Border Patrol agents—Homeland Security built the new wall higher and, for the first time, made it partially see-through. The current barrier is made of eighteen-foot-tall metal slabs spaced far enough apart yet close enough together that you can see the other side without slipping between them. At certain junctures in the barrier, surveillance towers rise high in the air, each topped with multiple swiveling cameras that are usually pointed at Mexico. The U.S. government calls it a fence. Everyone in Nogales calls it a wall.

The government has officially enlisted death and suffering as tools of deterrence; they have weaponized the desert.

The barrier was built as part of a Border Patrol strategy, adopted in 1994, dubbed “prevention through deterrence.” By building walls in the cities where undocumented migrants traditionally (and fairly easily) entered the United States, the Border Patrol sought, in its own words, to force “illegal traffic . . . over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”1 The walls would funnel people into the desert, where the cost of migration—broadly defined—was far higher. Reliance on smugglers increased, and so did their fees; the risk of death through dehydration or exposure also increased exponentially.2 Most of the effects were foreseen, and advocated for, by the Border Patrol. In a 1994 manual, the Border Patrol notes that increased smugglers’ fees will be a sign its policies are succeeding. The government has officially enlisted death and suffering as tools of deterrence; they have weaponized the desert.

The militarization of the border under “prevention through deterrence” directly contributed to the known deaths of 5,607 people along the southern border between 1994 and 2009.3 Since 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported recovering the remains of another 1,604 people. More than 7,000 red dots on government maps mark the bodies. Many more are never discovered: the actual number of dead is undoubtedly higher.4

Equally troubling, but impossible to quantify, is the spiritual toll these policies take not only on migrants and their families but on the enforcers of the current system. On the afternoon we met with Jeannette Pazos, she recalled accompanying a group of students like ours to the Border Patrol’s Tucson facility. She told us that the agent there mentioned his children. He said that before he went out on patrol, he’d recite Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

Pazos had been unnerved. “Why is such a good person working with the Border Patrol?” she wondered. She remembered the faith of the migrants she met, remembered the rosaries and the prayer cards, the shrines and the candles they left burning in the desert.

“With whom does Jesus walk?” she asks us now. “Is he walking with the migrant in the desert, or beginning his patrol? Or both? Or is it the system that divides us?”


At the border patrol’s Tucson station, there are display cases that hold objects for sale: shirts with the names of military units, knives, and infant onesies with patriotic themes. A poster on the wall offers tips for identifying “impostors” attempting to mislead agents at checkpoints.

The two representatives who meet with us, a public information officer named Pete Bidegain and his colleague, Cristina Ruiz, say that Border Patrol agents are “protecting America by securing our borders.” (Bidegain also has status as an agent for the Border Patrol, while Ruiz is a civilian information officer.) A third person, Special Operations Supervisor Christopher Defreitas, stands in the doorway to the conference room during the presentation, his arms crossed over his imposing build. He watches intently, but he does not wish to sit down.

Here in the Tucson sector, approximately 4,200 agents are responsible for securing 262 miles of border: 210 miles have a wall of some kind, and the rest is protected by “natural barriers” like mountains. Bidegain explains the agency’s current strategy. Rather than seeking to stop all traffic at the border, the agency has implemented layers of enforcement. While no single measure will catch all of the traffic, the idea is that a combination of motion sensors, thermal and security cameras, night vision, and surveillance drones will eventually capture most of it.

In order to protect the United States, our hosts remind us, it is imperative to identify the people who are entering the country. In the post-9/11 era, there are concerns that terrorists intent on harming Americans could slip across our borders undetected—though the agents won’t comment on how many terrorists have actually been apprehended at the United States–Mexico border. On the other hand, they point out that there is no doubt that large amounts of drugs are being smuggled across the border and sold in American communities. The agents say that the Tucson Sector alone seizes about half of all the marijuana confiscated at the borders nationwide.

Border Patrol agents are not only the country’s first line of defense against terrorism and drug trafficking. Agents are also “first responders” to the migrants they find. “We have to go from law enforcement mode to humanitarian mode very quickly,” Bidegain explains. Every single agent here, our hosts assure us, has spent at least one afternoon hungry because he gave his lunch away to a migrant who hadn’t eaten for days.

