Fenced In, Fenced Out

In the US Mexican borderlands, even Trump voters oppose the president’s plan to build a border wall. They fear that even more immigrants will die in their backyard.

German version (with photo essay) published February 14, 2017 by ZEIT ONLINE >>

At the open ranch door, I stare into a pair of eyes. A mountain lion stares back, legs stretched, ready to jump. But jump it will never again. It has become a hunting trophy, with eyes of glass and dust settling on his fur. “This beast stole 20,000 dollars’ worth of cattle”, says Sue Chilton with a rattling laugh. “That was its death sentence.”

The Survival of the Fittest is law on this ranch in the middle of nowhere – at Jim and Sue Street, Arivaca, Arizona, ten miles from the Mexican border. And Jim and Sue Chilton do whatever it takes to be the fittest. 

I have never seen an empire like theirs: a country house with an octadecagonal tower on a hill in the middle of a wide-stretched property. “50,000 acres”, Jim Chilton points out to me. Behind the taxidermized mountain lion, the Chiltons display ancient Native American tools that they found – and kept – during the construction of their ranch. We walk down an endless corridor past trophies and family photos. Jim Chilton points to a portrait of his great-great-great-grandfather, who lived “when the Apaches were still slaughtering people out here”, as he says.

The corridor leads to a hall with 18 windows, from which Jim and Sue overlook the Sonoran Desert into all directions: to the Baboquivari, sacred mountain of the Tohono O’odham, in the west, to the steppe fires of Three Points in the north and to the Mexican border in the south. This is where they look with special vigilance.

The Chilton’s village of Arivaca in the Tucson Sector is one of the most remote areas in the US borderland, which stretches over 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the main routes for immigrants and drug couriers alike. Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall and deploy 5,000 additional border guards does not sound like a novelty to the locals: After 9/11, George W. Bush already had fence sections built and a 100-mile-strip from the border transformed into a high-security zone. Nowadays, 21,000 Border Patrol agents with an annual budget of $3.8 billion not only fly and drive all over this area, but also live in it.

“When the border guards moved into our village, the nightmare began,” says Carlota Wray, who has lived in Arivaca for decades. She closes the heavy door of the Arivaca Aid Office behind her. It is dark inside. The small room with barred windows looks like a prison cell but it is the opposite: a sanctuary for migrants who can get water, basic medical help and a little rest here. Signposts call for the Border Patrol to stay outside – so far, the officials have stuck to it. Inside, Carlota talks frankly, while Border Patrol agents drive up and down the village street in their white vans.

“When I hear the helicopter fly deep over the desert, I cannot sleep. I have seen my horse bolting in fear of this noise. It makes me imagine migrants dropping to the ground until they are apprehended and deported.” The armament of the borderlands has changed her life, Carlota says. If you want to get out of Arivaca, you must identify yourself at a checkpoint. A watchtower with a 360-degree motion detector and thermal imaging camera towers above the village. Her Hispanic-looking grandson is often searched by the Border Patrol on his way to school. Arivaca is becoming a ghost town: According to Carlota, many long-time residents moved away after the fence was built, because the Border Patrol agents pushed up prices – their salaries are twice as high as the local average. But there was more to it: The original residents felt watched. Trump’s election has driven the village even further apart, adds Carlota. At some houses, the US American flag went up – at others, the blinds went down.

Everyone is afraid of everyone else

Carlota Wray is one of the few residents who gives her real name when she speaks out against the military buildup. Her friend thinks similarly, but when asked about it, she reflexively looks down the village street and declines to comment. Criticizing the situation of Arivaca and the borderlands, she whispers, would be bad for her business, her reputation, her safety even.

Carlota vividly remembers different times: when neighbors on the Mexican side jumped a cattle fence to go to parties in the US, and vice versa. This memory prevents her from taking everyone’s fear of everyone as a given – a fear that costs billions of dollars and thousands of lives: the US Americans’ fear of the Mexicans, the ranchers’ fear of strangers on their property, the mutual mistrust in the village and the migrants’ fear of everybody else. An eternal night has fallen on the borderland, in which everyone feels and spreads fear. Yet Carlota believes: It has not always been this way, and it does not have to stay this way.

While half of Arivaca thinks about moving away, Jim and Sue Chilton celebrate Trump’s electoral victory on their ranch next door. For them, border surveillance couldn’t be strict enough. Their ranch is separated from Mexico by nothing but a barbed wire fence. “All sorts of people can come in there.” They tell the story of how drug traffickers once broke into their bungalow and stole “dozens of rifles” while they were not home. – Dozens of rifles? – “Yes, we keep them in every room. Better safe than sorry.”

When George W. Bush had the first border fence built, it covered only 650 of the 2,000 miles, closing the most accessible transit points. Did it not occur to him that this would let the migrants switch to the life-threatening trail through the Sonoran Desert? Or did he accept that possibility and even counted on it as a means of deterrence for future migrants, as non-governmental organizations and lawyers see it? According to the US Customs and Border Protection, 6,951 people died on their way to the US from 1998 to 2016, mainly from heat, cold and gunshot wounds. In the decade before the border fence was erected, an average of 12 migrants died in southern Arizona every year. Since then, the number has risen to an average of 170 per year. Most locals have found dead bodies in the desert – the Chiltons even find them on their own ranch.

“Is there life after death? Trespass and find out!”

