Surprising Lives of Those Living Along U.S.-Mexico Border

How to move beyond the threats and political one-liners about the U.S.-Mexico border? Visit it.

Thirty years ago—three decades before any 21st-century president riled crowds by promising to build a wall—photographer James Whitlow Delano wondered why the U.S.-Mexico border was so fraught. Here were two countries at peace for over a century. But the divide between them was enough to warrant a series of border fences and angry debates about how to stop illegal immigrants.

Thirty years later, the debate, and the region, have intensified. The patches of fence have since been fortified by drones, scanners, and guards. Smugglers who once charged a few hundred dollars to cross the border in the carved-out floor of a truck or in a mad dash across the Sonoran Desert have been replaced by expensive coyotes and deadly cartels, whose only guarantees are high prices, extreme danger, and threats of kidnapping and extortion.

Whitlow Delano’s latest work focuses on the people who live on the stretch of borderland—known as la frontera on the southern side—and the constant tension, threats, and danger that are part of their daily lives.

Families are known to put crosses on the wall bearing the names of loved ones who died attempting to cross the border.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

Flood lights from the U.S. side of the border illuminate a house in Otay Canyon (Cañon de Otay) that rests up against the border wall. In one of the strange quirks of topography along the border, the wall occasionally meanders into the United States, allowing Mexican families to have gardens that are actually in the United States.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

 A family near Otay Canyon backs up against the border wall. Their biggest worry now is the impending plan to build a highway through the area. Their house would sit directly in its path.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

Estel, a grandmother, cradles a grandchild in the garden of her home that touches the old border wall. Her son-in-law, Jesus, was deported from the United States because of a felony conviction. He now dreams of getting a visa to Canada.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

Near Tijuana, a man enters the United States illegally by climbing through razor wire.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

A Catholic shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe is built right up against the U.S.-built border wall, by "Luis", a deportee from the U.S. who lives on his hilltop redoubt above Playas de Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. What he and other deportees fear most are "coyote" traffickers or unknown migrants who prowl this hilltop either seeking to cross into the U.S. or who have more nefarious ambitions.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

A man, likely a human trafficker known as a "coyote," studies a vulnerable stretch of the border wall in Tijuana. There is a gap in one area of the wall, offering an opening to traffickers of people and drugs.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

 A U.S. Border Patrol helicopter watches over the border separating Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

A U.S. deportee lives in a makeshift shelter atop a desolate hilltop mesa east of the Pacific Ocean beside U.S.-Mexico border wall. The man, who declined to give his real name, said he occasionally earns five dollars a day collecting shopping carts for a nearby supermarket and lives atop this hill because he feels safe.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

The makeshift structures along this isolated hilltop in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico belong to one of the deportees who has sought refuge here. Deportees occasionally earn money by collecting aluminium cans which they can sell for 220 pesos/kg (11 USD for 1 kg) or collect shopping carts for a local supermarket for 95 pesos (5 USD) a day.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

Two boys from the Arias family roughhouse in the dust beside their home abutting the original U.S.-built border wall in Colonia Libertad, Tijuana, Mexico. Behind them, a string of lights set up by U.S. Border Patrol stretches to the sea. The lights were set up by U.S. Border Patrol to illuminate the wall to make it more difficult migrants to cross at night.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

Often, Whitlow Delano found people who live in a staggering state of limbo—unable to leave their shacks or huts because of their debts to coyotes and cartels. Several men he met had children in the United States who they were unable to see. Many had shame for the state of their lives, economically and personally stalled. One man, from central America, was deported for being a felon in the United States, but rather than return home, he bided his time in northern Mexico while he strategized how he might get to Canada.

A reinforced border wall—a “big” and “beautiful” one, as President Trump has promised—won’t solve problems for these border dwellers. A large infrastructure project would put them in a perpetual construction zone, and their homes the site of increased tension as the wall goes up and is staffed by scores of new guards.

Nor is the wall likely to end illegal smuggling altogether. Whitlow Delano has seen walls be bypassed with tunnels and ever-more-creative strategies at checkpoints. One action in the arms race of illegal immigration will inevitably beget another.

If, indeed, the stand-off escalates, Whitlow Delano intends to stay tuned. The humanitarian, economic, and militarised relationship between two countries not at war is too good a story, he says—and only by being there can a person get past the political demagoguing. “I care about our two countries' shared history,” he says. “I guess I’m just curious to see just how far this is going to go.”

Header Image: A new section of the U.S.-built border between Tijuana and Tecate, Baja California. Deportees say that these mountains are infamous for kidnappings. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

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