The Crisis of Asylum at Trump’s Border Wall

A symbol is being built for the sake of voters who have never been to the borderlands

Emily Gogolak
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

Driving south on 85, from a town called Why through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I was white-knuckling it. The pandemic had reduced traffic considerably in most parts of Arizona, but the narrow highway was clogged with dump trucks, most stamped with the words “Rock Solid Express” in blocky typeface and scrappy cursive. As they sped north, I saw their trailers were full of earth that had been cleared to build a wall: the wall.

Rounding the next bend, I saw a valley in the distance with a dark line—maybe three miles off—running through it, too straight to be made by nature. It looked like someone had taken a fine-tip Sharpie across the desert. It was May 20, five days after Arizona’s reopening, and I was on a reporting trip to study the progress of Trump’s border wall. The Governor had issued a state-wide stay-at-home order on March 31, but the pandemic hadn’t stopped—or even slowed—work on the wall, to the distress of some residents.

The refusal to stop was hardly a surprise. Trump discusses the threat of the pandemic in language that mirrors the way he talks about migrants from Mexico and Central America, whose attempts to enter the U.S. he has repeatedly called an “invasion.” “We will do everything in our power to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering our country,” he said at a campaign rally in Charleston early in the coronavirus outbreak. The wall itself is a stunning display of the administration’s priorities: the country is ailing, record numbers of Americans are lining up at foodbanks, and meanwhile, on the southern border, an eleven-billion-dollar altar to nativism keeps being built, beam by beam, to protect the homeland, even as it puts the workers building it at risk of catching the coronavirus.

Dust hazed up the sky. The hum of bulldozers grew louder the closer I got to the border. Such chaos felt antithetical to the landscape, a desert so pristine it looked unreal. Ocotillos, ironwoods, palo verdes, and the eponymous organ pipes—all still in bloom—offset the grey and reddish brown of the jagged hills above. I was headed out to the Quitobaquito Springs, an oasis that humans have been visiting for 16,000 years. The springs and this land are part of the O’odham homeland, which the Gadsden Purchase split up in 1854, when this border became the border.

I took a left just before Lukeville, Arizona, where Customs and Border Protection has an official port of entry for pedestrians and vehicles. The border had been closed to non-essential travel since March 21, and, aside from construction crews, it was nearly empty. This spot, halfway between Yuma and Tucson, is usually busy with Arizonans driving to the beaches in Puerto Peñasco. Worried I was misreading my National Parks Service map, I pulled over and got out to ask a Border Patrol agent for directions. He told me I’d missed the righthand turn for Quitobaquito, on South Puerto Blanco Drive. He hopped out of the truck—buzz cut, glasses, no mask—and introduced himself as Jacob. He’s 41 and has been in the Border Patrol since he was 26.

Before last August, the wall didn’t exist here; this part of the border was fortified by low-slung X-shaped barriers designed to stop vehicles from crossing. Now, thirty-foot steel bollards—rust-colored poles, topped with flat metal panels to prevent climbing—extend from the port of entry in both directions. At the main crossing, there’s a small gap; to the west, it climbs partway up a slope. There, where the construction has not yet begun, the border is demarcated simply by a thick line in the dirt. I asked Jacob what he made of it all. After some hesitation, he compared the wall to the Maginot Line, the fortifications that France built on its eastern border in the 1930s. In 1940, German troops went around the line, through Belgium. Now, he said, more migrants were crossing near the springs a dozen miles away, where the wall did not yet reach.

That Jacob sees the border through a military frame is telling. He is a veteran. “A year in combat rewires your brain,” he told me, referring to his deployment to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2004. Upon returning from infantry, he said, you are best qualified for three jobs: gym teacher, janitor, or cop. Veterans account for about thirty percent of Customs and Border Protection employees. As the historian Greg Grandin writes, in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, “Now the only thing endless is history’s endless return, as veterans travel to the borderlands to rehearse how lost wars could have been won.” I wondered why Jacob didn’t become a cop in the Midwest, where he’s from, and if the familiarity of a foreign desert had anything to do with it, but I didn’t ask.

Apart from the wall, the Sonoran Desert is itself a barrier between the United States and Mexico, between migrants and their relatives on the other side, between asylum seekers and refuge; it is a terrain hostile to human life. According to an online database of migrant deaths maintained by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and the organization Humane Borders, more than three thousand bodies have been found in three counties in southern Arizona since 2000. This year alone, the skeletal remains of eleven migrants have been discovered in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument so far. None has been identified. Five were found just north of the springs.

Crucially, its dedication to building a physical impediment aside, the Trump administration has also constructed less visible—though perhaps even mightier—barriers to immigrants, like the one it spent the last three years raising around our asylum system. It has used the pandemic to build that barrier even higher.

