Tucson to Nogales

By Jacob Wilson

The highway from Tucson to Nogales is one of the most dangerous highways in the country. On the ranking of “America’s 100 Deadliest Highways”, I-19 comes out as 38th with 57 fatalities from 2004 to 2008.

Yet it is not even close to being the most deadly aspect of that stretch of desert. In 2008 alone, in the Tucson Sector desert that surrounds this highway, 171 people trying to cross the border were found dead, caught up in the Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) attempt to prevent border crossings through “deterrence”. This project of deterrence, building more and more walls, putting more Border Patrol agents on foot, and installing more detection technology in the border region, forces migrants to choose more and more hazardous means of crossing through the border.

It is down this highway and its surrounding desert that we drove on February 12th, 2016, the first day of our first overnight excursion on the Border Studies Program, on the way to visit the Nogales Customs and Border Protection Station.

Looking out the window of our van, I am briefly reminded of the highways infamous reputation. I can see that there is only a small shoulder, at the end of which is a steady slope of about five feet, fanning out into the sandy, brush ridden desert floor below. I briefly consider just how easily a driver could lazily meander out of their lane and dig their front wheels into the sand.

All the while,  the beauty of the desert around us streaks by. In the distance are the perpetual mountains that pervade every horizon in Tucson’s surrounding desert, their many peaks shining under the desert sun. The highway is unique in that distances are posted in kilometers, while speed is posted in miles per hour. It is one of many marks of being near the border, a place where many such contradictions exist.


It is at the end of this specific stretch of history, beauty and mortality that the Nogales Border Patrol Station resides, one of many such stations along the US-Mexico border. It marks the most recent advent in this aforementioned history, bringing with it increased security and surveillance, increased militarization, and  increased policing. As we near Nogales, the vast expanses of valley floor and distant mountains give away to the tell-tale rolling hills that signify we are getting close to Nogales. Sweeping and turning through the bases of these hills and their rolling golden grasses, we approach the station.

We pull up to the gates at the end of a side road lined with large storage yards of construction equipment and warehouses. The border wall is visible not too far off in the distance, its 20 foot tall rusted metal beams snaking through the desert hills and out onto the horizon.

We are met in the parking lot by men in olive green fatigues, the Border Patrol badge on their lapel and the Customs and Border Protection patch on their sleeves.  The parking lot is filled with various CBP vehicles and pickup trucks, many with metal holding-cells installed in their bed for detaining newly found border crossers in the desert. The Border Patrol agents are tall and confident, greeting us professionally but also with an air of nonchalance.

They lead us inside into a room full of CBP posters and the faces of powerful officials: the Chief and Deputy Chief of the Border Patrol, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and The President of the United States. Almost every wall has a morale boosting poster, exemplifying the important work of the CBP with images of armored Border Patrol agents standing in front of American flags. For us students, the posters are a glaring contradiction to the reality that we had just passed through on our drive down here. What we recognize as so much pain and suffering being distorted into an oorah-style propaganda piece.

CBP presentation

Our tour follows with similarly blatant ignorances. First we are shown a presentation delineating how the Border Patrol protects the US from terrorism (even though no “terrorist” has ever been apprehended by the Border Patrol). Next we are brought to the equipment room of the station where our tour guide offers us the opportunity to handle the same assault rifles, ‘less-than-lethal’ pepper guns and body armor that the Border Patrol uses to enforce their domain (who wouldn’t be excited to handle the same weapons that kill people and enforce fear all throughout the border region?). To cap it off, we are brought to the holding cells. There, we are shown the holding cells themselves and the people detained within them, just brought in from the desert and awaiting to see what their legal fate will be. It was possibly the most palpable example of the disconnect between the agents and the people they were affecting. The people in detention weren’t even told who we were, let alone given a say in whether or not their detention could be made public for a tour group.

Exiting the doors of the station after our two hour tour, I feel that my understanding of the Border Patrol has been greatly intricated, although probably not in the same way that our tour guides had intended. To see first-hand the extent to which people were able to disconnect their actions from the pain of others, to even see it as righteous, was sobering.

We say our goodbyes to the tour guide, thanking them for their time, and get back onto the road to continue the rest of our trip.

When contrasted to the surrounding desert and the history that the desert represents, it seems as if the Border Patrol station exists within an alternate reality. And in many ways it does when one considers all the different realities that exist in the desert. There are many parts of the desert that you can choose to see and alternatively choose not to, a quality that the Border Patrol uses to its advantage when trying to advance its own narratives. I certainly share that privilege of choice, the privilege to enter Arizona not as the subject of these systems but as an outside actor who can choose what aspects I want to see and what parts I don’t. I don’t have to see the death if I do not want to. Even the cops and border patrol agents who patrol all over Tucson can be ignored, especially if you are among the lucky few who they do not routinely target.

Yet for many people these realities are not things that they engage with voluntarily. For many people, the prospect of death, detainment and precarity are as much a part of life as is security and stability for others.

Throughout the rest of our time in the borderlands, we are continually reminded of these paradigms. I am thankful to see this desert, to hear the perspectives of so many wonderful people in the community and to be able to use those narratives and experiences to powerfully define the wide variety of realities that takes place here.

Clark Merrefield and Lauren Strieb, “America’s 100 Deadliest Highways,” The Daily Beast, 5/31/10, accessed 5/1/2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/05/31/deadliest-highways-ranking-the-100-interstates-most-likely-to-cause-a-fatal-crash.html

Maria Jimenenz, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the US-Mexico Border,” ACLU, 1-/1/2009, accessed 5/1/2016, https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/humanitarian-crisis-migrant-deaths-us-mexico-border?redirect=immigrants-rights/humanitarian-crisis-migrant-deaths-us-mexico-border

US Border Patrol, “Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond,” Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 7/1/1994, accessed 5/1/2016 http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415996945/gov-docs/1994.pdf

Richard D. Vogel, “Reclaiming Their Stolen Birthright- Mexicans in the American Southwest”, From the Left- A US Forum on Combating Neoliberal Globalization, 1/1/2012, accessed 5/1/2016, http://combatingglobalization.com/articles/Reclaiming_Their_Stolen_Birthright.html


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