A journey along the entire 1,933-mile US-Mexico border shows the monumental task of securing it

From western California to eastern Texas, across four US states and 24 counties, the 1,933-mile US-Mexico border criss-crosses arid desert, rugged mountains, and winding rivers.

For 654 of those miles, fencing separates the two countries from each other.

The 7.3 million people who live in the border counties on each side of the line have watched for years as security grew tighter and illegal crossings tapered off.

In just the last 12 years, the US government built the barriers, deployed troops, and started using advanced surveillance technology – all in an effort to tame and control some of the wildest and remotest land in the United States.

Today, making good on campaign promises to “build that wall,” President Donald Trump and his administration has cracked down even further, pushing for more fencing, a border wall, and thousands of National Guard troops stationed along the boundary line.

Amid a surge of families attempting to illegally crossing the border, the Trump administration has also sparked outrage by announcing a policy to separate immigrant children from their parents.

The issue reached a boiling point over the weekend, after anger over the family separation policy coincided with the resurfacing of month-old news that the government had lost track of 1,475 children who had arrived at the border unaccompanied.

Though the Trump administration sought to explain that the children are likely safe and their families had likely deliberately fallen off the government radar, public outrage has only been growing toward the government’s immigration policies.

It’s worth taking a look at the complexity of the borderlands to understand the daunting task of securing them.

From the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Gulf of Mexico in the east, here’s what the entire US-Mexico border looks like:


California has stood more defiantly than any other state against Trump’s immigration agenda and his long-promised wall. Yet the Golden State’s southern boundary is one of the most thoroughly fortified along the entire US-Mexico border.

Source: Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors


Roughly 105 miles of the 140-mile border California shares with Mexico are walled off by pedestrian fencing or vehicle barriers, beginning on the west coast with a tall, metal fence that juts into the Pacific Ocean.

Getty Images/John Moore

Source: GAO analysis of Customs and Border Protection data


Though some Trump critics have seized upon his recent attempt to deploy the National Guard in California, the San Diego coastline already hosts around 55 guardsman who assist in “counterdrug missions” and conduct surveillance support.

Source: USA Today


Just a few yards inland from the coast, a large metal door is cut into the fencing that holds a special significance to the American and Mexican families who live near the border.

Sources: The Los Angeles Times,The San Diego Union-Tribune


It’s called the “Door of Hope,” and it opens into California’s Friendship Park. US officials used to work with Border Angels, a local nonprofit, to host door-opening events for families separated by the fence to greet and hug one another.

Getty Images/Sandy HuffakerBrian Houston, who lives in San Diego, kisses his new bride Evelia Reyes, who lives in Mexico with her daughter Alexis, while Border Patrol agents look on November 18, 2017.

Door openings have been a recurring event since 2013, allowing families separated by the border to briefly reunite. Last November, there was even a controversial marriage ceremony.


But Border Patrol announced this year the door will remain closed.

Getty Images/John Moore

The chief of the San Diego Border Patrol sector announced in January that the door will now be used “for maintenance purposes only,” and some suspect that the unexpected cross-border wedding had something to do with it.

The American groom, Brian Houston, had been convicted for drug smuggling and couldn’t cross into Tijuana to wed his Mexican bride. Yet when Border Patrol conducted a federal background check on him to participate in the late-2017 ceremony, no red flags came up.

So when news surfaced of Houston’s conviction, US officials were livid.

“The agents are upset, feel like they were taken advantage of, feel like they were duped,” said Joshua Wilson, vice president and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613. “Turns out we provided armed security for a cartel wedding.”


The closing of the “Door of Hope” was just the latest move in a years-long trend of permanently sealing up gaps along the California-Tijuana border. One of the most extreme examples is Smuggler’s Gulch, pictured here in 2003.

For roughly 100 years, the open canyon was a glut of illegal activity. Scores of immigrants would cross into the US every night, darting around Border Patrol agents who were usually outnumbered, and whose radio equipment didn’t work in the ravine.

The canyon served as the perfect running route for smugglers in the 1880s after the US opened the San Ysidro port of entry just a few miles east. To avoid paying duties or risk interference from customs officials, people smuggled everything from cattle, horses, and sheep, to opium, booze, cigars, and lace undergarments.

Even a century later, the gulch was still ridden with crime. Migrants illegally crossing the border there were forced to either pay tolls for safe passage, or endure being robbed, assaulted, or even raped.

But finally, in the early 21st century, the US government had had enough.


More than one century, $US60 million, and 2 million cubic yards of dirt later, this is what Smuggler’s Gulch looks like now.

