Christmas at the wall

Christmas At The Wall

A nighttime seen along the U.S.-Mexico border fence. In the background there is a line of migrants sitting and standing near the fence, illuminated by the headlights of a Border Patrol pickup truck. To the left is a line of purple port-a-potties. Silhouetted in the foreground is a leafless ocotillo bush, it's upward-pointing branches forming a vase shape against the background.
Station one, U.S.-Mexico border fence, near Lukeville, AZ on Christmas morning, December 25, 2023

Mikal Jakubal
December 25, 2023

They come from any country you can name to seek asylum and a better life in the United States. Wherever they began, their last stop before the U.S. is Sonoyta, a medium sized town across the border from the Lukeville, Arizona Port of Entry (POE). Once there, unable to enter the U.S. legally through the POE to request asylum, they will pay a coyote thousands of dollars to get them across. Once on U.S. soil, they will turn themselves in to the first Border Patrol officials they encounter.

The 30' rusty steel U.S.-Mexico border fence towers above a group of over 200 migrants at night. The people are illuminated by the headlights of a Border Patrol pickup truck out of the frame.
People who crossed the fence on Christmas Eve, illuminated by Border Patrol vehicle headlights. Christmas morning, December 25, 2023, near station one.

While they cross at all times, many come after dark when it is safer for the coyotes —guides hired by cartels — to operate. Border Patrol has a policy of not processing migrants at night, so people who come through the fence on the west side of Lukeville congregate and wait at an aid station approximately seven kilometers from the POE. 

The aid station is maintained by Humane Borders, a volunteer humanitarian aid organization. It is one of a series of small shade structures and drinking water barrels set up along the fence. The first of these, closest to Lukeville, has become informally known as “station one”. 

Before dawn on Christmas morning, around a hundred and fifty people, mostly from Latin American or African countries, were already waiting, having spent the damp, chilly night huddled under emergency mylar “space blankets”.

This Christmas Eve, Border Patrol agents in pickup trucks stood watch throughout the night, headlights trained on the new arrivals, an odd precaution to take for people who are trying to voluntarily surrender.

But the more time you spend at the border, the less any of it seems to make sense.

At the U.S.-Mexico border fence, made of 6" x 6" square steel tubes with 4" spaces between them, a man looks through the gaps into Mexico. He is wearing a hoodie over his head and has a silver mylar "space blanket" wrapped around his shoulders. In the blurry background through the gaps is a vehicle and a campfire with a large pot boiling on it.
An asylum seeker looks into Mexico where two men are preparing coffee and soup to sell to people on the U.S. side. Christmas morning, December 25, 2023, station one.
In front of the square steel tubes of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, two men hold instant soup cups. One appears to be helping the other with his spoon. They are bundled up warmly against the chilly morning air.
Instant soups purchased for a few dollars from a vendor on the Mexican side of the fence. Christmas day, December 25, 2023, station one.

The pre-dawn desert air is above freezing, but not by much and the recent soaking rains have left the land damp and dewy, exacerbating the cold.  Space blankets offer only the barest minimum of protection and warmth.

Two enterprising Mexicans have a fire going on their side of the fence, heating water in a large pot and selling instant soup and coffee. This is the only food the migrants will have for many hours. Most have likely not eaten since they left Mexico yesterday.

A person, seen only as an arm and part of his torso in dark blue jacket, reaches between the 6" wide rusty steel bars of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. In his hand is a folded 1-dollar bill.
Moussa, a young man from Gambia who crossed the border Christmas Eve, hands a dollar through the fence, hoping for a cup of coffee. Moussa says "you can call me Mous!" (pronounced like “moose”) and asks me to take his photo as he smiles. Christmas Day, December 25, 2023, station one.

Coffee is $3, soup $5, but the cook there tells me that if someone has no money, he’ll give them coffee or food for free, with instructions to not tell anyone else. He’s there every day and seems to spend all night, leaving in the morning once Border Patrol has transported his customers away for processing.

One of more baffling questions is why the federal government hasn’t sent FEMA or other resources to handle the logistical aspects of feeding, transporting and processing people. That would assure asylum seekers have basic needs met and would free Border Patrol agents to keep the Port of Entry open and do their regular jobs. 

Right now, the weather is uncomfortable, but not immediately life threatening. While it rarely snows here, it does freeze on some clear, cold nights and cold rainstorms are common in winter. There are many, many families with children and infants, and some coyotes usher people through the fence far out in the desert, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. Border Patrol is one cold front away from a major humanitarian crisis that they not prepared for.

A large group of people, seen from behind, lines up near the 30' tall U.S.-Mexico border fence at dawn. In the foreground, hundreds of crumpled mylar "space blankets" cover the ground.
Emergency blankets discarded by asylum seekers after Border Patrol agents ordered them to line up in preparation for transport to the Port of Entry. Christmas day, December 25, 2023. Aid Station 1.

