Twenty Four Hours At The Wall

Twenty Four Hours At The Wall

A group of men sit around a small campfire in the distance. To the left, the border wall is illuminated by their campfire. Above, the sky is filled with stars and a small meteor shoots across the left side.
A shooting star crosses over the U.S.-Mexico border wall as asylum seekers keep warm around a fire at the support camp.

Mikal Jakubal
January 14, 2024

The Tucson-based group No More Deaths maintains a makeshift, volunteer-run migrant support camp about a dozen miles east of the Sasabe Port of Entry in a remote part of the Arizona borderlands. Every day, asylum seekers who have paid Mexican smugglers to get them across the border wall arrive in this rugged area, frequently without adequate food or water, some with medical emergencies, and most with little information about what to do next.

The U.S.-Mexico border wall and the border road at dawn. The wall is on the left, with sunlight coming through the bars casting striped shadows on the road. Five people with small backpacks walk beneath the wall, away from the camera.
Asylum seekers who crossed the wall last night make their way toward the aid camp on January 14, 2024. There they will be picked up by Border Patrol, processed and most likely released to await their asylum hearing.

The camp is on Coronado National Forest land in open mesquite forest bordered by a small arroyo. While not officially permitted, it is tolerated by the Forest Service and Border Patrol as a necessary response to the humanitarian situation. It also provides a safe gathering place as people wait to turn themselves in to Border Patrol to make their asylum claims.

In mid-January, 2024 I spent an intense 24 hours observing, photographing and trying to make sense of the situation there.

A view of a makeshift camp, looking down from a hill. There are half a dozen large tents and tarp structures and many smaller tents in a clearing surrounded by scattered trees. Bags of supplies, firewood, campfire rings and trash barrels are scattered about the area.
Migrant aid camp, January 14, 2024. The kitchen and supply tents are in the center. Other tents are shelters for people passing through.
People line up for food at the migrant support camp near Sasabe, Arizona.
Once they arrived at the support camp, several of the migrants cooked a big meal for everyone using the supplies on hand. January 14, 2024

Upon arriving at camp for the first time mid-morning, I met up with a group of Tucson Samaritans, one of numerous volunteer humanitarian aid groups who engage in support work here along with No More Deaths. I followed as they did a morning reconnaissance to the wall’s eastern end, handing out water and food to migrants who had crossed during the night, assessing for first aid needs and answering questions about when Border Patrol would come.

Near the end of the wall, we stopped at a large gap where the wall crosses a large arroyo. Seeing motion on the Mexico side, we at first assumed it was a group of people coming to cross the border. It turned out to be a couple of local cowboys.

Looking through the US – Mexico border fence. Dark brown, out of focus, vertical bars are interspersed with a view of the landscape on the other side in Mexico. An older man on horseback with a blue coat and bright orange gloves can be seen through one of the gaps.
Antonio approaches the big gap in the wall where it crosses an arroyo. At first glance, I assumed that he and his companion were "coyotes" bringing migrants to cross the border. But he was doing ranch work, as well as bagging up trash and tossing it to the U.S. side for pickup. January 13, 2024.
Along a section of the US – Mexico border where there is no wall, only a low fence, an American woman in a red shirt with gray hair hands carton of hard-boiled eggs over the fence to an older Mexican cowboy. He is reaching into the crate to pick an egg. To the left, his horse sits calmly. The Mexican man is dressed in a long-sleeved blue work shirt, jeans and leather riding chaps. He has a camouflage baseball cap and deep squint lines around his eyes.
Antonio, a Mexican rancher takes a hard boiled egg from Tucson Samaritans volunteers across the border fence on January 13, 2024.

Steep hills cut by deep arroyos define the topography of this region. When the border wall was constructed under the Trump administration, it was pushed straight across the landscape, resulting in roller-coaster-steep climbs and drops.

Once asylum seekers cross the border through a gap in the wall or by going around the end, they must either wait for Border Patrol to arrive and take them in for processing or begin the long walk to the aid camp where they can at least receive food, water and a safe place to rest and take shelter from the cold, rain or snow that winter brings to this part of the high desert.

