Built That Wall

What I learned from a week at the Mexico border wall

Alexis Madrigal

It was not until our pilot grabbed the Cessna 172 by the propeller and pulled it to the gas pump at the tiny airfield that I started to get nervous about flying low along the US-Mexico border wall.

Yes, there’s a wall there. The wall that Donald Trump has been promising his supporters already exists. Hundreds of miles of steel stretch across nearly every populated part of the border. Trump had to know it was there, right? Still, he turned building the wall into a chant, a brand, a symbol of keeping people out and “putting America first.”

For me, making contact with the physical wall became part of my election-long battle to keep connected with baseline reality. It was a way to avoid the whirlpool of white nationalist fantasy.

So I’ve stood next to the wall and felt its height above me. I’ve listened to Homeland Security speeding along the American side and watched someone scale the wall back into Mexico. I’ve overhead a young father talking to his wife and son through wire and bars at “Friendship Park.” I’ve stood at its western end and watched the ocean waves lap against the barrier. I’ve clambered around the wall’s flank in east Tijuana, where it sometimes serves as the fourth wall of improvised housing for the dearly deported.

For me, this is personal, too. In the early 1960s, my Guadalajara-raised father crossed from Tijuana into San Diego, and an entirely different life. Once, I asked him what he thought I would have done if we’d stayed in Mexico. Without hesitation he said, “Oh, you’d be in the drug trade.” I think he was joking; Mexicans have a dark sense of humor. But maybe he was right.

Up close, though, the sense of the wall’s scale is hard to grasp. It is a human intervention on the scale of a river or a mountain range, not a pond or a hill. So, when I learned that Univision and Fusion’s Rise Up as One concert was being held a mile from an airfield, I knew I had to take a small plane up to see the wall from above.

It wasn’t my first time in this position. A few years ago, I flew over West Virginia’s coal mines with James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and a pilot. In the air, he told me his theory that the 2,000-foot view from a Cessna or Cirrus provides a unique perspective on human endeavor. I wrote back then: “It’s only a few thousand feet up where you can see large-scale land deformations for what they really are. Quarries, suburbs, coal mines.”

And we could add: borders.

*

The pilot was Kieran Twomey, a retired Navy guy who flew mostly helicopters in the military. “I don’t understand how wings work,” he joked mid-flight. (Not a funny joke, really.) He teaches at First Flight, which operates out of Brown Field in the Otay Mesa neighborhood of San Diego.

Gas tank full, we stepped in and put on our headsets. Twomey fired up the engine and the plane’s propeller blurred. As we taxied, Twomey kept his door propped open with his left forearm. “Air conditioning,” he grinned.

Twomey methodically tested the engine and we were off, rattling down the runway. Then, in that magical way that planes do, we were aloft. There are no atheists in a Cessna.

The plane climbed, banking over Otay Mesa. San Ysidro marks the area’s western edge. That’s the place most people know and film and talk about; it’s the busiest land crossing in the world. To the east, there’s the Otay Mesa point of entry. That’s the one that truckers use to get goods from the maquiladora plants in Mexico to warehouses in the US. Opened in 1985, the land port (as they are known) sees 1.5 million trucks a year doing $40 billion worth of trade volume.

In between the two crossings, there’s a mishmash of auto body shops, logistics facilities, cheap townhouses, a high school, a large “park” filled with the ruins of encampments, and an archipelago of county, state, and federal prisons and “detention centers.”

There’s Brown Field, too, the sort of airport that specializes in “general aviation”—the kind of flying where there are no airlines, only pilots who own or rent their own planes. And tucked inside Brown Field, there’s the Landing Strip, which surprisingly is not a gentlemen’s club. No, it’s an old-school watering hole, where corrections officers, pilots-in-training, border patrol agents, mechanics, HVAC system installers, and the seemingly unemployed go to drink beer, by the bottle or bucket. “This place has been here for 40 years just like this,” a tattooed and avuncular motorcycle cop told me. As one young guy played pool, his poodle sat in a chair on the small deck outside, white fur topped with a dyed-blue mohawk. There’s a dance floor, too, which apparently gets quite a workout on some Friday nights, when the DJ comes.

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The wall’s a mile from the Landing Strip, but we’re surrounded by signs that the border is not impenetrable. There are the trucks powering down 905 carrying cargo to and from Mexico. There’s the way your cell phone service might switch over to a Mexican carrier if you wander too close to the line. There’s the air pollution rising from the Tijuana traffic and factories, saturating the sunset. There’s the trash that flows down the border-spanning streams, ending its journey on San Diego’s southern beaches. There are the tunnels that the cartels keep burrowing under the border, which tend to pop up in Otay Mesa because the drug runners need the same kinds of logistics facilities as any television set assembler, fiber optic cable company, or wrought iron furniture maker.

