A Terrible Beauty

Lens on the Border documents the devastation the wall has wrought on fragile borderlands

Time was, the San Pedro River was an unmolested stream snaking its way from Sonora into Arizona.

The javelina, bobcats, mountain lions and even beaver who drank the river's water could easily cross the international line and travel north or south along its shady banks, seeking mates and food.

That was then. This is now: a massive border wall runs clear across the San Pedro, slicing the animals' longtime habitat in two, blocking off crucial migration routes, limiting their water supply and endangering their lives.

In Lens on the Border, a photography show that marks the 10-year anniversary of the federal Secure Fence Act of 2006, a variety of artists have captured the environmental devastation that the wall has wrought on the fragile and beautiful borderlands. Some walls had already been built in the 1990s, in cities including Nogales, San Diego and El Paso, but the Secure Fence Act triggered rapid construction over hundreds of miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

During a presidential campaign in which Donald Trump relentlessly leads chants of "build a wall," the exhibition provides a timely riposte. We already have a wall, and it's huge. The current count is about 700 miles of 20-foot-high steel barriers slicing through lands both public and private across the 1,950 miles of the international line. Arizona alone has 307 miles of walls along its 376-mile boundary with Sonora.

The exhibition's 75 photos document scars across the landscape from California to Texas, where towering steel barriers mar desert, wetlands and mountains, and where thousands of Border Patrol agents tear their SUVs through wilderness.

Krista Schlyer, author of the photography book Continental Divide, pictures javelinas stymied by the towering border wall near the San Pedro, one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in Arizona. In her "Up Against the Wall," the puzzled animals poke at the concrete of the wide road running alongside the wall. Between the road and the forbidding steel poles reaching for sky, this treasured green patch of dry Arizona has turned into a monotone hardscape.

The Otay Mountain Wilderness in California is captured in an aerial shot by Roy Toft. The Otay is a preserve punctuated by picturesque hilltops and peaks, once a place of solitude and respite from the modern world. No more. Toft's photo shows the former retreat pockmarked by new roads—built to allow trucks to carry building materials to the border, where the wall was under construction.

Santiago Gilbert specializes in adorable images of wild animals like bighorn sheep who are vulnerable to loss of habitat and migration routes, a problem greatly exacerbated by the militarization of the borderlands. A black bear he photographed in Big Bend National Park, Texas, is part of a comeback: bears were extirpated from the park years ago, but they've now been enticed back. There are no walls in this part of Texas—for now—but should they be ordered up by a new president the restoration project would likely fail.

Bill Hatcher, a Tucson photographer who regularly shoots for National Geographic and other national magazines, zeros in on the heartbreakingly beautiful Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southwest Arizona.

In his lovely color images, he captures unique organ pipes growing in a lush desert so rare that it's designated as an International Biosphere Reserve. But he also photographs collateral damage created by border enforcement. Border Patrol helicopters clatter overhead, shattering the deep silence of wilderness. Below, SUVs kick up dust and searchlights pierce the darkness of the desert night.

These aren't just aesthetic concerns. Lit up like a movie set, the desert's new brightness disorients the bats who play a crucial role in fertilizing the Sonoran Desert's signature saguaros. And road construction elsewhere in the rural borderlands has destroyed archaeological sites and Native American burial grounds, desecration permitted by a "super-waiver" of environmental and cultural preservation laws that was signed in 2007 by Michael Chertoff, then head of the Department of Homeland Security.

During monsoon storms, the walls have turned into dams. Back in 2008, two men drowned in Nogales, Sonora, after a fierce rain caused flooding, with deep water pooling against the wall.

Lens on the Border primarily exposes how this expensive occupation endangers animals and despoils cherished public lands, but it also addresses some of the human costs. "Cross My Heart X Crossing Borders," is a disturbing photo by RAEchel Running of a bra she found along the migrant trail. We don't know how this filthy garment came to be left behind but we do know women are sometimes raped by their "coyote" smugglers and their bras hung on trees as trophies.

Sexual violence is only one of the borderlands' hazards faced by migrants fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries.

Border walls push border crossers deep into remote wilderness, where if they get into trouble there's little help to be had. The most recent death reports are sobering: 144 bodies were found in southern Arizona in fiscal 2016, a jump up from the 133 discovered last year and 121 the year before. This year's carnage brings the total up to 3047 known dead in the years from 2000 to 2016, according to figures from Coalición de Derechos Humanos and the Pima County Medical Examiner.

The lives of people in border communities are also disrupted by the massive wall. In a telling Schlyer photo, musicians are playing on the Mexican side of the wall separating San Diego from Tijuana. We can see only bits of them and their instruments between the steel poles. Ironically, this piece of the wall, ending in the Pacific Ocean, is on a tract of land once known as Friendship Park, meant to be an international gathering place for citizens of two allied nations, the United States and Mexico.

Schlyer notes that the park was dedicated in the 1970s by First Lady Pat Nixon. Nixon delivered a statement at the ceremony that's remarkable in retrospect: it shows just how much rhetoric around the border and immigration has changed over time.

"I hate to see a fence anywhere," she told the crowd.

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