As dawn breaks on Christmas morning, Border Patrol agents begin organizing people into groups. Single men in one area, single women and families in another. The women and families will be transported in vans the seven kilometers to Lukeville. The men will be made to walk. 

As vans begin moving the first people out, agents hand out orange trash bags and order people to clean up, which they do enthusiastically, certainly wanting to make a good impression in what they hope will be their new country. 

Within less than ten minutes, the bulky items are bagged and a few people set about picking up smaller pieces of trash, making it cleaner for tonight’s inevitable new arrivals.

To the right is the 30' tall U.S.-Mexico border fence. In front, the ground is covered with discarded mylar "space blankets" used by people for warmth during the night. Asylum seekers were given orange plastic trash bags by Border Patrol and are now picking up the blankets and other trash.
Asylum seekers bag emergency blankets and other trash. Christmas day, December 25, 2023, station one.
A man wearing a light gray hoodie and dark jacket picks up trash and puts it in an orange trash bag. In the background, a line of men wait.
Asylum seeker picks up trash while others await transport and processing. Christmas day, December 25, 2023, station one.

There are multiple avenues for a foreign national to apply for asylum in the U.S. All require the applicant be present on U.S. soil. Customs and Border Protection prefers asylum seekers arrange an interview via the official CBP One smartphone app, but a quick look at the CBP’s app info page provides very little detailed information on the process.

Crucially, the app-appointment route requires waiting in Mexico, potentially for many months, to secure a calendar slot seemingly chosen at random each day. Other avenues allow for an immediate asylum claim no matter how one steps foot in the U.S., incentivizing migrants to pay the traffickers who control the illegal access points in the border fence. 

It is important to understand that the asylum process is for people fleeing some form of danger in their home country. It does not require one to be formally classified as a refugee, which has a specific legal meaning under U.S. and international law.

It also does not mean that a person is destitute. Many migrants arrive here to seek asylum via long walks on foot or atop freight trains, but many fly into Hermosillo, Sonora after landing in Mexico City via Europe or elsewhere in Latin America. In politically repressive countries, or when faced with threats of domestic violence or gang attacks, even being modestly wealthy may not protect you. 

Based on my personal conversations with migrants, information provided by immigrant support activists and informal discussions with Border Patrol agents, I feel it’s safe to say that most of the migrants have formal sponsors or friends and family they are meeting once released from custody. Many have plane or bus reservations already in hand when they cross the fence. 

The U.S.-Mexico border fence looms in the background and recedes into the mist and distance just after dawn as a group of a couple hundred people stands around awaiting direction from Border Patrol.
Bundled against the dewy cold, people who arrived in the U.S. last night await instructions from Border Patrol. Christmas day, December 25, 2023. station one.

Amidst the ideological cacophony surrounding immigration across the southern border, it’s easy to miss that this is about human beings, individuals who left everything behind to come to a place where they hope to build a better life. As groups of people walk toward the authorities to turn themselves in, they often appear almost jubilant, despite being tired and understandably apprehensive about what comes next.

Spending time with them, even with insurmountable language barriers, one thing quickly becomes clear: they are extremely happy to be here, to have completed this long, often dangerous, very costly journey to the land of their dreams. More than one has kissed the ground upon arrival.

A man squats and leans forward, bowing his head and placing fingers of one hand on the ground, the other hand against his face. He appears to be crying and his position suggests giving thanks for touching this ground. Behind him is a line of people seen only from the waist down.
An emotional moment for an asylum seeker as he awaits instructions from Border Patrol. Christmas day, December 25, 2023, station one.

Today’s group of around a hundred and fifty people (a smaller group than usual) are largely from African and Latin American countries. According to one Border Patrol agent speaking unofficially, in the summer there were significant numbers of people coming from India and Mauritania. Now it’s Senegal and Latin America. This Christmas day I spoke (briefly, since my Spanish is weak) with many people from Ecuador, some from Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala, as well as two from India and one from Gambia who spoke some English. 

A uniformed Border Patrol officer walks away from a group of people who are standing in front of the 30' tall U.S.-Mexico border fence.
A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer and a group of asylum seekers on Christmas morning, December 25, 2023 at station one.

While some Border Patrol agents speak Spanish, they have to try to organize large groups of people every day who don’t speak either English or Spanish. This adds friction to what is an already stressful and morale-eroding situation. Agents can often communicate with hand gestures, but even honest misunderstandings can quickly devolve into chaos.

