A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent stationed outside a break in the fence on private farmland in Peñitas. Only some of these gaps, which occur about every quarter mile, are regularly manned.

Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Border Wall Is Already Giving Up Part of America

What life is like in the no-man’s land north of the border, south of the wall.

Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, April 10-April 23, 2017. Subscribe now.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek

As the Trump administration evaluates bids to prototype a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, topography will present as big a challenge as political opposition. Corralling often wild land beneath miles of concrete isn’t easy, as can be seen in these photos taken of a 55-mile stretch of fence in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas between tiny Peñitas and Brownsville, the last major town before land gives way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Whether and how to seal the U.S. southern border with Mexico has dogged government officials for almost three decades. As early as the Clinton years, officials recommended a physical structure along with increased enforcement amid public anxiety over drug trafficking and a flood of illegal immigration following Nafta. The 2006 Secure Fence Act called for nearly 700 miles of fence along the 1,954-mile border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.

The actual border is formed by the Rio Grande. No barrier can be built in the middle of the muddy green waters, and the banks of the river are a flood plain governed by international treaty. The fence also had to accommodate diverse interests—some landowners refused to sell their land to the government—and varied terrain spanning sand dunes and arroyos, mountains and deserts. In the Rio Grande Valley, sprawling vegetable farms and 18th century cattle ranches inherited from the King of Spain stood in the way of the fence. The result is a porous collection of concrete and steel barriers in various styles and heights set as far as 2 miles north of the actual border and punctuated by gaps to allow access for the thousands of private landowners whose acreage runs to the river’s edge.

Cordoned off from the rest of the U.S., these patches between the fence and the river have sprouted their own ecosystems. In border regions such as this one, which facilitate more than half a trillion dollars of trade every year, life must go on. Workers still harvest the crops, tourists still enjoy butterfly sanctuaries, and families still play with their children. —Lauren Etter

 

Each morning undocumented laborers form a caravan of vehicles that travels to the south side of the wall, where they harvest crops—here spinach in Donna, Texas—before returning north at the end of the day. Border guards leave them alone to maintain good relations with landowners. Until the introduction of widespread irrigation in the late 1890s, this area was covered with wild cattle ranges and mesquite trees.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
David Fox and his dog Jesse James hunt doves on private land owned by Damian Mathers in Brownsville. When building the fence, the government gave some landowners their own gates (the Mathers gate is in the background).
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
On a busy work morning, traffic into the U.S. builds at a bridge (foreground) connecting Reynosa, Mexico, to Hidalgo, Texas. Vehicles heading south and pedestrians take the other bridge. Some 6.5 million cars, 470,000 trucks, 40,000 loaded rail containers, and 16,000 buses crossed the U.S. southern border last year along the dozens of official crossings like this one.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
Ariana Rios (center), 8, of Mission, Texas, plays with cousins at Anzalduas Park south of the border wall. The public playground used to be open from sunrise until sundown but now closes at 5 p.m. because of a growing influx of migrants fleeing drug violence in Central America. They’re often ferried by the Zetas drug cartel, which controls the Mexican side of this border region, and usually end up here at night. The asylum seekers surrender themselves to agents and hope for a lawyer and protection. Border officials want the park cleared of townspeople to reduce confusion.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
Abram-Perezville, Texas. The Rio Grande floods seasonally. The wall reinforced existing levees. This extra flood protection, paid for by the federal government, was the reason some locals signed on. 
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
Border Patrol agents watch a car fire in a field south of the wall just next to the Anzalduas International Bridge. The agents had pursued the vehicle, which they believed was loaded with drugs. The driver attempted a “splashdown” into the Rio Grande, but the vehicle crashed, then burst into flames. The driver fled and made it across the river to Mexico. 
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
A Border Patrol vehicle responds to a call on the banks of the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County. Reynosa, Mexico, is in the distance.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
Under the Anzalduas International Bridge, an official port of entry that connects Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, a busy border town in Texas. Completed in 2009, the bridge is raised high enough to accommodate the wall beneath it, which was built around the same time, and a national wildlife refuge. The flood plain along the Rio Grande fosters one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the U.S. The remaining ocelots in the country—an estimated 50—all live in the area. Walls can lead to habitat fragmentation, threatening species survival for several rare animals and birds.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
Joel Contreras, a Hidalgo County deputy constable, closes a gate. Locked gates stop cars, but aren’t much of a deterrent for people who simply walk up, over, and through them in a matter of seconds if no agents are around.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
Workers pick beets at a farm in Donna, just south of the wall and less than 50 feet from the Rio Grande.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
Migrants line up alongside the Anzalduas International Bridge as they wait to be processed by agents from Customs and Border Protection. Because there has to be some U.S. soil between the wall and the river, people from south of the border will always have a place to walk to for intentional apprehension. Last year 137,000 family members and unaccompanied children crossed the southwest border, up from about 80,000 the year before. Of those, almost all came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek
In a field south of the border wall in Hidalgo, a Customs and Border Protection agent collects a ladder that had been camouflaged with green paint and discarded during a pursuit. Agents regularly dispose of ladders to keep them from being reused by other border crossers.
Photographer: Kirsten Luce for Bloomberg Businessweek