Politics

The Unfinished Border Wall Still Managed to Do Plenty of Harm

A monument to our era scars the desert east of San Diego.

Two bare dirt roadways, separated by a line of bushes and a sagging barbed-wire fence, run alongside the tall, rust-colored shape of the United States border wall, which stands tall on the right side of the picture and recedes into the distance from right to left, diminishing as it traces the undulating landscape.
James Stout

On Jan. 21, minibuses of contractors in hi-viz vests were still bumping along the dirt road they had built for themselves in the high desert village of Campo, California, an hour east of San Diego. Less than 24 hours before, the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden had signed an executive order declaring that “the national emergency declared by Proclamation 9844 … is terminated and that the authorities invoked in that proclamation will no longer be used to construct a wall at the southern border.”

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The Trump administration’s border wall project arrived in Campo in early 2020. The area is rugged and rolling, studded with oak trees and sagebrush. It couldn’t be more different from the bustling beaches and boardwalks most people associate with San Diego.

Into this landscape came contractors who were working with dynamite and heavy machinery 24 hours a day, with funding from both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. The latter money came through the executive order rescinded by Biden, in which Trump had claimed an emergency that even he admitted was not necessary. In 2020, the emergency spending accounted for $676 million in the region around San Diego and El Centro.*

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The borderlands in eastern San Diego County, like every inch of the United States, are the ancestral homelands of Indigenous people. San Diego County has the highest number of reservations in the country, and the Kumeyaay people lived on this land long before the border came. Over the past year, they have been fighting a 30-foot steel wall that tears through the fragile high desert and divides Kumeyaay living north of the wall from their relatives to the south.

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From a vantage point on top of a peak in eastern San Diego County, the wall stretches out as a physical manifestation of the brutality and ugliness of Donald Trump’s vision of American greatness. Sagebrush bushes, which survive in a region that can kill you with heat in the summer and cold in the winter, are held back by a rusty barbed wire fence next to a double-wide dirt road which runs alongside the towering steel spine of the wall proper. The wall stands on a deep concrete foundation, backed by the empty brownness of the roadway. No effort has been made aesthetically or ecologically to make this wall belong here. It’s as if the land, plants, and animals have drawn back in revulsion at the intrusion. On the other side of the newly created dead zone, bushes and plants grow right up to the border.

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Late sun flares through the top of the United States border wall as a crew works around an excavator, in a strip of dirt, rubble, and barbed wire.
James Stout

I’ve hiked and climbed all over this area, and my Indigenous friends have spent their lives here. Their ancestors are buried in the ground that was dynamited in this year’s construction. A peaceful place where generations were laid to rest now serves as a permanent monument to xenophobia and corruption.

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Border Patrol agents drive around the area in expensive trucks, on an expensive road, next to a barrier that cost billions of dollars, all to keep the poorest people on the planet from asking us for help. In 2018, I spent time volunteering with a migrant caravan that had arrived in Tijuana and watched U.S. Department of Homeland Security employees launch tear gas over this wall at kids who couldn’t afford shoes.

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Passages for the wall have been blasted out of the fragile landscape of California’s desert, causing drainage problems, disrupting migration pathways for the area’s wildlife, and leaving huge piles of rubble. Further east, there are half-finished roads that lead to nowhere, designed to allow contractors to deploy huge machinery against the defenseless landscape. They’re now just even-more-obvious illustrations of the ridiculous nature of the whole project.

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Even before the roads run out, there are gaps in the wall. Construction stepped up in the months before the election to allow for Trump to make ever more ridiculous claims about miles of wall built, sometimes this meant harder-to-build areas were skipped or two crews worked on a wall that didn’t quite meet in the middle. It would be funny if it weren’t so ugly and pointless.

The wall has brought “billions of dollars” to steel companies like Zekelman Industries, which recently donated $1.75 million to a pro-Trump super PAC through its subsidiary Wheatland Tube and has been reported to have special access to Trump according to Michelle LaPena, a lawyer for the La Posta Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. However, contractors working on the project were unsure how much longer they would be paid. Raini Brunson, a press officer with the Army Corps of Engineers, said they “are still working through the implementation guidance of the pause work directed in the President’s proclamation.”

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Even if Biden lives up to his promise that there will be “not another foot” of wall built, the damage already done is irreparable. Previous projects on the border have undertaken an in-depth analysis of the environmental and cultural impact of construction; however, thanks to a provision of the 2005 Real ID Act, the requirement for cultural and environmental assessments has been waved by DHS. A 1993 impact report on a plan to build roads and barriers at the border in San Diego County, to combat drug smuggling, lists nine endangered or threatened species and several historic sites in an area it calls “pleasing and mostly untouched by development.” In Arizona, saguaros that can be more than 200 years old and are sacred to the O’odham have been destroyed with blasting and bulldozers.

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Olympia Andrade Beltran, a binational Indigenous activist, said, “My heart hurts every time I am at the wall. I cry. I sing to the land and the ancestors. We mourn the desecration of what we hold sacred, not just the ancestors but the living land itself.”

Beltran and other Indigenous people whose homelands are crossed by the border have been protesting against the desecration of the earth and ancestral remains for years. In August, Kumeyaay protesters in San Diego found midden soil, evidence of cremated remains of their ancestors, at a construction site. The project continued. V Lewis, a member of Defend O’Odham Jewed, an Indigenous direct-action group based in present day Arizona and Sonora, told Slate that “our Hassan, also known as Saguaros, are our O’odham’s ancestors literally! We as people evolved from the land itself. The line in the desert crossed our people. We didn’t cross anything.”

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“We need to remove the harm done,” Lewis said, “literally the wall of murder itself, and allow our people to heal.”

Blue sky and a sunny landscape show through a series of barriers, in ever-increasing focus: the slats of the United States border wall, in front of which is a strand of barbed wire, in front of which is a mesh of chicken wire.
James Stout

Correction, Feb. 3, 2021: This article originally misidentified El Centro as a county in California. It is a city and the name of a regional Border Patrol sector.

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