The canyon, which had spanned roughly 800 feet at its base, is now filled with a pile of dirt about 180 feet high, and several layers of fencing that span the top.

Smuggler’s Gulch was filled in 2009, the result of a 2005 Bush administration effort that eventually waived countless state laws and environmental regulations. Local environmentalists were outraged by the filling, citing the threatened species, such as jaguar and Sonoran pronghorn, that used to tread through the area.

But the Bush administration, spurred on by the 9/11 attacks, argued that the gulch posed a national-security risk, and could potentially allow terrorists to pass through.


Just across the border from San Diego, in neighbouring Tijuana, is where passersby can catch a glimpse of the early stages of Trump’s long-promised border wall.

Source: Business Insider


Eight prototypes were erected near the Otay Mesa point of entry, and recently underwent a bevy of tactical tests against climbers, diggers, and breaching equipment.

Four of the prototypes are concrete and four were built with “other materials.” Several have tubing or metal plates at the top to deter climbers, and some have the “see through” component Trump requested in the event that Border Patrol officers are hit with massive “sacks of drugs” catapulted over the wall.

Though Trump originally said he intended to choose the “best” prototype out of the eight options, CBP officials have said it’s more likely that features from different prototypes will be mixed and matched with each other, and depend on the terrain and logistics of specific areas. The thousands of miles of border is remarkably varied, after all.

Despite the mockery of Trump’s “sacks of drugs” comment, the “see-through” component was “the most important factor” in protecting CBP agents’ safety, Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told a Congressional committee recently.

“If we’re going to have a fence or wall right on the border,” McAleenan said, “our agents need to see through it for security.”


While much of California’s southern border is secured by fencing or vehicle barriers, two main stretches of land have remained somewhat unscathed. One, the Otay Mountain Wilderness, includes a 3,500-foot mountain peak known for its steep climb and abundance of tarantulas.

Getty Images/David McNew

Though parts of the Otay Mountain Wilderness remain clear, much of it is currently intersected by a 3.6-mile steel fence that was constructed in 2008 and cost $US57.7 million – one of the most expensive sectors of barrier along the entire US-Mexico border.

Despite Border Patrol officials claiming as late as 2006 that no such fencing would be needed in the Otay Mountain Wilderness, the Bush administration abruptly reversed course, waiving dozens of environmental laws to construct the fence.

Local humanitarian groups appeared baffled by the government’s reasoning.

“It seems to me, if someone is able to climb the mountains in the Otay Wilderness, a 15-foot wall will not make a difference,” Pedro Rios of San Diego’s American Friends Service Committee said in 2010.


The Jacumba Mountain Wilderness also occupies a large stretch of bare borderlands known for their brutal conditions for migrants. Though Border Patrol agents monitor the area on horseback, the area is vast and remote, and migrants often die before help arrives.

Getty Images/John McNew

Source: The Desert Sun


Unlike some of the more remote corners of the southern California border, the sister cities of Calexico and Mexicali are densely populated, inextricably linked, and happen to lie directly atop the US-Mexico border.

Though Calexico on the US side and Mexicali on the Mexico side are separated by a tall, metal border fence, they share much of their population, culture, history, and economy.

Calexico is mostly populated by Hispanic people, and often sees Mexican residents commute to the US side for work each day. Meanwhile, Mexicali sees a significant influx of American tourists and patients seeking cheaper healthcare services.


Like California, Arizona is also covered almost entirely by some form of manmade barrier.

Source: Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors


For instance, San Luis, Arizona, is walled off from San Luis Rio Colorado in Mexico by heavily fortified barricades, including a triple-layered fence in certain parts.

Google Earth; Skye Gould/Business Insider

Like the closely knit relationship between Calexico and Mexicali, San Luis shares much of its population and economy with the neighbouring San Luis Rio Colorado.


Throughout much of the Sonoran Desert, which spans Arizona’s southern border, the barriers consist solely of short fence posts that prevent vehicles from crossing, but that people can easily step over.

Source: Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors


The small barriers intersect much of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Tohono O’Odham Nation Reservation, which are known for their extreme desert conditions and have seen growing numbers of migrant deaths in recent years.

Getty Images/John Moore

Humane Borders, a local nonprofit that has been working alongside the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, has been mapping the locations of migrant deaths, many of which occur due to exposure or dehydration in the dry, unbearably hot desert.

“Over the last few years, we have seen a trend of more crossing in the extreme parts of the west desert,” Dinah Bear, the board chair of the nonprofit Humane Borders, told Business Insider.

Highs in the summer average 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with records reaching up to 117 degrees Fahrenheit.