Like the humanitarian groups we’ve been interviewing, the agents tell us they “don’t want to see anyone lose their life out in the desert.” The Border Patrol here recorded 509 rescues of migrants in 2014. The agency has installed thirty-two “rescue beacons” in the desert around Tucson, equipped with solar-powered phones that connect migrants in distress to search and rescue teams.

Border Patrol agents “protect migrants from exploitative and abusive cartels” whose routine abuses against migrants include rape, extortion, and murder. The agents say that the days of mom-and-pop smugglers are gone and that cartels now control all of the migrant traffic through their sector. Whereas migrants once walked for a day or two, the smugglers are now leading migrants farther into the desert on journeys that could easily last a week.

To protect apprehended migrants from their smugglers, the Border Patrol has initiated the Alien Transfer Exit Program. Under this program, a migrant apprehended in one section of the border will be deported to a different location, often hundreds of miles away, where the cartel that smuggled them the first time will be less likely to track them down for a repeated crossing. In this way, the agents say, the Border Patrol is protecting migrants by “repatriating [the cartel’s] commodity elsewhere.”

The use of a “consequence delivery system”—the methods involved include jail time, deportation, and other measures—ensures that every migrant apprehended will be punished.

Other measures seem intended to save migrants, not from smugglers but from themselves. The Border Patrol works to disseminate information about the dangers of crossing through consulates and aid groups in the migrants’ countries of origin. By “increasing the certainty of arrest,” the agents hope that migrants will think twice before again attempting the dangerous journey north. The use of a “consequence delivery system”—the methods involved include jail time, deportation, and other measures—ensures that every migrant apprehended will be punished. The majority of arrests the Border Patrol makes are not drug related; they are of migrants whose only crime is attempting to cross the border.

The agents are aware of the strain these enforcement activities place on local communities, and they strive to be as respectful as possible. Bidegain grew up in the local area, in Sonoita. He speaks of “ranch liaison units” and mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all agents working on the local reservation land of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Members of the O’odham tribe live on both sides of the border, and some have a contentious relationship with the Border Patrol.5

We ask the agents about the controversial interior U.S. checkpoints where agents are authorized to stop and question drivers within one hundred miles of the border itself. They assure us that local people “know the drill,” and that the searches agents perform are consensual. After all, the only question a person is required to answer is whether he is a United States citizen. From the doorway, Defreitas now wants to speak. He has lots of checkpoint stories he wants to tell us: of how he studied behavioral clues to find migrants hidden in the trunks of cars; of large amounts of cocaine he discovered in hidden vehicle compartments. He wants these stories to convey what he and the other agents are dealing with out there. And he wants to say this, unequivocally: “We don’t racially profile.”


Defreitas’s position is debatable. The day before, we had visited Arivaca, Arizona, a small town fifty-five miles away from the official Nogales border crossing known for its protests against checkpoints and the omnipresence of Border Patrol agents, SUVs, horses, helicopters, mobile surveillance towers, cameras, and drones. We met with a resident named Sophie, who volunteers at People Helping People in the Border Zone, a community organization that campaigns against the militarization of the border and distributes water, food, and first aid to the community. Arivaca is sometimes the first town migrants reach after trekking through the Sonoran Desert. Some residents have been providing aid under the radar for a long time to the migrants who seek help at their doors, sometimes offering them a glass of water, a plate of hot food, or dressing for a wound. Sophie says that as the number of migrants coming through Arivaca swelled, People Helping People was founded to support this tradition of aid and to relieve some of the strain on local people. She also told us that heightened enforcement has left many people here afraid to help migrants in the ways they once did.