From the air, the warehouses are smooth, white, and flat. They look the same everywhere because they must be interchangeable nodes in the global trade network. Surrounding them are lots—some for cars, some for trucks, some for containers, some for junk. Looking straight down in the 360 video we shot, I can’t help but see a motherboard, etched at gargantuan scale, and custom-built for processing the goods that move through here from Mexico to the rest of the country.

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The land’s natural function is also clear. This is a mesa cut by rivers pushing towards the sea. There are no hills, really, only a flat plane carved. Paisley valleys connect one to the next, almost fractal, water doing what water does at all scales.

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As we approach the Otay Mesa border crossing, the two sides become almost indistinguishable. It’s all the long, smooth lines of human construction. The wall is lost in commerce, from the air, at least.

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Shortly past the crossing, however, the American occupation of the land dwindles to bare lots and rough-stamped dirt roads. In Mexico, a line of trucks four-across snakes towards Otay Mesa. To the south sits Tijuana’s grandiose industrial sprawl.

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Maybe you still think of Tijuana as a place where American tourists go to sit on donkeys painted to look like zebras while drinking tequila out of cowboy boot-shaped shot glasses. And yeah, there is that, too. Doughy tourists from the Midwest wander past endless variations of crap based on the key themes of exportable Mexico: skulls, skeletons, Cuauhtemoc, an eagle, Frida Kahlo, cactus, and ponchos.

But that’s not actually Tijuana any more than the M&M store in Times Square is New York. The real Tijuana is spread out before our plane, reaching east and east and south and south. At the edge of the city, the roads lose their pavement. From the air, it is hard to tell scrap and trash from building and car. The lines and angles of construction warp. And, for a while, the wall ends.

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*

As the plane climbed east into the mountains, the bumpy motion began to take its toll. “I’m a sympathy puker,” Twomey said. “So if you puke, I puke.”

Down on the ground, the border snaked intermittently through the mountains. We were on our way to Jacumba, a fence-side airstrip that we’d approach but not land on. We couldn’t get permission to touch down in any of the private airstrips near the border. Believe it or not, people out there are private. Not necessarily because they’re doing anything wrong but because they A) are afraid of the people who are or B) are afraid of being presented as the people who are.

These fears are legitimate. An investigative report from El Universal earlier this year found that Mexican authorities had seized 599 planes from the Sinaloa cartel, which also maintains an extensive network of landing strips in northern Mexico. In May of 2016, Department of Homeland Security officials testified to the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security that their blimp-based airborne surveillance systems detected 1,000 “suspected cross-border attempts” in 2014 and 2015.

The landscape was wild and bereft of human development, the kind of land you’d expect to be protected. The wall, though, can be built just about anywhere. By a special rule in the 2005 Real ID Act, the Department of Homeland Security can overrule any other consideration. “This rather draconian provision trumped all federal, state, tribal, and municipal law, literally exempting DHS from either the environmental impact statement process or any other public disclosure required by the National Environmental Policy Act, even in the planning process,” two border scholars explained in a 2015 paper.

So now there is a wall across the wilderness beside crazy ribbon of DHS road that doesn’t quite manage to follow the wall through all the little permutations of the hills.

At Tecate, the tiny American encampment seemed to cling to the border. There are a couple hundred people on the US side and 65,000 in Mexico.

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And then, past the city, there wasn’t much until Calexico/Mexicali. Our plane ride had become an act of endurance. The ground color and cover merged into a ruddy green that was identical on both sides of the border. I was sweating and my left hand started to cramp from holding the door shut. We didn’t say much.

Finally, Twomey announced that Jacumba was on the horizon. A startlingly white glider sat parked beside the freshly paved airstrip sat. We barreled low for fun and then popped back into the air. This close to the wall, and given our flight path, Twomey said Homeland Security might be there to meet our plane when we got back to the airport.

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Our last stop was in the true desert of the Imperial Valley, where we circled over the slowly turning white windmills of Ocotillo. There, I pulled the open-and-close-the-door maneuver we’re all familiar with from cars, then latched the door with relief. Sufficient altitude attained, we took off over the mountains, headed home. This time, we wouldn’t go low over the border, but fly high. The air was calmer up there.

Through the several days I spent at the Landing Strip, setting up the flight and hanging around, I’d seen and heard the election seeping into daily life. Two industrial-equipment salesmen glumly watched CNN, fries moving methodically into their mouths as the anchors talked about grabbing women by the pussy. The men said little to each other or the TV.

A corrections officer in a wide tie tried to bait me by asking if I worked for “CNN, the Communist News Network.” I told him I wasn’t talking politics with anyone and his table of friends let out a little cheer. Wandering First Flight, the pilot school that took us up, I heard one old white man tell another, “The generals or somebody has got to rise up and protect this country’s Constitution.” I looked around the empty room where I was poring over aviation maps, just to reassure myself that the real, physical world was still there, even if people were casually feverdreaming a military coup before lunch. What was even happening? I thought back on the poll numbers I’d seen, showing Trump still crushing Hillary with older white men.

