Mountains in the light of a full moon. Chaparral. Stars. Shadows and the buzz of the night. It’s both beautiful and foreboding in the desert along the California–Mexico border. This is where people live. It’s where people cross illegally. And it’s where Border Patrol agents try to catch them. Forget the immigration debate on the talk shows; this is the real border.
We spent a night hop-skipping along the border wall, and through places with no border wall — Dulzura, Tecate, Jacumba — and points in between.
10:30 p.m. A long drive down a dirt road to a place rumored to be popular with border crossers. We stand there and listen to the crickets buzzing in night, looking at the rock-strewn hills and shivering a little. We think we see something moving once or twice. When we drive away, we come to a property on a hill with a dog barking steadily at us. A blue Coleman cooler sits there, chained to a tree. A sign reads, “Last Chance Café.” We jump out and peer inside: sodas, an empty milk jug, chocolate chip cookies. This homeowner sympathizes with hungry people who have walked all night to cross into the U.S.
Opposite the makeshift café, we almost miss a corrugated tin roof in a ravine, flush with the road and covered with leaves. A ladder leads down into what looks like a kind of lean-to. A small, clay fireplace stands in one corner. It’s a place to get warm and sleep for the night.
Midnight to 1:00 a.m. Back on the highway, driving along windy roads through the hills in the Tecate area, we round a bend and come upon a group men with flashlights, looking into the brush. Urgently. Border Patrol agents. We pull off the road and run up to them, asking to shadow them. They don’t want journalists around, but they don’t send us away. They say they are looking for a group of “illegal aliens” and warn us that it could be dangerous. We follow them anyway, rolling tape and asking questions. They tell us a group of people jumped across a wall and ran into a creek bed ravine underneath a bridge.
The agents mean to catch them. They’re running through the ravine, over the bridge and along the road; tracking. Talking to each other on radios. One agent notices boot prints, but says they belong to his partner. We ask about the administration’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy. An agent says he doesn’t know about that, but that this week has been busy for them. We ask if there’s a season to border crossings. One of the friendlier agents says there isn’t. He says the area gets dusted with snow sometimes, and people still come. And the moonlight? – That can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, he says.
Several agents gather to look at something on the bridge. It’s a teal-colored windbreaker, hanging off a small post on the bridge. There are three small clay balls next to it. We ask what that means. An agent says it’s a pickup marker, a sign left by those helping people cross – coyotes? The agents think the pickup has already happened. But they aren’t sure, and some of them head toward their ATVs to continue the search down the road.
We see a home, trailers, on land near the bridge. Two women and a man – Bree Little, Kristin White and Burrdis — who won’t share his surname – agree to talk with us. We ask Burrdis what he does for a living. He says he used to work at the tire shop in town, but now he’s looking for work. Two dogs run around our legs, jumping up and sniffing. We ask Bree, Kristin and Burrdis about life out here on the front lines of people crossing the land without papers. Burrdis says many people think the undocumented are just thugs crossing illegally. He says that’s not his experience: he’s seen mostly families. He’s seen mothers with kids, one with a baby in her arms, crossing his property. Kristin and Bree say people crossing leave trash, but they can’t hold it against them: it’s hot, they don’t know where they’re going and they’re lost.
Lost. It’s more than a feeling out here. It’s a character in this landscape.
Around 1:30 a.m. We pull up to an underpass near a motel, because we’ve heard people in transit might sleep in the brush under the freeway. It’s cool and dark, and we walk through the chaparral, calling out, shining our flashlights into bushes and onto ledges. We hear something moving, but figure it’s a small animal. We feel spooked and back away, wondering how we would feel if we were sleeping in bushes and people came to try and find us.
Around 3:00 a.m. Jacumba Hot Springs. We drive up to a stretch of border wall that was finished in 2009, made of iron bollard posts. It’s rusty, and the posts are close together so that a person can only slip an arm through. We knock on the bollards with our boots. They give off a deep echo in the night. The wall is roughly 20 feet high. It looks like something out of Game of Thrones, with gates cut into it every so often, some large enough to let a giant through. A border patrol agent drives up to ask us what we are doing. We ask him about the gates. He says they work, but they are rarely opened. He tells us that the fence ends just up the hill and restarts a little while later. After he drives off, we scramble up the hill to investigate. The wall stops abruptly on the hillside, and a barbed wire fence begins. Someone has pulled the wire apart, and a tumbleweed hangs there, caught in the hole. A person could put a foot through and touch Mexico and bring it back again, no passport required.
We drive back towards the road and stop at a lone house with boarded up windows and the number “7” spray painted in red on the door. The house is faced in stone, with a chimney and built on a concrete slab. There’s junk on the porch — an old, plastic deck chair, a broken turn table. Who lived here, we wonder? It would make a great movie backdrop — for a show like Breaking Bad. We notice a shiny new lock on the door and hurry back to the car.
Around 3:30 a.m. We drive to a water drop in the desert around Jacumba. There’s a plastic bin with gallon jugs of water inside, covered by a board with a rock on top. An orange and blue flag flaps in the wind, marking the spot. This water drop can mean the difference between life and death. Humanitarian groups leave this water because of statistics like this: In 2017, more than 400 migrants died crossing into the U.S.. There are several reasons why this happens, exposure is one of them.
Around 5:00 a.m. Breakfast in Tecate, Mexico At this point, we are very tired and hungry. We drive East and cross the border into Mexico, to have breakfast in Tecate. Coffee. Eggs. Beans. We are extremely grateful to eat something hot. And after being in the desert all night, there’s something comforting about being in the city.
Around 6:45 a.m. We cross the Tecate Port of Entry, back onto the U.S. side of Tecate. The Customs and Border Protection Agent asks us what we were doing in Mexico. We tell him we’ve been reporting on the border. He nods and looks at our passports, smiles and tells us to have a good day.
Alex Hall reported the radio story. John Sepulvado produced A Night at the Border. Ariana Drehsler took the photos.