Sophie predicted that the Border Patrol representatives would emphasize their safety initiatives. They would almost sound like humanitarians. They would not talk about how the Border Patrol deliberately forces migrants farther into the desert (the journey does not take a week simply because smugglers prefer it). They would not talk about the agents who have been caught on film puncturing or kicking over the jugs of water that good Samaritans leave out in the desert. Sophie said we would hear all about the technology—the drones, the sensors, the towers—but they would not explain why humanitarian groups that relay migrants’ descriptions of stranded and injured companions have been told that there’s no way the Border Patrol can find a migrant without GPS coordinates. Sophie predicted the agents would tell us all about their thirty-two “rescue beacons”—that’s one beacon for every 819 square miles of Tucson Sector jurisdiction (good luck finding one)—but they would not mention that the beacons mimic the symbols of humanitarian groups. There is no warning on the beacon, and the red cross symbol might lead you to believe otherwise, but if you’re a migrant and you pick up that phone, you will dial a direct line to the Border Patrol. Yes, they perform “rescues”—just prior to detaining and deporting people.

“If they really want to do humanitarian work,” Sophie said, “then they’ll tear down the wall in the cities.”


illustration of the desert at dawn with a trail of lights leading into the distance

Illustration by Rachell Sumpter


At the end of our visit to the border patrol’s Tucson station, the agents offer to show us the short-term hold facility. We walk past some cubicles, outside to a different building, down a few halls. We’re chatting, not fully paying attention to exactly where we’re going. When we look around, really look around, we find ourselves in a bubble. This is the command center of the hold facility: a Plexiglas-encased pod in the middle of the room with a 360-degree view of several cells full of migrants. There are rooms for women, for men, and for families. The migrants will be held here awaiting trial—in theory for under twenty-four hours, but sometimes longer—and then they will be transferred to a longer-term facility to serve their sentences. “This is not a detention facility,” the agents tell us.

It looks like one, though. As we stand in the bubble, each of us has a different view. The agent is talking, and I am trying to listen to him. Directly behind him, however, I can see the room full of men. Inside there seem to be at least fifteen migrants, maybe more. Some have wrapped blankets around their shoulders. Some stare at the floor. Half a dozen men are at the door, jostling for the attention of the visiting students, many of us female. Watching and not watching them, I see these men laughing, cracking jokes. One of them musters a few salsa steps. Part of me is glad that mirth can survive in this desolate place.

Another part of me wonders at what happens when you put up a wall. How a once arbitrary line, made concrete, begins to justify itself. If I saw these men on the streets of Tucson, I would not fear them. But seeing them now, I wonder if this Plexiglas, this cage, is here for good reason.

Many of these migrants will soon appear in Tucson District Court for hearings through a Homeland Security initiative called Operation Streamline. These appearances are part of the “consequence delivery system” that imposes punishment as an intended deterrent to reentry. In the past, entering the country without authorization was deportable but not criminal. Since 2005, unauthorized entry has been criminalized; migrants frequently serve jail time in the United States before they are deported. The migrants tried through Operation Streamline have been charged with two different kinds of illegal entry: one a felony, one a misdemeanor. After brief, same-day consultations with court-appointed lawyers, the migrants generally agree to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge and accept jail time of thirty to 180 days in exchange for averting a lengthy trial and possible felony conviction. To save time, they are judged en masse.

The migrants enter the courtroom sixty to seventy at a time. I don’t get an exact count. I’m sitting in the back of the courtroom, and I can see only the backs of their heads. For the sake of accuracy, I might cross the bar, pass the bailiff, and step into the well. From there, I could turn to see each migrant, each individual.

I remain seated.

Five at a time, the migrants approach a row of microphones. The judge is polite, efficient, professional. He asks three questions, the specifics varying only slightly:

  1. Are you a citizen of Guatemala?
  2. On or about March 17, 2015, did you enter the United States near Nogales, Arizona?
  3. How do you plead to the charge of illegal entry?

After several repetitions, the judge falls into a rhythm. His cadence rises pleasantly, if slightly, at the word “plead”: just enough to keep himself awake without startling his listener. As the judge speaks, the shackles that bind the migrants’ waists, wrists, and ankles jingle softly.

The ritual is as easy as possible for the migrants. The passive options are the correct ones. If you understand your rights, remain seated. If your headphones (for translations) are working, stay silent. If you accept the plea bargain and jail time, keep doing what you’re doing. You only need to speak when it’s your turn at the microphone and the judge addresses you directly. The lines are easy to remember: first “,” then “,” and finally, “culpable” (guilty). Occasionally, a migrant’s voice stands out for its softness, its depth, its reediness, its femininity, its deference, its tremble; its force and the microphone static that rebukes it.

