Easy Chair — From the June 2014 issue

Beyond a Boundary

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From a distance, as it hugs the hilly terrain, the fence looks almost decorative — a rambling, rust-colored abstraction. A thin ribbon of road runs alongside, its sandy surface kept impressively smooth by the U.S. Border Patrol, who drag it with old car tires twice a day, the better to spot telltale footprints. The road winds in and out of sight, deserted except for an occasional figure on horseback, usually a sunburned tourist from the adjacent dude ranch, relishing the Western-style emptiness.

Closer up, the fence is less abstract, more forbidding. The steel posts are eighteen feet high, separated by a few inches — too narrow a gap for people to squeeze through, but more than adequate for a segmented view of Mexico on the other side. Retreating from the barrier and crossing the road, you encounter the survivalist plant life of the Sonoran Desert: low scrub, the nervous scribblings of ocotillo, the squat barrel cacti leaning south. And as you head back up into the hills, you find other, more disquieting signs of life. There are dusty scraps of clothing and the occasional food wrapper. When I visited the area earlier this year, I saw several empty water bottles, some of them caked in black paint, presumably to avoid reflecting the strong sunlight. Worst of all: a child’s backpack, whose former owner had either made it up to Arizona State Route 86 and safe harbor in Tucson or been arrested along the way.

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