CALEXICO, Calif. — The Wall is all that stands in their way.
On the other side, there are jobs, money and freedom — and the allure of such opportunity is irresistible.
So they climb.
The two men are from the Mexican state of Guerrero, which means they’ve traveled more than 1,800 miles to illegally enter the United States. One of them hopes to find a job in construction. The other plans to work in landscaping or the fields of the Imperial Valley, an agriculture mecca on the edge of the Sonoran Desert.
They set out from Mexicali, just across the border, on an overcast Wednesday morning, not even bothering to wait for the cover of darkness. A few miles outside of town, they approach a remote stretch of The Wall.
It takes only a few minutes to scale the border fence, wedging their feet between the bollards as they pull themselves up. They drop on the other side — The Wall is not even 15 feet high here — and cross a small dirt lot before diving into the All-American Canal, which delivers Colorado River water to this desert valley.
The men are prepared for this; they’re wearing life jackets.
They paddle across the canal, pull themselves onto the bank and then run — albeit slowly, since they’re middle-aged — through a dusty field at the edge of a solar farm. Nearby is a dirt road, and perhaps a waiting car.
But they don’t get that far.
The Border Patrol converges on them in seconds, speeding black Chevy Tahoes kicking up rooster tails of dust in their wake. Agents swarm and within minutes the two men are sitting on the side of the road, amiably laughing about how easily their plan was foiled.
David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the El Centro sector, asks en Espanol if they’ve ever been in trouble in the United States.
"Not for anything bad," one of them replies, just driving without a license.
In other words, this isn’t their first rodeo.
This is a surprisingly common scene along the border. People illegally come across The Wall every day. Some come for work, others are smuggling drugs and many are simply seeking political asylum, a better life in the land of opportunity.
The U.S. has both a security and immigration problem, but residents who live along the border don’t see either as a crisis — they’ve been living with this for years. Many of them say the vast majority of people, both those who clamor for The Wall and those who protest against it, have no idea what they’re talking about.
Photographer Lauren Petracca and I spent nine days in the American Southwest to learn more about a national controversy that seems far removed, both physically and culturally, from South Carolina. We covered more than 1,500 miles between California and Texas, took three trips into Mexico, and learned that the Border Patrol is correct.
In most of the country, there are many misconceptions about The Wall.
- The Wall is actually a fence in most places, and that’s how Border Patrol wants it. Agents need to see what’s happening on the other side, both for surveillance and their safety.
- President Donald Trump is correct, more of The Wall is built and upgraded every day. But Border Patrol concedes no barrier is impenetrable, that The Wall merely slows down people long enough to catch them. To keep the border secure, agents say they need more technology and boots on the ground.
- No one knows exactly how many people cross the border illegally, but Border Patrol estimates based on the number of people they catch. By their counts, there were nearly 397,000 illegal border crossings last year. That is a surge only when compared to 2017. The number of illegal crossings actually has steadily declined since 2000, when there were 1.64 million.
- The U.S.-Mexico border stretches 1,954 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, there is some sort of barrier on more than 650 of those miles. In the past year, more than 40 miles of wall has been replaced and upgraded. The Department of Homeland Security expects to add or upgrade another 60 miles this year.
- Tightened border security leads to more illegal crossings, often across harsh desert terrain that is difficult to survive. It makes more work for the Border Patrol.
- Thousands of people wait in pitiful camps on the Mexican side of The Wall, hoping one day to cross legally. But few understand the arcane process. As a result, those who do not get free legal help are often denied entry, whether or not they qualify for asylum.
- The Trump administration’s push for more security is both popular and profitable among the "coyotes," men who smuggle people into the country for a price. Their rates have nearly doubled in recent years, from $6,000 to $14,000, and sometimes they force customers to carry drugs into the U.S. as part of the deal.
- The border is a hub of commerce. About 1 million people cross legally every day — Mexican children who are U.S. citizens come to school, while produce and automobiles pass through ports of entry regularly. Shutting down the border, as Trump has threatened to do, could be catastrophic for border towns that have a symbiotic relationship with their neighbors.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott says it’s hard to understand the complexity without seeing it firsthand.
The South Carolina Republican recently toured The Wall outside Tijuana with Border Patrol, walking a dirt access road between the primary steel wall and a secondary fence. From the undulating hillside, the Tijuana metropolitan area spread out to the south, some of the houses and businesses within feet of The Wall. And on the U.S. side, a busy outlet mall sits with its parking lot ending at the fence.
The contrast is stark.