Although most migrants keep the proceedings moving along smoothly, a few stray from their lines. A woman from El Salvador wants asylum. A young man worries that his lawyer has not called his mother. Another man complains of abdominal pain (has he recently undergone surgery? this is a point of confusion in the courtroom). The lawyer of a Mam-speaking indigenous woman from Mexico worries that she does not sufficiently understand Spanish to understand what is happening (the judge confirms—in Spanish—that the woman believes she understands just fine). One wise guy tries to answer in English.

I used to imagine the Southwest border as a wild region, a land dotted with cacti and cattle, run by gun-slinging renegades. What I see is a different kind of slaughter: courteous, civilized, clean.

“This process does get somewhat repetitive,” the judge had explained at the opening of the proceedings. Now I notice that the bailiff slumps in his chair, yawns, rests his head in his palm. But the judge maintains his professionalism and pace. After the questions and answers, he sentences each migrant to thirty, sixty, 150 days in prison. To group after group of migrants, he remains polite: “You may be excused. Good luck to you.” After the lawyers remove the headphones from their ears, the migrants turn to shuffle out of the courtroom.

As the migrants walk toward the bar, I see them properly for the first time. They are overweight, underweight, disheveled, wearing collared shirts, baby-faced, wrinkled, or one-armed. When I occasionally meet a migrant’s gaze, I do not know how to stare back.

I used to imagine the Southwest border as a wild region, a land dotted with cacti and cattle, run by gun-slinging renegades. What I see is a different kind of slaughter: courteous, civilized, clean.


After they serve their prison sentences, the migrants sentenced through Operation Streamline will be deported. Some of them may be released in Nogales and find their way to El Comedor, or “The Dining Room,” a fenced-in, open-air dining hall with a one-room kitchen, a bathroom, and long tables sheltered by a corrugated metal roof. At 9 am and 4 pm, 365 days per year, the staff of El Comedorserves two hot, free meals. The staff provides table service to the migrants—there is no lining up—and they eat as much as they want.

We sit around the tables with Thomas Flowers, an American Jesuit scholastic who has been working at El Comedorfor the past year. Flowers is in his early thirties, with a slender build and a kind, clean-shaven face. He tells us that migrants arrive here confused, disoriented, hungry, and depressed. Some have just been released from prison in the United States. One volunteer remembered a woman who, apprehended on her way to a party, was deported in a ball gown. Some migrants have been deported in the middle of the night—pushed over the border into a city they may not know, into a country of which they may have little memory. The majority of migrants that find El Comedorare not from Nogales, but from other parts of Mexico, such as the more heavily indigenous communities in the south, or from other countries in Central America or even farther afield.

Newly deported migrants make conspicuous targets for crime. Migrants are either deported in the clothing in which they were apprehended (soiled and damaged after days in the desert), or in standard-issue U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement clothing that Nogales residents can easily identify. Migrants who are not from northern Mexico are also recognized by their appearance and their accents. Many have had their belongings and money confiscated by U.S. officials. The are easy prey for the cartel that exerts great control over Nogales. Its members may rob, beat, and sexually assault migrants. They may kidnap them, either to extort ransoms from family members in the United States or to force the migrants to work for the cartel (digging tunnels or smuggling drugs). Seeking protection, some migrants end up sleeping in a cemetery.

If the migrants are lucky enough to make it to El Comedor, the staff gives them more than food. They offer migrants a new set of clothes, toiletries, advice (don’t walk that way into the hills controlled by the cartel), and a safe place to consider their next moves. Many migrants see little point in returning to the places they left (or, indeed, fled), and many will attempt to return to the United States to reunite with their families. We speak to two migrants and recent deportees who have arrived at El Comedor after years in the United States. Between them, Demetrio and Miguel have five children, all United States citizens. Although they face real dangers in Nogales, they say they worry most about the kids they left behind. “It’s hard to explain to your kids why you gave them a kiss before school in the morning, but you disappeared at night.” Demetrio and Miguel are lucky enough to have other family members who, for now, can take care of their kids. Other deported parents, unable to appear in family court in the United States, struggle to keep custody of their children. What charge do they face? In Arizona these parents, many of whom will risk death to get back to their kids, are charged with “neglect by willful abandonment.”