The U.S. asylum system as we have known it was established forty springs ago. In 1980, with the passage of the Refugee Act, America adopted the international legal doctrine of non-refoulement, which says that a government cannot knowingly return a person “in any manner whatsoever” to a place where their life or liberty is at risk. Border Patrol agents are asylum’s gatekeepers. Upon arresting a migrant, an agent is required to inform them of their rights under U.S. law and to ask specific questions about why they left their home country and if they are afraid to return. Individuals who express fear are then interviewed by an asylum officer, who will determine whether they will be able to move on to fight their case in immigration court. But on March 21, invoking an obscure public health law that bans the entry of people or goods that might spread “communicable disease,” the Trump administration effectively sealed off the southern border to asylum-seekers.

The overwhelming majority of migrants arrested at the southern border are now “expelled,” in the administration’s phrasing, without the opportunity make a claim for humanitarian protection. Jacob called it “getting kicked back.” They’re dropped off at ports of entry and walked across the border to Mexico. Even children who arrive alone are not exempt—a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which established safeguards for unaccompanied minors. By the end of May, nearly 42,000 migrants had been expelled at the southern border under the new policy. Each expulsion, the Washington Post reported, takes ninety-six minutes on average.

Across the border, in Mexican border towns and cities, migrants face a world of peril. Organized criminal organizations control much of the territory; the threat of kidnapping and worse is ubiquitous. “The people not from here are the first target,” a Catholic priest who until late 2017 ran a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico—a city across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, one of the border’s busiest crossings—once told me. “Immediately, the halcones”—look-outs for cartels—“open the door to the taxi, ask them, ‘Where are you going? Where are you from?’” Halcones hang out at ports of entry (they’re not hard to spot) and monitor migrant shelters day and night. But many shelters in Mexico, including the priest’s, have temporarily closed because of the pandemic, further exposing those who have been turned away. On May 19, the administration said its expulsion policy would continue indefinitely until it decides that immigration is no longer a public health threat to the country.

I said goodbye to Jacob and started off again for Quitobaquito. The road to the springs runs parallel to the wall, near Monument Hill, a burial ground for Apache warriors that is sacred to the O’odham. In February, contractors made a series of controlled explosions on the hillside, loosening up hard rock and busting up little pockets of earth in order to lay a foundation for new stretches of wall. “For us, this is no different from DHS building a thirty-foot wall along Arlington Cemetery or through the grounds of the National Cathedral,” Ned Norris, Jr., the chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, told a House subcommittee the same day that eighty-six explosives tore through the hill. Reporters were invited out to Lukeville to watch the blasts.

About seven miles from the springs, I turned around—the speeding trucks and blind curves and rough road unnerved me. Back on 85, I drove due south toward the port of entry, passing signs reading VEHICLE AND PEDESTRIAN BARRIER REPLACEMENT PROJECT, rows of port-a-potties and water coolers, and modular housing for the wall builders, where social distancing must be a challenge. From this vantage, the wall is not an abstraction; it’s built by workers sent out on a job, one the government has deemed “essential.” A symbol is being concretized for the sake of voters who have never been to the borderlands. In mid-June, the New York Times would report that two workers in southern Arizona, working on the wall in the Organ Pipe, tested positive for the virus, raising fears of an outbreak.

Near the camps squat organized stacks of steel bollards, waiting to be used. Lukeville itself is not quite a town—population thirty-five at last count—and there’s little there: Gringo Pass Motel and RV Park, a gas station (“First Stop in the USA”), a convenience store, and a restaurant. If not for the pandemic, I’d hang out inside and talk to workers on break, but it’s not safe enough to do that yet, so I just parked and watched. A few soldiers in fatigues strolled around the crossing, looking bored. (National Guard and active-duty troops have been deployed at ports along the border since 2018, when Trump raised hell about northbound caravans of Central American migrants.) A crane hovers precariously over the place where the physical wall ends. Contracts awarded to build this forty-three-mile section—which is supposed to be finished around Election Day, 2020—totaled $891 million. Trump apparently wants to paint the finished wall black. In an Arizona summer, black surfaces are hot to the touch.

I made a U-turn at the last place I could before crossing into Mexico. After a WELCOME TO ARIZONA sign, there’s a National Parks Service sign: NATURAL AND CULTURAL RESOURCES ARE PROTECTED BY LAW. Just past the edge of the park, I reached the Border Patrol checkpoint. An agent asked where I live (Austin, but I’ve been quarantining in Phoenix), looked inside my car briefly, and encouraged me to come back to hike a particular canyon. In Why, I turned onto Highway 86 and drove toward Tucson across Tohono O’odham Nation, where the poverty rate is nearly four times the national average. The Desert Diamond Casino had not yet reopened—a reminder of the slowness and stillness that still governed life outside that remote construction site, which seemed to exist in a different, pre-pandemic world where people still gathered and life still moved fast.

Two ambulances and a huge flatbed hauling stacks of rusty metal something passed by. I realized they were border wall bollards. Another load passed in twenty minutes. Then another.

Emily Gogolak is a writer and reporter from Arizona. She lives in Texas and is a grantee at the Pulitzer Center.
Originally published:
July 2, 2020


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