Looking down the serpentine steel spine of the US – Mexico border wall from atop a steep hill. Sunlight going through the vertical bars casts intricate, black and white zebra-stripe shadows on the border road alongside it. In the distance, three people can be seen walking alongside the wall..
Looking west along the U.S.-Mexico border wall as migrants begin to ascend one of many steep hills on the way to the aid camp. January 14, 2024, east of Sasabe, Arizona.

By mid-day, two right-wing groups had shown up at the aid camp: five armed men I’m generically referring to as “militia”, and the QAnon-inspired group Veterans on Patrol.

A man in blue jeans, camouflage shirt and a camouflage tactical vest stands in front of the kitchen at the migrant camp. The man's face is obscured by a neck gaiter, baseball cap and dark glasses. He is carrying a large black semi automatic rifle in his right hand. Strapped to his tactical vest is a holster with a pistol. In the background, a man and a woman, recent migrants, are cooking something in the kitchen. Behind them are the makeshift tents used to store supplies.
"Camo guy" checks out the kitchen at the migrant aid camp near Sasabe, Arizona. Maybe he's hungry? I'm sure those nice folks cooking for everyone would've been happy to share. January 13, 2024.

One of the armed men was Johnathon Alexander who runs the Live Border News YouTube channel. Apparently one of the other men is running for congress and the guy in camo and full tactical gear (in photos) was there to protect him, though from what or whom was never stated. The other men appear together in some of Alexander’s videos. Only camo-guy had his face covered, along with the license plate on his Jeep.

A close-up photo of the back window of the Jeep. There is a sticker that says "you have your family. I have mine". Where normally there would be a series of stick figures representing a normal human family, there are four large assault rifles and two pistols.
The most conspicuously armed member of the small militia group who came to the aid camp on Saturday, January 13, 2024 and his Jeep. The term "ammosexual" comes to mind here.

Normally I wouldn’t engage with people like them, but I do find it useful to try to understand not only what they believe, but whether or not their beliefs are truly held or ideological accessories to a grift. After a while of casual arguing with Alexander and the others, it felt like a bit of both. They seem to truly believe the racist, conspiratorial, anti-immigrant propaganda they are repeating, but fear mongering and xenophobia are a grifter’s stock-in-trade for gaining quick notoriety and attention.

The other group opportunistically taking advantage of the camp that day was Veterans on Patrol. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a good article on them. Shawna “Butterfly” Martin, who seemed to be the one in charge, truly believes that children are being trafficked across the border for sex and satanic rituals, though when I asked for evidence, she couldn’t provide any. Martin and her assistant went through the camp, talking to everyone with kids and getting them to provide VoP with their contact info and photos, something that humanitarian aid volunteers would never do.

A middle-aged white woman wearing a vest and a baseball cap holds a clipboard in one hand while holding her phone in the other, photographing two migrant women and a child. The white woman's left arm is exposed, showing a large dramatic tattoo that says "Psalm 144. In the tattoo, the words of the psalm appear to be written as if on a piece of paper that spirals around a large dagger.
"Butterfly" a member of the "Veterans on Patrol" who showed up at the migrant camp and began asking migrant Women and children for their names, contact information and photographs. They claim to be there to help migrants and children and prevent child trafficking. "Butterfly", was fanatically devout when discussing her religion and her so-called mission to protect children. Neither she nor the other woman contributed anything to the camp, but used it opportunistically to collect migrants' information. Saturday, January 13th, 2024
A woman in a white T-shirt, holding a box of granola bars, hands a granola bar to a small girl while other women look on.
One of two members of the group "Veterans on Patrol" who showed up at the migrant camp, Saturday, January 13th 2024. Neither of the women, nor their organization is affiliated with the humanitarian aid groups who operate the camp.

Being women, unarmed and claiming to be there to help, it was understandable that migrant women would assume that VoP was another humanitarian aid group, especially since VoP is openly religious and most of the Latin Americans there that morning were probably Christians of one faith or another.