“Maybe we are less than human,” muses Demetrio, reflecting on his treatment. “Maybe we are cockroaches.” Both Demetrio and Miguel tell us that they were deported for minor crimes. For many migrants living in the United States without authorization, the path to deportation begins with a police encounter for alleged offenses ranging from traffic violations, to drunk driving, to shoplifting. If the officers investigate people’s immigration status, as many departments nationwide now require, even migrants who are ultimately cleared of wrongdoing may be sent back to countries they have not seen in years.

Miguel says his kids need their father. He worries about his son getting involved in gangs; he wants to support his daughter, a talented student with dreams, he says, of attending Harvard. Demetrio cannot tell us much about his three “princesas.” When Thomas asks him how old his daughters are, Demetrio is only able to reply “fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen” before, beginning to cry, he retreats into the privacy of the kitchen.

Migrants like Demetrio and Miguel who decide to return to the United States know that they will need to gather between $9,000 and $15,000 to pay the smugglers. They know that they could face violence, monsoons, flash floods, temperatures below freezing, lethal heat, and apprehension (again). Flowers describes saying grace before meals here: “It is the most profound silence.”


Back on the other side of the border, we visit Coronado National Forest to meet with Scott Nicholson, a blond, bespectacled missionary who moved to the region from Missoula, Montana, and works with Jeannette Pazos at Hogar de Esperanza y Paz. Coronado National Forest encompasses 1.78 million acres of mountains and canyonland at the southern edges of Arizona and New Mexico. We walk through the desert with Nicholson for about thirty minutes, along a path that traces a dry creek bed and meanders around rock formations and overgrowths of brush. The sign at the trail entrance states: “Travel Caution: Smuggling and Illegal Immigration May be Encountered in This Area.” Nicholson walks here regularly, carrying jugs of water that he will leave for migrants who use these trails on the journey north. Nicholson cannot be sure whether or when the migrants will come across the water. But when he returns here weeks later, the jugs are almost always empty.

Since the border wall and increased enforcement have pushed migrants farther and farther into the desert, it is common for migrants to have walked two days before even reaching the U.S. side of the border. From that point—assuming they don’t get lost—they will still have to continue walking for another three to four days before they reach a pick-up point where the smugglers will transfer them into the American interior by car. For this nearly weeklong journey, most migrants carry enough water for one day, maybe two.

Even on our short walk to this point, we noticed the objects scattered on the trail: a windbreaker, a scarf, an empty package of Mexican biscuits, a child’s backpack. On hiking trails in the rest of the country, it’s common to find things. Were these belongings shed in haste by migrants evading the Border Patrol? Or did they belong to the RV campers we’d seen in the parking lot? Were these objects to be treated with respect or resentment?

Nicholson remembers a time when many of Arizona’s prominent environmental groups, alarmed by the massive amounts of trash left by migrants traveling north, supported stringent measures to control the border. Over time, however, many environmentalists—including the Sierra Club’s leaders—came to the conclusion that migration enforcement, more than migration itself, was responsible for the bulk of the environmental destruction. To increase visibility the Border Patrol has flattened land (some of it protected) by dragging tires from the back of trucks. Agents patrol remote and protected areas daily with trucks, ATVs, and horses. Contractors install surveillance towers in the desert, build roads to reach them, and plant motion sensors in the ground. Walls and stadium lighting not only disrupt the migration patterns of humans but of the region’s plants and animals, some of which, like the desert tortoise and the jaguar, are endangered.

When Nicholson walks these trails he finds photographs, letters, and prayer cards. He comes across migrant shrines to travel companions who died in the desert; sometimes the candles are still lit. Nicholson feels fortunate not to have encountered the body of a dead migrant yet, though he knows it is only a matter of time. “I view this as sacred ground,” he tells us. It is the final resting place of migrants who have died and melted into the desert.