Once the women and families had been taken by van to Lukeville, an agent indicated the large crowd of men should walk behind him in the lead pickup truck. The bed of the truck was immediately swarmed by people who thought they were getting a ride, prompting the agent to yell and wave them all off, telling them repeatedly to “get in a line!” in English that they likely didn’t even understand. 

The saving grace in these situations is that these are people who want to be taken in, who want to obey the rules, who want to be seen as good future citizens. Once the confusion passed, the men lined up and followed the lead truck peacefully, many running at first, excited to begin their future.

Dawn in the desert. The 30' tall, rusty steel U.S.-Mexico border fence looms behind a line of people, both men and women, waiting to be transported for processing at the Border Patrol station in Lukeville. A Border Patrol officer in green uniform stands watch.
Asylum seekers are segregated into three groups: lone men, lone women, and families. Here, women and families line up, awaiting transport vans. Christmas morning, December 25, 2023, station one.

In my limited observations, the Border Patrol agents have generally been polite and professional toward asylum seekers, though their frustration and impatience are palpable. This is a Sisyphean task that shows no signs of abating. It is certainly not what they signed up for and it is not fair to dump this in their laps.

A young woman sits in the back of a green and white Border Patrol van as an agent speaks to her before closing the door. In the background other people can be seen in front of the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
A van load of women awaiting transport to Lukeville Port of Entry for processing. Christmas morning, December 25, 2023, station one.

While my views on immigration are radically more liberal than those of every Border Patrol agent I’ve ever spoken with, I can still empathize with the situation they’ve been put in. Whatever your views on current U.S. immigration policy, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand that thousands of people only show up here every day wanting a better life because they can’t make a better life there, in their home countries, due to war, repression, corruption, poverty or, increasingly, climate disruption.

These are global problems that require global thinking and global action. Fixing them is the job of national and international political bodies. I personally worry that the present disorganized political response to migration along the southern border will prompt fence-sitting voters to usher in reactionary politicians who will engage in cruel and even less effective policies, as we saw happen under Trump. 

A group of men sets off walking on a gravel road at dawn. The sun shines over the shoulder of the last man in the line.
Upon Border Patrol's orders, the men begin the seven kilometer walk to the Lukeville, AZ Port of Entry. Women and families have already been transported. Christmas day, December 25, 2023, station one.

I always try to keep in mind that when I’m at the border fence with my camera, I’m often the first American that the asylum seekers will encounter.  I try to provide a friendly smile and a wave as a way to say “welcome.” If they appear to be Latin American, I’ll say hello and welcome them in Spanish, tell them the distance in kilometers to the Port of Entry and wish them “buena suerte!”

They are about to encounter people and a system that will be mostly indifferent, when not openly hostile, so a bit of kindness now can hopefully set a positive tone for their expectations.

A view from up on a hill looking across a cactus and shrub-filled desert as a group of migrants wends its way along a gravel road. At the very end, a white Border Patrol vehicle can be seen.
With the border fence and a long, cold night behind them, the men from today’s group make their way toward the Lukeville Port of Entry, followed by a white Border Patrol pickup truck. Christmas day, December 25, 2023.

After all the women and families are transported to the Lukeville Port of Entry, the men are made to walk the seven kilometers via a gravel road through the desert. Most are able bodied, but a few are straggling behind, walking with limps. 

There is a makeshift tent camp less than a mile from Lukeville that Border Patrol had been using as a migrant staging and processing area before the Port of Entry was closed to vehicle traffic and processing was moved there. The men stop here, regroup and wait in lines for the last to arrive, then set out again for the POE with the Border Patrol truck in the lead. 

But then something strange happened: they never arrived. Another photographer and I had been following the group all day, so we drove around to Lukeville, intending to photograph the group marching in from the desert. After a time I hiked up the direction they should be coming from, only to find they were gone. Nor were they back in the tent camp. The best guess is that Border Patrol turned them back and waited at the camp for vans which then took the men straight to the Ajo Border Patrol station, 30 miles north.

A large group of men, seen from behind, walk though a makeshift Border Patrol camp and into the desert, down a dirt road toward the Point of Entry. There are distant hills and tall saguaro cactus in the haze.
After arriving at this temporary processing camp, the group of men sets out toward the Port of Entry at Lukeville, less than a mile away. The border fence can be seen in the distance. Christmas day, December 25, 2023.

Back at the aid station site, all is quiet except for the squawks of ravens scrounging last night’s camp for morsels. In the distance, a few tiny figures can be seen walking this direction, probably having just been ushered through a new cut in the fence by their hired coyote.

The coffee and soup maker on the Mexican side has finished packing up. He’ll be back tonight, though, to feed people and make a little money as a new group of asylum seekers wait under mylar sheets, illuminated by Border Patrol headlights. In the morning, the agents will separate the women, men and families into lines and the process will be repeated.  

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