When I asked Martin what she was going to do with the information they were collecting, she said something vague about calling people’s U.S. sponsors to do safety checks on the kids. She said ominously that if they called and something sounded suspicious, her group could get “boots on the ground” to go door knocking. I asked how they would know if there was a problem and was, again, given no clear explanation other than that they “can tell” when something is amiss.

What makes all of these people dangerous is not that they strut around with fire arms, or hand out biblical coloring books to kids at the camp, but the stochastic violence their agitation can lead to. Their own guns are video theater props. But when enough people become convinced that there is an invasion of child molesters and drug dealers at the border, it becomes increasingly probable that the message will reach an unstable, armed individual who will go on a shooting spree.

A vertical image of the US – Mexico border wall where it rises up across a hilly area. Beneath it, along the border road, walking in the intricate black and white shadows cast by the steel posts that make up the wall, are five people walking toward the camera. One has his arms in the air. January 14, 2024.
Migrants walk westward toward Sasabe, Arizona after crossing the border. Gaps in the wall can be seen where it was cut for repairs. January 14, 2024.

The wall in this region has many conspicuous gaps, some leftover from when Biden took office and halted new construction. Others are openings recently cut in order to fix erosion from the Mexican side. A contractor is actively working in the area to fill in these gaps, even though the wall itself ends about 20 miles east of Sasabe and is easily circumvented by an end run.

In a few places, contractors have welded 12 foot tall steel mesh over the gaps, but these are easily scaled or cut through. One such opening, on a ridge above Holden Canyon, is a common entry point for migrants, with a well-trod trail leading in from Mexico. As fast as the fence is welded shut, it is cut through again by the cartels operating the human smuggling business in Mexico.

The entire situation here is absurd. Anywhere from a dozen to a hundred people come through every day, requiring Border Patrol to drive back and forth on the steep dirt road transporting them to the station in Sasabe. Each migrant who crosses helps enrich the Mexican cartels by being required to pay for access to the border. The wall does not stop anyone, but it does create a business opportunity for some of the most violent, heinous people on the planet. It would make so much more sense to formally open the border and let people turn themselves in to make their asylum claim at an official Port of Entry. This would deprive the cartels of business, provide a more secure process for asylum seekers and save massive amounts of money.

In early evening, another photographer, on assignment from a major newspaper, heard of a pregnant woman in distress far out along the wall. She drove off to what is known as “911 hill”, where weak cell coverage is sometimes available, to call Border Patrol and then continued to where the woman was. I arrived later, after making a trip back to camp when a large group flagged me down begging for water.

Fifty feet from where a group of people were comforting the pregnant woman, people were climbing over the wire mesh, descending on what appeared to be knotted blankets. Moments after the first person touched down, several Border Patrol vehicles arrived in response to the 911 call sending the climbers back into Mexico. The Border Patrol paid them no mind, if they even saw them, appropriately focusing on the pregnant woman.

A scene at night along the US – Mexico border wall. There is someone on the other side shining very bright flashlight that casts shadows on the ground between the gaps in the wall. There is a section of the wall that is missing but has a 12-foot high screen welded across it. Three people can be seen hanging off the top attempting to climb down. A rope ladder is visible on the other side. On the right, illuminated by approaching vehicle headlights is one man in a hoodie who has already made it to the ground in the US.
A group of asylum seekers using a rope ladder to climb over the gate tack-welded over a gap in the border wall on January 13, 2024. The one man made it over before Border Patrol arrived to attend to the pregnant woman just out of frame to the right. The others scrambled back over into Mexico, though this was probably unnecessary, since they will be turning themselves in once they all cross. A couple nights later, the cartel's workers will chop this fence completely open. Border Patrol will weld it back up and the game will begin again.

It had taken Border Patrol a couple hours to get there, but the medic who did the preliminary assessment through the woman’s English-French translator friend was professional and respectful. The woman, from Sudan, was nine months pregnant. The BP agents debated a helicopter medevac, fearing the bumpy road could trigger labor, but opted to transport her in their van to meet an ambulance that was already en route.