When Nicholson walks these trails he notices surveillance cameras affixed to the trees. When he sometimes trips a sensor, he comes face to face with Border Patrol agents in ATVs. Driving into the park, we counted three Border Patrol trucks on the otherwise mostly empty road. Several times we heard helicopters pass overhead. The same kinds of drones the U.S. military uses in Asia and the Middle East are now also patrolling Arizona.


We leave Scott Nicholson and come to a hill in the beautiful, blooming desert where we watch our country’s next border being built. When we drive up to this site in our van, we find Border Patrol agents, construction workers, and company representatives. “All I can tell you,” says a worker, “is the project is called ‘Integrated Fixed Towers,’ and if you want any more information you can contact the public information office of Customs and Border Protection.”

Although the men are not authorized to talk to us, we can see one of the massive towers, covered in cameras and receivers and surrounded by barbed-wire fence. This tower and fifty-one others like it across the Tucson Sector are part of an initial, $145-million contract to build a “virtual wall” to detect migrant traffic through the use of motion sensors, radar, night vision cameras, and live-streamed video capable of capturing images of human beings as far as seven miles away. A previous, Boeing-led attempt to build a virtual wall failed due to technical problems and financial mismanagement. This time around, the contracted company is Israel-based Elbit Systems.

The company is new to the American Southwest, but this is hardly its first rodeo. Elbit provided surveillance equipment for the wall separating Israel from the West Bank. The company also supplies combat and surveillance drones deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. As an Israeli brigadier general explained at a 2012 border technology conference in El Paso, “We have learned lots from Gaza. It’s a great laboratory.”6 If the pilot phase is successful, the “virtual wall” could extend to cover the entire Arizona border, and maybe beyond.

The build-up on the U.S.-Mexico border is part of a global trend toward militarized borders. Over the past decade the Spanish government has expanded and reinforced its defenses surrounding the enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta (contiguous to Morocco). The borders now include double-layered, barbed-wire-topped, twenty-foot-high fences in addition to stadium lighting, motion and noise sensors, and watchtowers for armed guards. In Bulgaria, a country that joyously tore down a hated wall after the 1989 fall of its Communist regime, the current government is now building a hundred-mile wall intended to block the entry of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.7 Through the Plan Frontera Sur (Southern Border Plan), Mexico has greatly increased the number of checkpoints designed to apprehend Central American migrants when they reach southern Mexico. Much of the funding, intelligence, and military and surveillance equipment for this program comes from the United States.8

These examples of border militarization, found all over the world, raise questions of law and ethics. They also raise the question: will all this work?

These examples of border militarization, found all over the world, raise questions of law and ethics. They also raise the question: will all this work? Which is to say, will heavily militarized borders stem the flow of refugees and unauthorized migrants into countries that do not want them? Even the world’s most “secure” borders have proven porous. Up to 300,000 people have escaped from North Korea since the early 1950s. Around 5,000 East Berliners found a way over, under, or through the Berlin Wall. Migrants and refugees continue to breach the Melilla and Ceuta fences: they have launched coordinated campaigns to simultaneously rush the wall by the hundreds. And every night in Libya, refugees from Syria, Eritrea, and Mali pack into decrepit boats to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. In each of these instances, the effort to stop people from moving has resulted in death and suffering. Death from rubber bullets and live ammunition, and from our collective indifference to the lethal risks of drowning and exposure these border policies create.

“What do you think would happen,” I asked one of the Border Patrol agents in Tucson, “if the virtual wall were extended to cover all of our southern border?” “People are innovative,” he replied.

Already, the Mexican cartels use slingshots, catapults, tunnels, and even submarines.9 Smuggling humans and drugs, after all, is one of the world’s largest and most lucrative businesses. “The structures of sin are elaborate,” Thomas Flowers told us. American companies, guns, military aid, and cartel profits go south. Finished products, drugs, and people come north. If you have $500,000 to invest, you can get a green card. If you only have $15,000, you can try your luck with a smuggler. Janet Napolitano, then-governor of Arizona, remarked in 2005, “Show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border.”10 Can we build any barrier with fortifications fiercer than the love of Demetrio and Miguel for the children anxiously awaiting them on the other side?