So, it was with great trepidation and reportorial duty that I broached the question of the border with Twomey, the pilot, as we made our way back in the smooth air at a few thousand feet. Seeing as he was a white man and a former military guy, I both did and did not want to know what he thought of living so close to the border. So I asked as neutrally as possible, “Do you think much about living along the border?”

“No, not really,” he said. The prop turned. There was no silence to fill because there is no silence in a small plane. But he continued. “I’ve never met a Mexican I didn’t like,” he said. “I think we should take the damn border wall down.”

I nodded.

“It’s stupid to spend so much money to keep out people who are helping us,” he said.

Twomey’s landing was smooth. Soon, I was enjoying a beer in the dimness of the Landing Strip. The Chargers were playing a Thursday night game and fans in jerseys had begun to assemble to cheer against the dastardly Denver Broncos.

*

A collage of Tijuana rooftopsGoogle Maps/Alexis Madrigal

A collage of Tijuana rooftops

As I looked back over the footage I’d shot, I kept coming back to that far eastern edge of Tijuana, where the city is at its most emergent and the wall ends. Many of the roofs were covered by what appear to be recycled billboards. A random smattering of advertisements face skyward, targeting no one. Models’ faces, beer cans, cars, movie posters. A jumble of discarded messages from the culture: 1-800-GET-THIN, Toyota of Riverside, Ariel from the Little Mermaid, a Mercedes, More Energy, Party!, Jack Black, a trumpet, Bud Light, a robot crossed out, Lying Game, Choose Me, a truck cab, Ringer, Any ID, Want More?, Love the Artist, Man on a Ledge.

My border experience felt like this kind of boisterous collage. Two countries connected by global capitalism, by local culture, by Spanglish, by the weather and the sunset and tiny blue-tailed lizards, by the Raiders, by Juanes, by trucks and cargo containers and radio waves, by Tecate and Dos Equis, by Tinder, by Disney princesses, by skinny jeans, by hair dye, by checking the Border Wait app to see how long it’s gonna take to cross.

The border as a wall, as a line on a map, as a way of life, as something you never visit until relatives come from out of town, as the storehouse for all the pieces that seem to go missing from every immigration story, including my family’s own.

Take the spot where the wall ends. Two guys from the neighborhood took me along the foot trail that leads up to and around the fence.

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We passed a nice house with a brand-new pickup parked nearby. A strong man was pounding a heavy bag hung on his second-story deck. He stopped to watch us, as did his pit bulls. Everyone walked quickly.

And then we were at the end. I turned to face it, so that all the bustle and street sounds of Tijuana were on my left, all the quietude of western open space on my right. The fence’s steel sections were numbered on the American side: 18532, 18533, and finally 18534.

After long stretches in the US, both men with me had been deported, landing on the periphery of Tijuana, scratching their lives back together. One spent seven years working in rural Oregon before finding himself dropped off in TJ. Here, they walked freely from Mexico to the US and back. As I took photographs, they tossed rocks into a ravine, trusting gravity to guide them to the right country.

In places like this, where the wall ends, the Border Patrol says that they have a web of surveillance technologies from infrared cameras to in-ground seismic sensors tuned to pick up the rhythm of the human gait. No one’s really sure how well it works.

On the Mexico side, the local guys found a thick plastic bag tucked under a prickly bush. In it, there was fresh toilet paper, a couple of toothbrushes, other minor effects, and some papers. I unfolded one carefully. In the top left corner, a man’s mustachioed face stared back at me. A photocopy of a photograph. He was middle-aged, Mexican, short-haired. Maybe I’d passed him in streets of Tijuana or Otay Mesa or Los Angeles. Perhaps he’d made his way to Oakland. Or he was on his way back to Michoacán.

I tried to puzzle out what the document actually was—maybe a work permit?—and what it could tell me about the man, but my guides told me it was best we not stay too long. So, we tucked the things back in and put the bag back where it had been left.

Flying over that same spot, I remembered the bag and the photograph and the life it implied. Looking down over the sprawl of the city to wall section 18534, I could hold both perspectives in my mind for a moment. One story and a city-sized collage of stories.

I thought about walking on freeway overpasses as a kid, looking down at all those thousands of cars, and having the simple realization that each car—for now anyway—contained a human body with a human brain and a favorite song and a picture of themselves that they like and a toothbrush.

The people crossing back and forth across the border are real.

The Mexicans living and working in the United States are real.

This year, it seems that our only armor against the know-nothings, nativists, and white supremacists who have been emboldened by Trump’s success is this, a kind of basic empathy. Knowledge is our only antidote.

img_8535Alexis Madrigal