faulty lines

politics along the u.s.-mexico border

A few weeks ago, I went on the annual DEEPS (Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences) spring break field trip to look at rocks in the West Texas desert. We traveled along the border between the United States and Mexico to see the geological features formed by the theory of plate tectonics, which births volcanoes and causes oceans to rise and fall. I expected to see some cool rocks, but I did not imagine the trip would inform my understanding of the politics along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Our first stop was the Hueco Tanks—referring to the Spanish name huecos for the hollows in the rocks where water collects—a formation of volcanic rock that looks like the shell of a giant red tortoise resting in the middle of a desert basin. The water in the huecos supports an ecosystem of organisms such as fairy shrimp—translucent quarter-sized crustaceans that are unique to the larger western Texas desert region.

The water and wildlife at the Hueco Tanks made it a settlement location for native peoples in the region. There are over 3,000 pictographs and petroglyphs at the site, which record human habitation over the past 10,000 years. The mystical characteristics of many of these pictographs suggest that the various peoples who lived there regarded the Hueco Tanks as spiritually significant. The extant Native American groups that left pictographs at the tanks—the Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, Comanche, Tigua, and the people of Isleta del Norte Pueblo—were placed on reservations in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas from the 1850s to the 1870s after their lands were taken from them by the U.S. government. A pictograph we saw on the trip depicted the theft of the land from its rightful owners, telling of the escape of a band of Kiowa warriors from U.S. Cavalrymen to the Hueco Tanks.

We also saw Native American pictographs and petroglyphs at later stops we made on our trip. Along with signs demarcating the U.S.-Mexico border, they stood on the state park trails we hiked as intermittent reminders of the violent history that shapes the region. Together, these icons and signs symbolized a central irony of U.S.-Mexico Border politics—the land that we Americans are so protective of is not our own.

Our next destination was Big Bend National Park in the Chisos Mountains. The park’s boundaries follow the path of the Rio Grande, which marks the boundary between the U.S.-Mexico border. During our time there, we were confronted daily with reminders of the shameful politics that shape the U.S.-Mexico border region. Some of them—Confederate Battle Flags in the front yard of one of the few homesteads in the Chihuahuan Desert, a cargo container left by the roadside that read, “Resist! No Wall Here!”—seemed typical to me, being from the American South, but others stood out. We periodically drove through U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints situated along the highways of Big Bend National Park. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agency prohibits racial profiling when screening people at these checkpoints, but it’s still routine. The white members of our group, including myself, were let through the checkpoints without presenting our documentation, while the minority members had to provide theirs.

Later, while walking a short trail in Big Bend’s Boquillas Canyon (right), we saw a small group of Mexican teenagers and 20-somethings camping on the opposite riverbank of the Rio Grande. One of them was riding a horse at a trot up and down the Mexican side of the river. We waved to them, and they waved back. Our fear of U.S. Border Patrol prevented us from wading through the knee-deep water and speaking to them, and them from reaching us. A massive fault along the river’s course has eroded the canyon, which seems to symbolically punctuate the arbitrary political boundary between our two countries.

About halfway down the trail we saw a collection of bright trinkets and decorated walking sticks that had been left out near a fallen tree. Marked at a few dollars apiece, they lay next to a plastic jar with a slit cut into its top. Instructions were written on its side in Sharpie: “Please pay here. Donations Welcomed!” Another hiker explained to us that the trinkets were left there by the people who live nearby on the Mexican side of the border. The souvenir vendors want to sell their goods to hikers, but cannot stay on the American side of the border to do so out of fear of detainment by Border Patrol. We saw these cross-border souvenir stands on other trails as well; some that we came across were hidden, perhaps out of fear that the goods would be confiscated should a park ranger or Border Patrol officer find them.

Trinkets sold by illegal migrants at the hot springs trailhead in Big Bend National Park.

We saw the goods, but never the purveyors, until we encountered two of the cross-border souvenir vendors at a hot spring on the bank of the Rio Grande. The two men were wearing waist-high waders for the journey across the river. We and the other visitors to the hot springs ignored them, but we were surprised to see that they had crossed the Rio Grande there. The water was much deeper there than it was at Boquillas Canyon, and the current was strong enough to carry away a weak swimmer. Seeing that they had crossed the Rio Grande at such a deep, swift, and dangerous point in the river allowed me to grasp the extent of their economic need. I was struck by how profoundly wrong it is for the wealthiest nation on the planet to force people to come to the United States this way, hounded by Border Patrol agents. The people who come to the United States illegally are no different from most of us, or our parents, or our grandparents, who immigrated to this country in search of a better life, for themselves and for their children. Who are we, as a country, to deny it now to others?

The Rio Grande as seen from a nature trail in Big Bend National Park. The near riverbank is the United States. The far riverbank is Mexico.

Some of the most compelling moments on our trip came from seeing the terrain where the United States’s current administration proposes to build a border wall. The notion of building a 30-foot-tall wall and sending 4,000 National Guardsmen to “protect” it seemed ludicrous after visiting those locations. The U.S.-Mexico Border is demarcated by the Rio Grande, which the delicate ecosystem of the Chihuahuan Desert depends on for water. A border wall on the U.S. side of the border will deny local populations of black bears and other fauna access to the water they need to survive. Moreover, the creation of a border wall would stop the historically free movements of bison herds, pronghorns (the American antelope), and coyotes across the western rangelands of the Chihuahuan Desert. The amount of food available to these populations will be reduced dramatically if their movement is restricted, and their numbers will plummet as a result.

Furthermore, the proposed wall is an insignificant barrier to entry compared to the existing variegated terrain. This was especially clear at the Santa Elena Canyon in the Chisos Mountains, where we walked past a cross-border souvenir stand that had been set up 100 feet from the parking lot. The person who came and set up the stand must have crossed into the US through the Chisos Mountains, which stretch on over 20 miles of the U.S.-Mexico Border and have peaks that are over 7,000 feet high. I challenge the U.S. government to stop him with a 30-foot wall.