Migrants who seek to cross the border imagine themselves on a linear path. But they end up moving in a circle: from the desert, to detention, to deportation, and back into the desert again. This cycle produces great suffering—and great profit. Profit for the cartels that control the smuggling trade; profit for the privatized detention facilities that depend on detainees to meet their bottom line; profit for the defense contractors that, like Elbit, have sold us the idea that surveillance and exclusion will keep us safe. And profits for the governments that, in exchange for U.S. military aid, will extend our de facto borders farther and farther south, intercepting migrants before they ever reach American soil.

If militarized borders are our collective future—and if the past is any indication of the future—there will be resistance. Throughout our trip, we saw signs of resistance and met people who reject the laws of the state for the laws of a higher morality. I began to wonder if what we are witnessing is our own era’s expansion on the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, in which activists smuggled Central American refugees across the border and sheltered them in churches. Acts of active public resistance proliferate even as borders grow harder to cross. Churches provide sanctuary to the undocumented; protestors chain themselves to buses of detainees en route to Operation Streamline hearings; people like Scott Nicholson leave jugs of water two at a time in a vast desert. On our trip we heard about priests who perform the rites of the Eucharist through the gaps in the border fence, and we met Jesuits like Thomas Flowers who counter the dehumanization of deportees with a change of clothes and table service. When asked about her prayer for the border region, Jeannette Pazos replied, “I think that a prayer is more than a wish. For example, when we pray in the church, it’s like ‘God, we ask you.’ But I think that there’s a moment in this era of the world when ‘we ask you’ goes into action. It goes into action.” Sometimes this action can be as practical—and profound—as answering a stranger’s knock on the back door, despite fear, and offering a shower, a meal, even a phone call.

“Welcome to the borderlands,” people said to us on our first day in Tucson. Now that we’re back home, we can’t explain where we’ve been. The descriptions provided by the people we met don’t help much. They say that place is America, Mexico, a battlefield, a zone, a punishment, a shrine. It’s O’odham land, or a murder scene. Companies see a deal, governments see a threat, cartels see a market, elders see walnut trees, children see death. And Jeannette Pazos un-sees a wall.


  1. U.S. Border Patrol, “Border Patrol Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond,” July 1994, https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=721845.
  2. Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith et al., The “Funnel Effect ” and Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990–2005 (Binational Migration Institute, 2006), bmi.arizona.edu.
  3. Maria Jimenez, Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border (ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights, October 1, 2009), 17, www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/immigrants/humanitariancrisisreport.pdf.
  4. Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, “307 People Died Crossing the Southern Border Last Year, and That’s the Lowest It’s Been in 15 Years,” ThinkProgress, October 24, 2014; and U.S. Border Patrol, “Southwest Border Deaths by Fiscal Year,” www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats.
  5. We met with members of the Tohono O’odham Hemajkam Rights Network (TOHRN, pronounced “thorn”), a grassroots organization formed in 2013, made up “of young people who care about the land, our future, and our rights.” When we asked TOHRN’s leaders what kind of immigration policy they would want, one told us: “To be honest, any kind of immigration policy hurts Native people, because we are the only ones who are not immigrants in this land. . . . We have the ultimate truth: we are the people of this land.”
  6. Todd Miller and Gabriel Matthew Schivone, “Gaza in Arizona: How Israeli High-Tech Firms Will Up-Armor the US-Mexican Border,” Common Dreams, January 26, 2015.
  7. Rick Lyman, “Bulgaria Puts up a New Wall, but This One Keeps People Out,” The New York Times, April 5, 2015.
  8. Todd Miller, “Mexico: The US Border Patrol’s Newest Hire,” Al Jazeera America, October 4, 2014.
  9. Michael S. Schmidt and Thom Shanker, “Drug Smugglers Pose Underwater Challenge in Caribbean,” The New York Times, September 9, 2012.
  10. Reece Jones, “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall,” The New York Times, August 27, 2012.

Maura Fitzgerald received her master in public policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2015. Her writing and photographs have appeared in Southern Cultures, Guernica, and The Oxford American. She visited the border region in spring 2015 as part of Diane Moore’s Harvard Divinity School course Border Crossings: Immigration in America.

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