Most of the corpses found in Arizona in 2018 so far were discovered near the Tohono O’Odham Nation Reservation.

Humane Borders

Source: Humane Borders and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner


Humane Borders manages dozens of water stations scattered across the state’s southern border near Tucson, where dehydrated and often desperate migrants seek humanitarian aid, or even try to be rescued by Border Patrol agents.

Getty Images/John Moore

Though the group still some migrants using its water stations, Bear said she’s observed a major decline in the number of people crossing the border.

Whereas it was common in the 1990s to see large groups of 20, 30, or even 40 migrants at a time, Bear said, Humane Borders volunteers typically only see one or two people at a time these days.

“Most of the migrants now don’t come from Mexico. They come from Central America, which is much further,” Bear said. “So by the time they get to the border, they’re already in pretty bad shape; they have just been travelling from much further away.”

Bear said it’s now far more common for the nonprofit to find human remains than to find living migrants.

“When we do see a migrant, on the very few occasions we do see migrants these days, inevitably they ask us to call the Border Patrol, because they are in really bad shape and they need help,” she said.


Further to the east, rising up from Arizona’s desert floor, is an archipelago of mountainous borderlands called the Sky Islands, which sustain thousands of different types of species that couldn’t survive just miles away in the Sonoran Desert.

Getty Images/John Moore

Source: Scientific American


It’s this part of Arizona that has the most to lose from the barrier construction that’s been speeding up in recent years. Border walls don’t just separate people — they separate plants and animals, too.

Getty Images/John Moore

Scientists and wildlife officials have been watching trends slowly unfold in recent years as more and more border fencing has gone up.

Conservationists have observed only three jaguars that have wandered into Arizona from Mexico since 2012, though they were commonplace in the state’s deserts decades ago.

Other large mammals such as mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and bears also inhabit the Sky Islands and would likely face displacement or habitat disruption if the government extends border fencing or construct new wall around the area.

One University of Arizona wildlife biologist, Aaron Flesch, said an unbroken border wall would likely entirely destroy the ongoing conservation efforts for endangered cats.

“It would basically give us no avenue for recovery,” he told Scientific American.


But just a few miles from the mountain range, border security has become a top issue for Arizona’s ranchers, who own private land along the state’s southern border. Though many dislike the idea of a massive border wall cutting through their properties, some have long been calling on the federal government to help them protect their land.

Arizona rancher John Ladd is one such landowner who frequently speaks to the media about the difficulties in securing his 16,000-acre ranch, which has been in his family for 122 years.

Ladd has said he supports Trump’s idea for a wall – in certain places – but he also knows it won’t be sufficient on its own in protecting his property.

He said he has frequently endured drug smugglers breaching the existing 18-foot steel fence on his land by using power tools, or even ramming their vehicles through. He has also been frustrated by migrants and Border Patrol agents alike, who he says saunter through his land at will.

“By God, it’s time we get serious. And if it takes the military, then do it,” he told The Tucson Sentinel upon learning of Trump’s plan to deploy the National Guard to the border.


New Mexico has become a leading frontier in the Trump administration’s efforts to secure the border. Though its 180-mile border is currently sealed mostly just by short vehicle barriers, construction is already underway on new replacement fencing.

Sources: Business Insider,

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors


The replacement wall, authorised by the Trump administration, doesn’t quite match the stature or complexity of the eight border-wall prototypes built in California. But officials have insisted that the bollard-style wall was the same one Trump promised voters throughout his campaign.

Customs and Border Protection

Despite his persistence, Trump has run into numerous obstacles in constructing his wall – the most significant being Congress’ reluctance to fund it.

Lawmakers in March shot down Trump’s request to provide $US25 billion for the wall, much to his annoyance. Instead, Congress supplied only $US1.6 billion for border security and fencing similar to what already exists along the border.


Construction on the new wall is expected to take roughly 400 days and cost $US73.3 million — all for just one 20-mile stretch of border territory.

Customs and Border Protection/Mani Albrecht

Officials said in April 2018 that the wall would be 18 feet, including a 5-foot anti-climbing plate at the top. The concrete, filled with rebar, delves 6 feet into the ground with an additional 2 feet of concrete positioned below.

Despite scepticism from reporters during the groundbreaking event last month, Border Patrol officials insisted that the bollard-style fencing was, indeed, “the president’s border wall.”


New Mexico was also among the first to accept Trump’s funding for a National Guard deployment to the border, and authorised a total of 250, though the state’s Republican governor has since cut that number down to 150.

So far, around 80 troops have already been deployed in the state, and their tasks will mostly consist of helping federal law-enforcement officials with aerial and surveillance support, as well as road and vehicle maintenance.


