The U.S. – Mexican Border Fence in Nogales, AZ (2003)
There is no symbol quite like a border fence to demonstrate American opposition to illegal border crossings. The fences in Texas may be different from the ones in Arizona may be different from the ones in California. And yet they all share a uniform message for Mexicans and others hoping to slip illegally into the United States through the Southwest: Stay Out.
Over the years, the international border fence has been both revered and mocked. Those who support a strongly protected border point to fences as a powerful statement of intent. Those who would cross the border from Mexico or those who sympathize with such border crossers, would laugh at the ease with which would-be migrants can extend a simple $50 ladder over a multi-million dollar fence, climb up, hop over and leave the fence behind.
My first experience with an international border fence came when I visited Nogales, Arizona in 2003.
At the time, I had traveled to Arizona to research my Border Patrol novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. I flew into Tucson early in June, rented a Jeep Wrangler and headed down Interstate 19 to Nogales. The photo that appears at the top of this post was taken from a vantage point close to where the novel’s protagonist Billy Maddox has his own first view of the border fence off Morley Avenue, a block or two from the port of entry from Mexico:
Carl parked by a Walgreen’s and Billy got out of the truck and walked over to where he could take a better look. Shading his eyes, he stood by a street that turned into a bluff of brown grass. The border fence towered, each of its interlocked steel plates around 10 or 12 feet high. Five-cord barbed wire ran along the top, tilted toward the Mexican side. The fence plates were braced by steel strips jammed into the ground. There was nothing like this in Cochise County, Billy thought. He couldn’t imagine something like this cutting through the grazing lands.
“It used to be a chain-link fence just a few years ago,” Carl said. “The Mexican government decided to subsidize farmers and a bunch of unemployed ag workers came north to look for work in the States. INS gifted us with this fence, new equipment and more agents. They used to be landing mats from the Vietnam War.”
Billy climbed up to a higher vantage point and looked down at the town. Around the corner from their truck was a building that was part of the port complex with a parking lot underneath. The building was linked to a similar smaller structure on the far side of the interstate via a second-floor glass-covered bridge. Six lanes passed under the bridge with traffic moving in both directions between Mexico and the United States. Customs officers in blue uniforms leaned from tall toll booth-like structures to check drivers’ paperwork. License-plate readers snapped photos behind the vehicles. Most cars coming into the States were quickly waved into downtown Nogales though a few were directed into the parking lot for secondary inspection.
Billy turned again to the fence. “This thing is ugly as sin. What do the…uh…”
“What do the Nogaleños think about it?”
“Businesses on Morley Avenue were particularly unhappy that it was built. Many threatened to leave town.”
“Down by the port though they tried to make it more acceptable. You can see where the steel plates become a kind of sandstone wall with those aqua-blue squares. It almost looks presentable, doesn’t it? Come on, let’s go down and look.”
This dialogue between the two agents offers much of what I learned during my visit. I was fortunate enough to have had the chance to go on ride-alongs with several Border Patrol agents, one of whom brought me down by the border fence for a closer inspection.
It is true the fence was constructed of corrugated steel plates that used to be landing mats from the Vietnam and first Gulf Wars. (I say “was” because the fence I saw in 2003 is no longer there; but more about that in a moment.)
It is also true that the gray-green structure was an aesthetic nightmare that raised the hackles of many local individuals and businesses. Down by the port of entry–presumably to ease the eyesore for locals and the customs agent who had to work there–the steel mats were replaced by the sandstone wall Carl mentions.
Finally, the barbed wire strands that run along the top and “tilted toward the Mexican side” were meant to deter just the kind of aforementioned ladder climbers who might have otherwise scaled a straight vertical fence. The fence’s chain-linked predecessor, which Carl refers to, lacked the barbed wire top or any other feature to deter fence climbers.
International Border Fence in Nogales: Take Three!
Since my visit more than 10 years ago, yet another fence has replaced the one built of landing mats.
In an article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor in 2011, correspondent Lourdes Medrano highlights the positive aspects of a new bollard-style fence planned for Nogales that same year. A bollard-style border fence is composed of a line of vertical posts set close together and certainly not far enough apart for someone to slip through.
Ms. Medrano points to the solid border fence of corrugated-steel landing mats as a kind of wall dropped right through the middle of the city. (Nogales is a split city with half in Mexico and half in the United States). The new bollard-style fence is like the 2.8-mile chain-linked fence which Ms. Medrano remembers from the years she grew up in Nogales in that it lets people in both countries see each other. It doesn’t give the sense that both sides of the city have been cut off from each other.
She also recalls the earlier days of the chain-linked fence when Nogaleños from both sides of the border would cross through breaks in the links whenever they wanted something–a taco or other services–that existed on the far side.
The way she makes it sound, the fence wasn’t just a huge political symbol intended to keep one group of people from encroaching on someone else’s land. Presumably that guiding principle was there, but the fence also was a simple portal between the Mexican side of Nogales from the American side, through which locals passed for simple rather than political reasons.
Ms. Medrano writes that the 1990s brought massive change including the new fence of corrugated steel mats photographed above. For readers of my post about Operation Safeguard in southern Arizona and the new Border Patrol philosophy of prevention through deterrence, that won’t come as a surprise. During that same decade, the political symbolism of the fence skyrocketed as much as the surge of Mexicans seeking a way into the United States to become part of the country’s thriving economy.
Another drawback to the landing-mat border fence disappeared when the bollard-style fence came online. Before 2011, Border Patrol agents on line watch were often assaulted and injured by stones thrown over the fence from people on the Mexican side. The agents could never prepare themselves since the landing mats were solid, which made it impossible to know what was happening on the far side.
In 2012, Nogales International, a media outlet, reported that at the one-year anniversary of the new bollard-style fence, assaults against agents had gone down. The transparency of the new fence robbed assailants of their anonymity and the number of rock throwers fell as a result.
International Border Fence: Effective of Not?
From the point of view of the Department of Homeland Security and the American taxpayer who pays the bills, the most basic question about the border fence (in Nogales, and elsewhere along the nearly 2,000-mile stretch of Southwest border) is: Does it keep people out?
It’s not an easy question to answer and politics provides as much perspective as facts. No one mechanism reflects the effectiveness of border enforcement measures. Aliens who choose to avoid the border fence may simply cross at more remote locations. Crossers who don’t mind meeting the challenge of the border fence can climb over with a ladder where the fence allows or dig a tunnel under it. Other border crossers may try climbing the fence and injure themselves in the process.
What is clear is that while the international border fence in Nogales, Arizona plays a large role in the attempted deterrence of illegal crossers, it is not a simple physical structure. It symbolizes cultural rupture, political sentiment and the significant financial investments the United States chooses to make to protect its borders.