Easy Chair — From the June 2014 issue

Beyond a Boundary

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.

If I had followed the fence east for a mile or so, I would have reached Sasabe, a flyspeck town that once straddled the border. When the fence bisected the community, in 2007, eliminating easy and informal traffic, the American portion swiftly shriveled to little more than a general store with a single gas pump and a forlorn cow wandering near the ice machine. Just down the road is the Sasabe Port of Entry, which only completes the impression of sleepiness — it is the least-trafficked crossing on the entire U.S.-Mexico border, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers used to barbecue on the front deck just to break up the boredom.

And yet Sasabe is in the middle of Arizona’s Tucson Sector, a 262-mile stretch of the border that has long been the front line in the country’s illegal-immigration battle. Last year, the CBP arrested 120,939 people attempting to sneak into the United States through the Tucson Sector (considerably reduced from a high of 613,346 in 2000). The area has also functioned as a kind of border-security laboratory, in which both federal and state authorities have tested a variety of approaches to stanch the flow of people, drugs, weapons, and crime. As the detritus in the desert indicates, none of these approaches have been completely successful. And some, in their farcical level of failure, are oddly edifying. They show how incoherent our immigration policies have become — as piecemeal, in fact, as the fence itself, which comes to an abrupt end just a few hundred yards west of my desert vantage. You can walk right around it, and plenty of people do.

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October 2019