Texas is the state with by far the longest stretch of land bordering Mexico — yet 91% of its border has no man-made barrier at all.

Source: Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors


Just 115 miles of the state’s 1,241 miles are fenced. The city of El Paso lies along the longest stretch of fencing.

Source: Texas Monthly


The length of the Texas’ border travels along the Rio Grande River, creating a jagged, twisting natural barrier that creates logistical problems both for border-crossers and the US authorities that patrol the area.

Google Earth; Skye Gould/Business Insider

A host of laws and regulations – from international treaties to flood-zone requirements – make wall-construction along the Texas-Mexico border a daunting task.

All those obstacles mean that when fencing does get constructed, it usually ends up being placed far inland, cutting across private property. And Texas landowners haven’t taken too kindly in the past to government officials attempting to co-opt their land.

“We do have to go, unfortunately, to court proceedings in some cases,” CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told a Congressional committee in April.

The complexities of the cases go far beyond pricing disputes with the landowners, and often devolve into tedious court battles over who even owns the land, and how to tell, McAleenan said.

“Some of the deeds go back to Spanish land grants and are very complex to really figure out who owns the land,” he said. “So that’s a multi-stage process; we try to do it in a collaborative and open, consultative manner.”

He added that CBP intends to work on major real-estate planning this year to pave the way for future border-wall construction.


The challenges and dangers inherent in patrolling the Texas border came to a head late last year after the death of Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez near Van Horn, Texas, some 30 miles inland.

Google Earth

Martinez, 36, died November 18 shortly after first responders found him and his partner badly injured near a drainage culvert along Interstate 10 in Van Horn, Texas. Authorities said both men suffered traumatic head injuries, and that Martinez’s partner has no memory of the incident.

Top Republicans – including President Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and the state’s Gov. Greg Abbot – immediately seized on Martinez’s death as evidence that the US-Mexico border is insufficiently secured. They called his death an “attack” or an “ambush.”

“Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt,” Trump tweeted November 19. “We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!”

Yet, the FBI and local authorities have said they found no evidence to suggest the men were attacked. Instead, Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo has said it appears far more likely that Martinez and his partner fell into the culvert accidentally, perhaps after being side-swiped by a tractor-trailer.


One of the wildest areas of Texas, which holds some of the most treasured conservation areas on the continent, is Big Bend National Park, which lies in the jagged U-bend in the middle of the Texas-Mexico border.

Getty Images/John Moore

The massive, 1,125-square-mile park currently contains no manmade barriers, and is home to several highly precarious ecosystems that have undergone intense conservation efforts in recent years.

But as one of the largest chunks of land in Texas owned by the federal government rather than private landowners, it’s considered a prime spot for Trump’s wall to go.


The park contains river, mountain, and desert ecosystems that sustain fragile populations of black bears and other large mammals, which are slowly recovering from an over-hunting epidemic that began back in the 1950s.

A wall, or any type of manmade barrier, could wreck decades of work to preserve the natural landscape and protect the hundreds of species that live within the park, conservationists say.


Tourists who come for the scenery in Big Bend often also pay a visit to Boquillas Del Carmen, a tiny Mexican village that lies across the Rio Grande and is accessible only by boat.

The village is home to just 140 people, who largely subsist on a tourist economy, selling handcrafted artwork and trinkets to Americans who venture across the river.

Tourists are typically charged $US5 for a ride across the US-Mexico border in a rowboat, and then they take a pickup truck or a donkey for the one-mile journey into town. Visitors check in with Mexican customs at a small white trailer before entering Boquillas Del Carmen.

The residents of Boquillas have long feared that Trump’s wall could cut off the flow of tourists, who essentially provide their only income.


Southeastern Texas is one of the Trump administration’s highest priorities along the entire US-Mexico border.

Source: Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors


Some Texans have been waiting so long for the government to secure the border, they have taken matters into their own hands. Throughout Texas, as well as the other border states, armed civilians have formed volunteer groups to patrol the borderlands and either detain or report suspected illegal border-crossers to Border Patrol.

One such group is the Texas Border Volunteers, who began in 2006 as an offshoot of the then-popular Minutemen patrol groups.

TBV spokesman Jim Gibson told Business Insider that the group has observed a massive downturn in border-crossing traffic in recent years. They attribute the change less to Trump’s tough-talk on border security, and more to the enhanced technology that Border Patrol agents and state authorities now use.

For TBV, which patrols private lands some 70 miles inland near Falfurrias, the heightened technology means that Border Patrol is “responding quicker” to migrant traffic, which “never gets a chance to make it [to] where we’re at.”

