As long as there have been borders, there have been governments seeking to control them, and people who will attempt to circumvent that control. As nations gain or lose land through war or treaty, these shifting borders frequently cut across formerly united communities, forever changing their social and cultural landscapes. The US-Mexico border is the most heavily trafficked national boundary on the planet, with around 350 million documented crossings each year, and with 851,508 apprehensions by Border Patrol of undocumented crossers in 2019 alone. This partition has evolved into one of the most heavily patrolled and closely surveilled stretches of land in the world. Despite this extreme level of federal oversight, inefficient government policies, paired with the desire of individuals to cross have obfuscated any security measure introduced. Indigenous groups, cattle rustlers, cartels, and migrants alike have found ways to bypass the increasingly visible line in the sand drawn from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. But here in the Atascosa Highlands, the greatest obstacle to unregulated crossing has always been the challenging terrain of the landscape itself.

            The average Border Patrol Agent has at least $100,000 invested in them per year, in the form of vehicle maintenance, training, gear, and wages. Yet despite the presence of well equipped agents, and an advanced security apparatus behind them, people with little more than the contents of a school pack and the clothes on their back have continued to find ways around them. The over 851,000 people apprehended by CBP in 2019 represent only a fraction of the total number of crossers who made the rigorous journey across the US-Mexico border in that year. The maze of canyons and ridges that make up the Highlands bear evidence of this reality. Blended in, and becoming as much a part of the landscape as the oaks and dry grass, are the objects left behind by thousands of human beings. The material culture of those who for whatever reason, have left behind homes and families to risk their lives in these unknown mountains for an uncertain future across the line. The focus of border enforcement has changed over the decades from Apache bands, to Chinese laborers, from prohibition booze runners and their cartel descendants, to Mexican and Central American refugees and workers. But the equation remains largely the same. A game of cat and mouse between an unstoppable force and an immovable object played out across this sky island landscape.


            Wherever a migrants journey begins, they will at some point meet the border. This can take numerous forms in the Atascosa Highlands. Vehicle barriers made from repurposed railroad track, steel bollard walls topped with razor wire, loose strands of barbed wire cattle fencing, the threatening jagged mountain peaks and treacherous, narrow canyon bottoms. But for each form the border takes, those who seek to cross have found means to pass.

            The stretch of fencing west of Nogales is old now by border wall standards. Placed up increasingly steep hills, the base of the wall has eroded away to the foundations.  Vines, trees, and annuals have sprung to life, weaving between the breaks in the bollards, and growing nearly as tall as the wall itself are several Tree Tobacco plants (Nicotiana glauca). This species is native to South and Central America, but due to the beauty of its golden tube shaped blossoms it has been brought north, a passenger on countless journeys, a reminder of tropical homes left behind. Today it is a common garden plant in all of the Southwestern cities where people who have immigrated to the U.S. from Latin America live. However, there is only one population of this cosmopolitan species ever recorded in the remote Atascosas, and it is at the base of the cold metal fencing dividing it from the lands where it originated. Your eyes naturally follow up the thin, tall stems of the plants, until you notice something about the wall they are growing next to. Up in the circles of razor wire are old tree branches. These have been placed with one end against the steel bollard of the border wall and the other end pushing out the razor wire to create a gap wide enough for a person to climb down without cutting themselves. These three sticks have bypassed thousands of dollars of wire and wall. A crosser can then follow a drainage tunnel underneath a border patrol access road, avoiding the gaze of agents passing that way, before joining a defined trail heading north through the Prairie Acacia (Acaciella angustissima), Beardgrass (Bothriochloa barbinodis), and Emory Oak (Quercus emoryi).

            Across much of the Highlands, crossers would be less likely to encounter border walls, than barbed wire fences. In one canyon, which runs clear through the borderline, in ecological defiance of international politics, the trunk of a Juniper tree (Juniperus deppeana) spray painted with the word “MEXICO”, is the only real sign that distinguishes the border fencing from any one of the dozens of cattle fences criss crossing the Atascosas. In these deep, rough canyons the landscape itself is the deterrent. Loose rocks which can crack an ankle, choke points which can trap a traveller during flash floods, and a confusion of side canyons which can divert sun sick wanderers from the correct path. This was the intention of the government policies that built the wall near Nogales, to force those circumventing border authorities into this mess of peaks and valleys. To make their crossing so life-threatening and dangerous as to be untenable.

            But hope is not so easily extinguished, a fact attested to by the humanitarian drop sites, piles of abandoned gear, and religious murals which dot the migrant trails. At the humanitarian aid caches in the Atascosas, crates of water, food, and clothing have been deposited in caves and oak groves across the range. But these dispersed stockpiles of aid are not enough to alleviate the threats facing people travelling north across the Atascosas, the deadliest portion of the Coronado National Forest for migrants. According to the Pima County Medical Examiner, the remains of 225 human beings were found in Arizona’s borderlands in 2020. And since 2001, over 100 remains have been found just in the Atascosa Highlands alone. A macabre testament to the strong forces which compel people to risk everything for a chance to cross the line.

            We would all do well to place ourselves in that position, having been deemed “illegal” by the government. To envision what we would be willing to do for a chance at a better life. To imagine what it must take to risk everything we have in an unforgiving wilderness. With the only possessions to our names consisting of a change of clothes, and a can of beans or tuna, or if we’re lucky a packet of electrolytes and carpeted shoe coverings. Where luxury consists of a travel tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush or a cell phone, and the hopes for a brighter future.