On their doorstep, Jim and Sue Chilton have lined up 30 pairs of camouflage slippers – trophies, pieces of evidence, lost on their ranch. They put signposts next to them: “Is there life after death? Trespass and find out.” And: “Please carry I.D. so we can notify next of kin!” Jim Chilton bends over with laughter: “Isn’t that funny?”

I think of the vigilante militias who are stalking migrants because they find the Border Patrol too cautious. One of those groups, American Border Patrol, operates from the neighboring village of Sierra Vista and has been classified as Hate Group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Jim Chilton claims that he never heard of the group. The signs also make me think of the medical examiner of Pima County, who takes DNA samples of Central Americans whose family members went missing and compares them with unidentified human remains in the borderlands. And I think of Kat Rodriguez of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, who – in case of a matching DNA – delivers the devastating news to families in Honduras, Chiapas or L.A. every week.  Funny?

Who will be number 6,952?

Bush‘s border fence, Trump’s wall, the vigilante groups, the Border Patrol – the Americans of the North are trying hard to make the Americans of the Center feel unwelcome. Yet, the border is only valid in one direction; as I walk from Nogales to Heroica Nogales, the Mexican guard only waves his hand: „¡Bienvenida!“ Before I know it, I am in Mexico. Nobody bothered to see my papers.

The sister cities could not be more different: sleepy Nogales in the north, bustling Heroica Nogales in the south, with its 200,000 inhabitants in shacks spread out all over the hills. Heroica’s city center hugs the border fence; the popular Calle Internacional runs parallel to it. Walking down International Street, I reach a monument to a teenager who was shot here while trying to climb into the US, and the street’s name takes on a bitter aftertaste. Yet, this is where Heroica’s young people stroll and dream of a better future – a future in the country of the gravel road on the other side, where Border Patrol agents stir up dust and nothing else happens.

“The wall does not deter anyone,” says Sean Carrol. The Jesuit priest stands in front of the soup kitchen of the Kino Border Initiative in Heroica Nogales, which helped more than 8,000 stranded migrants in 2016 alone. “As long as the rural workers of Central America cannot feed their families, as long as gangs forcefully recruit their children, they cannot be deterred. Most deportees start their journey again, under more difficult conditions, with less money.” The priest opens the barred door. “We check every visitor to make sure that at least in here, the migrants are protected from cartel members and smugglers.” 50 men and women sit on benches inside; it’s easy to see who is going through the desert for the first time, and who has just been deported, often after years of living in the US: the former seem nervous and hyperactive, the latter stare into the void.

“Since Trump’s inauguration, we get a lot more deportees,” Carrol observes. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now drops a dozen of them in Heroica Nogales every day – as many as the Obama administration deported per week.” Donald Trump had promised his voters to deport two to three million “criminal illegal aliens”, including undocumented people who violated a traffic rule or worked with a fake social security number.

When the sky over the two Nogales turns purple, Sean Carrol and his volunteers hastily say goodbye and head back to the United States. The night belongs to the cartels. Only a young man stays behind. He squats on the curb, clutching a rosary and pressing his small backpack against a fence. Severin is waiting for the smugglers who promised to meet him tonight, but he looks as if he would rather turn invisible. His last attempt to cross the border ended with three years of imprisonment and a deportation: “I didn’t have any money left, but the smugglers offered me a deal: they would take me for free and pay the toll to the cartels, if I agreed to carry a backpack with 45 kilograms of marijuana.” After seven days, just before Tucson, Border Patrol arrested the group.

No wall in the world could stop Severin. “I have not hugged my mother in five years.” The 23-year-old spent his childhood and youth in Southern California after his parents brought him through the desert from the Mexican state of Guerrero – twelve wonderful years of American football, school, friends, and parties. “Too many parties,” Severin says. When he was eighteen, he ran into a stop-and-search operation and because he had no papers, he was deported to Heroica Nogales, alone, without money. This time he wants to do everything right, without marijuana in his backpack, without parties in L.A. “I just want to go home.” For this he will risk his life again tonight.

If Severin is lucky, he will find water in the desert – the human rights organizations No More Deaths and Tucson Samaritans have been placing canisters on the main migration routes since the border fence was constructed. “In the areas around our water stations, fewer dead bodies are being found,” says Gail Kocourek, who drives the Samaritan van into the desert every week. “In contrast, on private land and on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, where we may not place any water, a disproportionately high number of people die.”

What happens to those who do not find water? On another trip into the borderlands last year, Gail found out: “Everything was as usual: the heat, the checkpoints, the thirst. Until we caught sight of a bird circling next to the road – a vulture!” Gail stopped the car abruptly and saw a young man in the ditch. He shivered, cramped, vomited. When Gail and her companion approached, the vulture flew away. Weeks later, somebody called Gail from the north of the United States: It was Alex from Honduras, the man whose life she had saved. He had not become number 6,952 on the death list, but one in eleven million people who live in the US without documents and send money to their families in their home country. His voice was strong and full of joy.

Living in the borderlands leaves an impact even on Trump voters: When Donald Trump scolds the “bad hombres” from Mexico, the “hordes of rapists and criminals” crossing the border, they feel ashamed of their candidate. They have seen indigenous people die on Native American lands; they have seen Mexicans being deported from the region, which until 1848 was a part of Mexico; and they know that even Border Patrol agents hire immigrants for maintenance jobs in their private homes. And Jim Chilton? When he sees strangers on his property, he grabs his rifle – and a water jug. He musters all his courage and shouts, “¿¡ agua ?!”

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Photos: http://www.felsken.com/portfolio/feature-stories/usa-mexico-border