Gibson said the technology, combined with increased manpower of the Border Patrol and National Guard troops, will ultimately make more of a difference in securing the border than any physical wall could.

“This is my view: The physical barrier is only one aspect of what’s going to be required to fix the problem,” Gibson said. “Until our legislatures start to deal with issues like employment, social services, birthright citizenship, and all the other magnets that attract people here in the first place, they will find a way to get here.”

He continued: “Let’s be realistic. Some people envision this wall as a solid barrier that runs from one end of the border to the other. That’s never going to happen.”


Though Border Patrol agents are always nearby — there’s even a checkpoint near the group in Falfurrias — the group says they’re able to assist the agents by spotting potential migrants and smugglers as they make their way through private property.

Gibson said TBV volunteers have to abide by several rules before they can join. The first is that they have to have a concealed handgun licence, another is that they can only carry handguns – absolutely no long guns, which could unnecessarily intimidate both migrants and landowners, and could result in a serious injury.

But the most important rule for volunteers is that they can never apprehend people themselves. Instead, they radio the location of suspected migrants to Border Patrol agents, and only approach the migrants if they appear to be in desperate need of help.

Gibson said some volunteers were once caught tying up migrants while they waited for Border Patrol to arrive – and those volunteers were dismissed from the group immediately.

“Incidents like that is what can cause not only us to get kicked off the properties, but for law-enforcement to say, ‘Screw you, we’re not working with you,” Gibson said.

The group takes their work seriously. And while Gibson said he personally holds no animosity towards migrants seeking a better life in the US, he and others in the group believe crossing the border unlawfully is a simple matter of right and wrong.

“The border’s a problem, and this is an opportunity for us to be proactive and do something that might help,” Gibson said. “Now, we’re not a silver bullet – we’re not solving everything – but it’s a chance for us to do something productive, helping out law enforcement, helping the land owners, and we take a lot of satisfaction in that.”


As the Trump administration continues to demand that Congress fund the border wall, areas such as the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park are growing increasingly concerned about the effects a large concrete barrier would have on their landscapes.

Google Earth

The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park has already been flagged as a location the Trump administration intends to wall off.

According to documents obtained by the Texas Observer, the US Army Corps of Engineers has already plotted out a map showing 15 different segments where the Trump administration plans to erect roughly 33 miles of wall.

In the Bentsen-Rio park’s case, the planned wall would bisect the 797-acre nature preserve.


But the neighbouring Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge has managed to escape the same fate — in a $US1.6 trillion spending package Congress approved earlier this year, the lawmakers explicitly said Santa Ana would be exempt from any new border-wall construction.

The US Army Corps of Engineers initially flagged the three-mile wildlife refuge as one of the easiest spots to erect a border wall, since the land is already owned by the federal government.

But Congress listened to conservationists concerns about destroying a large chunk of natural land for the sake of a border wall.

The exemption shows the highly fraught political process behind regulating the wall’s construction.

While environmentalists pursue whatever victories they can, they have complained of the arbitrariness of lawmakers’ decisions on what land is deemed worthy of conservation, and what isn’t.


Perhaps the most notorious segment of the entire US-Mexico border is the Rio Grande Valley, which in recent years has become a hotspot for migrants and drug smugglers. National Guard troops deployed there at Trump’s request.

Getty Images/John Moore

Though overall border-crossing arrests have been plummeting for years under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the Rio Grande Valley is where much of the illegal activity take places along the border.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told Congress recently that the valley has become by far the agency’s highest priority.

“That’s where we’ve seen 50% of traffic crossing our border. Both an increase in family units and children, but also hard narcotics … an increase in hardened criminals and smugglers,” McAleenan said.


An ongoing problem with any border barriers are weak spots — even in the fenced-off parts of the Texas border, the barriers are dotted with major gaps that undermine the entire structure.

Google Earth; Skye Gould/Business Insider

Source: Google Earth


Perhaps the best example of the economic impact of border barriers can be seen at the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course near Brownsville, Texas, which sits in what is essentially a border dead-zone, caught between Mexico and the US.

Google Earth; Skye Gould/Business Insider

The course was popular among Mexican-Americans for decades, but in 2006 found itself in a tight spot after Congress passed the Secure Fences Act.

When the Homeland Security Department eventually began constructing the border fencing several years later, they chose a spot on the levee, leaving the course trapped outside the fence, on the Mexican side.

The move had a direct impact on the business, and after roughly 50 years of operation, the golf course shut its doors for the last time in 2015.


Putting a border wall on every one of the 1,279 unfenced miles of the 1,933-mile border is easier said than done.

Source: Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors

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