Scott described the system of fences that protect the invisible line between the two countries as “the difference between chaos and order.”
“We have people from 144 countries trying to come across our border here — 145 if you include the U.S. citizens assisting them,” Scott says. “That is the importance of physical barriers. You can’t understand it without being here. All sides have good intentions, but ... we must restore order.”
And that is where the Border Patrol, more than any structure, comes in.
The Wall takes on many different forms between California and Texas. In most urban centers it is an 18-foot fence of steel bollards topped with anti-climbing plates. In remote areas it is simply interlocking “Normandy barriers” that stop vehicles from crossing, but wouldn’t slow down anyone on foot. In a few locations, such as downtown Nogales, Ariz., there is an actual Wall.
But in some places, The Wall is made of re-purposed metal Vietnam-era helicopter landing mats standing on their sides.
Much of The Wall dates back to the Clinton administration. More was added during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Some of the highest fencing along the border has been erected since Trump took office.
The only constant across nearly 2,000 linear miles is the Border Patrol.
Agents fan out along the border, often parked in white and green trucks, constantly watching The Wall. In the El Centro sector, which covers 70 miles of the Imperial Valley between San Diego County and Yuma, Ariz., there are 750 agents … and 200 open positions.
The government desperately needs to fill the open positions because those men and women are busy around the clock. Many days along the border it’s still the Wild West.
This is most apparent in downtown Calexico, a town of 40,000 souls just across the border from the city of Mexicali. The Wall bisects the two downtowns, its height ranging from 18 to 30 feet, most of it covered in concertina wire.
Still, people come over it nearly every day.
“You can’t take your eyes off that fence, can’t take a bathroom break, or they will be over the wall,” says agent Anthony Garcia. “They are always watching.”
In Calexico, like many cities along the border, it is a constant game of cat and mouse. Lookouts keep an eye on Border Patrol trucks, hoping for a lapse in surveillance, a distraction that will give them time to scale The Wall.
In January alone, El Centro sector reported about 100 breaches. Most climb over, but some people actually go through The Wall. Every day, private contractors are out replacing concertina wire and even re-welding bollards that have been cut with blowtorches.
Border Patrol agents are often within seeing distance of one another while on watch, but they can’t see every foot of The Wall at once. They’ve developed tricks to help — raking the sandy dirt along The Wall so they can tell when new footprints appear.
Veteran agents can even pick up the faint impression of a rifle butt now and then. The job has forced them to become trackers.
“All it takes is a few steps across First Street, and they’re in a neighborhood where they can easily blend in and disappear,” Kim says.
The lookouts often attempt to distract agents, even fake them out with decoys. They send someone across and, when agents chase that person, several more cross The Wall.
Agent Paul Balen says it’s a common ploy to draw off security, and it’s a low-risk operation: A first offense for crossing the border illegally is only a misdemeanor.
These games sometimes become dangerous. Lookouts throw rocks the size of softballs at Border Patrol trucks, hoping to distract agents or force them to leave their posts. As a result, El Centro sector Border Patrol vehicles now have metal guards over their windows.
Border Patrol agents say there's a desperate need for improvements to The Wall, but mostly in technology — more surveillance cameras and sensors that can detect when the fence is breached, or tunneled under.
This is not being overly cautious. In Calexico, agents have found tunnels that lead from downtown Mexicali warehouses into subdivision homes more than a block away from The Wall. Drug cartels, they say, will put more than $1 million into such infrastructure.
Of course, most people still breach The Wall above-ground, and these days it's not just smugglers or men looking for work in the States. Now, there are children and families. But Border Patrol says some of those people are just running a different scam.
Since October, Kim says the sector has recorded 176 cases of family fraud — that is, adults posing as minors or people traveling with children who aren’t their own, trying to gain entrance to the country as a family.
Many of those people are deported. It’s a joke among agents that everyone claims they are Mexican, so they are simply sent back across The Wall. To admit they are from Honduras or Ecuador would get them deported to their home countries, and force them to make another long trek across Mexico.
Even though it is a crime to cross the border, sometimes people who climb The Wall are simply returned to Mexico. Prosecutors have to decide whether it is worth jail space to hold someone for crossing illegally, or saving that space for drug dealers and human traffickers.
It is confusing to people who don’t live it every day, Border Patrol admits.
“Most of the people here understand what we do and they get it,” Kim says. “Outside of here, there’s a disconnect. We just enforce the laws on the books.”
But few people understand the law, and fewer still can comprehend life along the border. But Kim says the Border Patrol, and its mission, are simple.
“We protect America."