A scene at night of people in front of the US – Mexico border wall, illuminated by headlights. A group of half a dozen African migrants sits around a small fire. There is a pregnant woman sitting with them, wrapped in a silver space blanket. A bald Border Patrol medic kneels in front of her, head turned towards the four other border patrol agents present as they consult on what to do next.
Border Patrol agents discuss how to transport a pregnant Sudanese woman to emergency care. They eventually load her into a van and drive to meet an ambulance that is on the way from Sasabe, Arizona, January 13, 2024.

Back at camp Border Patrol agents were loading people into vans for transport to the Sasabe station. As was their usual practice, they separated people into groups of lone men, lone women and families, keeping families together. Women and families went first, lone men last.

A small group of men would end up spending the night at camp, finally being picked up at first light the next morning.

A nighttime view, looking down from up on a hill. There is a large open gravel parking area with several white Border Patrol vans parked in it, bright lights shining on a group of about 50 people awaiting transport. In the foreground is a blazing campfire. Other vehicles, the red tail lights visible, are driving on the border road.
At about 8pm on January 13, 2024, the Border Patrol arrived at the migrant aid camp to transport asylum seekers. The aid camp is in the shadows to the lower right. Everyone was told to walk over to the gravel pit where there is more room for the vans. Thinking they'd be there all night, most had settled into tents at the camp to sleep.
Night time. A green-uniformed Border Patrol agent walks toward a group of people who have surrendered themselves in order to ask for asylum, illuminated by vehicle headlights. In the background, in the shadows, is the US – Mexico border wall.
Asylum seekers await calmly in a line to be transported in Border Patrol vans to the Sasabe, Arizona station for processing. January 13, 2024.
After dark, US Border Patrol agents load migrants into the back of a van for transport. One agent is shining a flashlight into the back of the van where people can be seen wrapped in blankets to keep warm. Outside, in front of the van, a line of people wait their turn.
Asylum seekers are loaded into a Border Patrol van for transport to the Sasabe, Arizona station. January 13, 2024.
Four men talk to a Border Patrol agent in a truck at night next to the border wall. Smoke from a warming fire is illuminated in the truck's headlights. More vehicles approach down the wall road in the distance.
January 13, 2024. These asylum seekers inquired about being transported, but ended up being part of a small group of men who had to wait by a campfire at the migrant aid camp for the Border Patrol's morning shift to take them in to the station for processing.
Five men sit on milk crates around a campfire at night at the migrant aid camp. In the shadows behind them are tents and other makeshift shelters for migrants.
At the migrant aid camp January 13, 2024. In a couple hours the Border Patrol will come and take everyone else away, but this group will end up spending the night. The Border Patrol prioritizes getting women, children and families to the station for processing. If they're short of vans or staff, lone men will be left for the next shift. The Sasabe, Arizona station is 45 minutes away by dirt road, so apparently Border Patrol didn't want to do the drive for this small group. By morning, there were many more people and a transport caravan arrived to pick them all up.

I spent the night alone at camp, save for the people around the fire by the road. I had the ability to drive out to cell coverage or, if necessary, use my satellite texter to call for help in an emergency. Luckily neither was necessary and I got a sound night’s sleep until a Border Patrol agent banged on the side of my truck when they came for the people who had spent the night at camp.

Later in the morning, at Holden crossing, I spoke with a man named Julio. He was there with a large group of people from the city of Leon, in Guanajuato state, Mexico. The twenty people were extended family members, many of them children. Julio described the tears when he left his mother, grandmother and daughter behind, promising them he’d try to find a way for them to come north once he was established. His brother is here and already a U.S. citizen. He asked me to take a group photo of them against the wall. I gave him my card, telling him to contact me when he got to somewhere safe and I’d send him the photos. As of this writing, two months later, I haven’t heard from him.

People who have crossed the border after long, often dangerous journeys can wear their hopes on their sleeves. Their stories contain both the sorrow of leaving their lives behind and the yearning for a better future, a mix of dreams and desperation. Since I like to be up early photographing, I’m often the first American people will encounter. I try to be as friendly and welcoming as possible, given that these people are about to encounter a system that can be indifferent, when not openly hostile, treating them like anonymous numbers or even weaponizing them for political gain.

