Donald Trump’s great, tremendous border wall might not have been built yet, but about 650 miles worth of “wall,” already exists, a vestige of border-control projects from earlier administrations. But instead of being simply a symbol of isolation, the wall has been altered by its environment: It’s become a home for many people who have washed up against it.
A new series from Tokyo-based photographer James Whitlow Delano captures this challenging reality. What you’ll see is as much a story about poverty as it is one of perseverance, a testament to the hardships of the human condition, and evidence of our resilience.
Delano grew up in San Diego–he still has family there–and has been photographing the U.S.-Mexico border for more than 30 years. It’s become a bit of an obsession, he says.
In 2016, he was in Mexico photographing the border, trying to answer the question of what it’s like to have a neighbor (with whom you are at peace) erecting a barrier between you. “In the process of making that story,” he tells Fast Company, “I happened upon several families whose houses or shelters were actually backed up against the wall itself, but I did not have time to explore their lives further. So I said, ‘I’m going to do the story I should have done in the first place,’ then went back and sought out these people.”
Looking north from Mexico, a new wall is under construction–part of a long-term project accelerated during the George W. Bush administration and continued during the Obama years. It’s in the form of a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, like something you’d see surrounding a high-security prison. But the old wall that rises from the rolling hills is heavy rust-colored corrugated tin. In some places, the old wall is paired with another on the opposite side of the ridge, leaving a no-man’s land in the center; in other spots, there’s no wall at all. A gap in the wall six miles inland from the ocean is a prime position for lookouts, eyes peeled 24/7 for border patrol officers. Locals call it el nido del aguila–the eagle’s nest.
Along the wall, Delano met a woman who had lived in the U.S. for 20 years with her Cuban husband. She ran a taco stand and wouldn’t let Delano pay for his meal. He met a homeless man 1,600 miles from his previous life in the state of Michoacán, near Mexico City. Delano also ran into a surprising number of Haitians who were stuck in Tijuana, trying to scrape together a living with limited Spanish. Just about everyone living along the wall does so without plumbing, and electricity is ripped from the power grid illegally.
“We’re talking about people who are really on the fringes of Mexican society, and they don’t want to go home. Either they have debt or they have shame or they can’t afford it outright,” Delano says. “Several of the men I met had children who are U.S. citizens. Part of the reason for wanting to remain there is the hope that they can get back, reunited with their families. Their wives are living up north, so they’re caught between two places.”
For others in town, like two young boys Delano snapped, the view of the border wall, and the United States in the distance, is all they’ve ever known. They are very much at home there, and the wall they were perched on was just another part of their playground. The boys’ family, three generations and six kids in all, is there for the long haul.
They live in a ramshackle house that sits atop a mound of dirt and stone.
“You can tell they’re struggling for money, but the matriarch of the family has this calming influence over everyone–you can tell by the way the kids act. She’s like the rock of the family.”
The son-in-law, Jesús, repairs cars during the day. He still has family in the United States, near Seattle, which explains the Seahawks tattoo on his forearm, but now has Canada in his dreams. Jesús was deported for felony domestic abuse. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the U.S., according to 40 years or research.
“Every country has to secure its border,” Delano says. “But when you need labor and the laborers are willing to come, and then you just build a wall to keep them out or you don’t build a system to regulate the flow of people? That just doesn’t make sense to me, simple as that. Let’s figure out a way that we can help these decent people to come north of the border and not feel like criminals. How about a good visa system here?”
Since Trump signed two executive orders on immigration and border security, not only have arrests of suspected undocumented workers jumped 38%, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection has caught 47% fewer people trying to cross into America without documentation.
“I wanted this to be a human story. I want people in the U.S. or Europe to understand the kinds of pressures people are under–financial pressures, family pressures,” the photographer tells Fast Company. “I want people to understand that we’re dealing with decent people who, just by fate of birth, have this pressure on them that we most of us don’t have.
“What I don’t want is to encourage anybody to build the wall, because that’s ridiculous.”
All Photos Copyright © 2017 by James Whitlow Delano. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.