The Portal

The Portal

Mikal Jakubal
December 23, 2023

The man in front, in dark clothing and baseball cap, face obscured by a green camouflage bandana, carries a four-foot long, orange painted pry bar in one hand and a radio in the other. The line of people he’s leading make no effort to conceal themselves.

Through the four-inch gaps in the fence we note one another’s presence, each warily sizing up the other as a potential threat. I’m buddied up with another photographer whom I just met, sticking together for safety. We are excited by the opportunity to photograph what we guess is about to happen. The coyote needs to finish his job. The people he’s leading out of the underbrush need to step foot on United States soil in order to seek asylum here.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. View looking down the fence as it vanishes into the far distance. In the near ground, a single post has been cut away and a man wearing dark clothing, a dark baseball cap and a neck gaiter to obscure his face steps halfway through the opening and gives the thumbs-up sign.

The coyote proceeds past us down the fence and uses the pry bar to lever open one of the six-inch steel square tube bollards that make up the border fence. It had been previously cut through right at ground level, making the cut hard to spot, even to a trained eye.

In a final assessment of us before delivering his cargo, he steps through, looks at us and gives us a thumbs-up sign. Seemingly a question, we return the thumbs up. Yeah, man, no problems from us. Carry on.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. Three men have already come through and are hurrying away down the border fence road as a child holding a dark backpack pushes through. The fence stretches into the distance and appears imposing, but it is in fact fragile.

Moments later, the first of what turns out to be a long line of people begin easily squeezing through the newly opened portal to what may as well be another dimension. Or at least a new chance at life. 

Neither my photo buddy or I, busy shooting photos, think to make a head count in the moment. She later guesses fifty; I think more like thirty. Let’s call it “dozens”. There are men and women and lots of kids. Most appear Latin American, the rest African, typical of the ethnic mix I’ve seen in migrants lately.  

The man who seems to be the leader of this group, the one I’m calling coyote for convenience, has an assistant, the one who wears his baseball cap backwards. “Assistant” is holding his phone up, filming everyone going through, likely proof to their boss that the mission was accomplished. There are three other men, also masked, holding back at the edge of the underbrush, watching. I do not want to know what their job is. 

 

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. A young woman holding a child's backpack takes a step forward away from the gap while, behind her, a child has tripped and fallen.
The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. A young woman holding a child's backpack looks back as a man steps through the gap to help pick up a small girl child who has fallen.
The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. A young woman holding a coat and a large handbag looks at a child wearing a blue jacket with pink butterflies. A man in dark clothes, wearing a green camouflage neck gaiter to obscure his face holds a radio with one hand and holds a steadying hand on the child.
The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. A young woman holding a child's hand walks away from the gap in the fence as a man in dark clothing and a camouflage neck gaiter walks back through the gap.

A young mother, arms loaded with a bag and coats steps through, child close on her heels. The child stumbles on the rough ground, falls. The coyote momentarily steps through the fence and into the United States to assist the child, then darts back. The mother and child join the rest of the group, already walking toward the Lukeville, AZ Point of Entry to present themselves to immigration authorities. 

Was this demonstration of kindness only for the benefit of us, two American photographers with cameras rolling? I doubt it, to be honest. Many people thanked him as they stepped through the opening. The people he ultimately works for are horrible, but he’s probably a local taking advantage of a chance to earn some good money. The people he’s ferrying through that gap are understandably grateful, likely unaware of the cartel’s corrupting influence on the Mexican government or the violence with which they enforce their territory.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. A small child in a light blue outfit with a hood is helped through by an adult hidden by the bars of the fence. Through the gaps in the bars a line of people can be seen, all of whom will soon pass through the opening. A man just inside the opening is holding a phone, appearing to be videoing everyone going through.

So many children today, all accompanied by adults. After the cruelty of the Trump administration’s family separations policy, where migrant kids were separated from their parents and then adopted out to American families or kept in detention after their parents had been deported, the Border Patrol now keeps family groups together. 

I often wonder how these kids — this one in blue or the little girl helped to her feet by the coyote or any of them — will remember this moment. How will they tell this story as adults, of their coming across the sea or land and through a big fence to their new life? Will they recall having been scared? Confused? Was it fun? Maybe someday, long after I’m gone, these photos will be in a public archive somewhere and the now-adults will miraculously find them, recognize themselves and recall this moment. 

 

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart. A tube bas been cut and removed so people can come through. A man in a dark leather jacket, wearing a black beanie cap steps through the gap, but looks back at two men on the other side of the fence. These two are the ones who he paid to take him across into the U.S. He's saying "thank you!"

“Thank you!” the man tells the coyote in English, before stepping through. Many others thank him as well, in Spanish or in words I don’t speak but can easily understand as meaning gratitude.

Mainstream media in the U.S. mostly misses the fact that setting foot in the U.S. is a joyful experience for these migrants. They are grateful to be here. Stop and talk with any of them and they’re likely to be happy, if tired and appropriately apprehensive about what happens next. Some are almost jubilant. Of course it depends on the circumstances they’re leaving behind, what happened on the way here and what resources they have now that they’ve arrived. 

Reports of migrants being robbed, assaulted and killed en route are easy to find and it’s appropriate that the public, policy makers and immigration officials understand that this journey is not a lark. But it’s also wrong to see them only through a lens of victimhood: of traffickers, robbers, corrupt officials back home or along the way. I think this diminishes their humanity, making it harder to see them as individual people with dreams going to extraordinary lengths to achieve them. I think that they will mostly make excellent citizens.

After the last migrant goes through, the coyote and his companion lever the bollard back into place, banging and jamming it tightly shut. 

Individual posts are known as bollards. This one was cut flush with the ground, making it hard to spot by passing Border Patrol agents. It’s too late, though: the date in white chalk indicates that it was discovered yesterday, 12-22-23, though it may be some time before it gets welded shut again. 

Note the torch cuts on the quarter-inch-steel cross bar and the gray steel repair plates welded right at ground level. The particular bollard had been cut and repaired once already. According to one Border Patrol agent I asked, “TIMS” is an internal file code indicating that the cut was discovered on the date marked. In this case, on May 11th of 2022. It will be repaired and then another one will be cut next to it.

 

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, built of rows of 30' tall, 6" x 6" square steel tubing set into concrete 4" apart, seen in a compressed telephoto image looking down the parallel road. The fence cuts a straight line across the landscape and up a distant hill. In the mid-ground, a cluster of about 40 people walks away as a white Border Patrol truck drives toward the camera.

The new arrivals, now on their own, make their way toward Lukeville, Arizona and the Port of Entry three kilometers to the west. Now on U.S. soil, they can legally request asylum. It is a complex process, but there are multiple legal avenues to it, some of which apply irrespective of whether a person entered the U.S. through an official process or not. 

After surrendering to authorities, they will be separated into groups of men, women and families, searched, ID’d and eventually taken away in vans. While the situation changes constantly, my best understanding at the time of writing is that they will be given dates to appear for their asylum claims, often a year or more in the future, and be released.

It’s unlikely that any of the migrants seeking asylum have a complete grasp of the ever-changing complexities of U.S. immigration law. You need to be an immigration lawyer with a specialty in asylum cases to do that. It is also probably true, as immigration officials regularly tell the press, that many of these people were given false information about asylum and citizenship by traffickers drumming up business. These things can be true without diminishing the seriousness of a person’s situation that compels them to leave their home forever in order to take a risky journey to a new country in the hope of a better life.

The white Border Patrol truck in the photo does not stop for them. The driver has other business and he knows they will walk in on their own. Three kilometers is nothing when they’ve come this far already.