Later at camp, I asked Julio about the process of crossing the border. They had taken buses to Magdalena de Kino, a town south of Nogales, Sonora and about 50 miles from the border. They paid $1,000 each, which Julio thought was cheap. (Border Patrol agents who interview migrants as part of their initial processing have told me that $5,000 or more is common, depending on nationality.) For $8,000 to $12,000 a coyote would take them all the way across the desert, but they were intending to apply for asylum, so had no need to hide once in the U.S.

Julio described meeting with the cartel representatives in Magdalena de Kino, agreeing to the price and paying half up front, half when they got to the border. The smugglers had large weapons and threatened to kill anyone who didn’t pay.

They were supposed to have crossed during the night, but there was too much Border Patrol activity at their crossing point (possibly the commotion involving the pregnant woman), so they were required to sleep on a hillside a half-hour walk south. The coyotes brought them blankets, at least. He described the smugglers being armed, with lookouts on hills throughout the area. They were guided through the wall around 7 a.m. and were eventually transported to camp by volunteers.

Julio says he and his family feel safe here, now that they are in the U.S. In Mexico, he worried for his children. While we talk, his brother is making quesadillas for everyone over the little campfire. I wish them the best. The U.S. has plenty of problems. Julio and his family coming here to find a safer life is not one of them.

Stacks of blue boxes of packaged ramen, wrapped in plastic. The printing on the boxes says "Ramen" and "Soy Sauce Flavor".
A donated pallet of ramen noodles at the migrant aid camp. These are quick and easy to cook, important factors when people may have to eat quickly.
Makeshift tent interior. The walls are lined with black plastic and the room is a large tarp. Strewn about are piles of blankets and other bedding.
One of the makeshift shelters at the migrant support camp, January 14, 2024.

Once the last Border Patrol van leaves for the morning, the camp feels suddenly lonely, if silently chaotic. Campfires left unattended, food half eaten, trash strewn, water bottles opened but barely used, the echoes of people on the move.

This is not a place to linger, but a small moment of temporary sanctuary in a long, stormy journey.

By tonight, others will be here to seek momentary respite before they, too, will move on.

Two bowls of ramen noodles in paper bowls, one with a spoon still in it, on a bench, next to a still-smoldering camp fire. In the background are tents and discarded clothes.
Unfinished bowls of food and smoldering fire at the humanitarian aid camp, left when Border Patrol showed up to take asylum seekers in.

If you’re interested in helping the work of No More Deaths, donations are always welcome. They can be contacted through their website.

Tucson Samaritans are also very active in migrant support through the camp.

A disclosure to the extent that it might matter to anyone: since I’m asked by everyone from humanitarian aid volunteers, to militias, to migrants, to Border Patrol agents, to professional journalists what my role is, I’ve taken to calling myself an “amateur photojournalist”.  I try to be as factual as possible while making it very obvious when I’m giving my commentary and opinion.

That said, I also participate in humanitarian aid activities whenever needed, though I’m not formally a part of any of the groups mentioned in this story. I am a member of Ajo Samaritans, but we work in the desert to the west, around Ajo, Arizona.

When I’m near Sasabe, I will hand out water bottles and snacks and give directions to camp to migrants. These are perfectly legal and ethical activities. I avoid transporting people except in the case of medical emergencies, something I would do without hesitation should the need arise. I also won’t repeat anyone’s propaganda. Though my pro-migrant sympathies are obvious, I will always call events like I see them.

Two men sit around a roaring campfire on a bench made of lumber and milk crates. One man has a big smile and is giving a two-thumbs-up sign. To the left is one of the makeshift shelters set up by migrant aid groups.
After a long, chilly walk to the aid camp, these asylum seekers were happy to make a fire. Within a couple hours, Border Patrol arrived and transported them and most everyone else at the camp to the Sasabe, Arizona station for processing. January 13, 2024.
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