In early 2017, in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, photographer Elliot Ross and writer Genevieve Allison decided to drive the entire length of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border–a trip that took four months and 10,000 miles of driving as they moved back and forth between access points. “We did our best to see every inch of the actual physical border,” says Ross.
Their goal was to find out how much truth–if any–lay in the narrative that Trump was spreading about the border. “We really wanted to see where the reality existed on that spectrum from the people we spoke to while transiting the entire border to get the largest demographic possible,” he says. “And to see where the lived experiences of the people that we spoke with compared and contrasted with the president’s message.”
A new book called American Backyard documents the journey. In McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley–one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, with a largely Hispanic population and a far lower crime rate than the average American city–they saw luxury stores where wealthy Mexicans cross the border to buy American goods, and spoke to Mexican-born Americans who cross the border in the other direction to get deals. A block from the border fence, they met a teenage girl who had recently had her quinceañera. In Edinburgh, Texas, they rode along with border patrol agents and saw river patrol boats equipped with machine guns. In West Texas, they watched a 15-year-old Honduran boy walk across the border over an old railway bridge; they gave him some water and he politely asked how to find immigration officials. (They helped, and then watched as he was taken away in a patrol car.) In Arizona, they met a volunteer who builds permitted water stations for people making the dangerous journey through the Sonoran Desert, and a forensic anthropologist whose job is to identify the remains of the hundreds of people who don’t make it. At the Border Field State Park in California, where the border wall leads into the Pacific Ocean, they saw family members talk to each other across the heavily surveilled fence in the “International Friendship Park.”
Throughout the trip, they tried to find support for the expansion of the border wall, intending to present opposing perspectives in the book. But that support didn’t exist. “In terms of people who live within a 15-minute, 30-minute drive to the border, and understand that the reality that comes along with that, no, there’s no support for building the wall,” says Ross. In Bisbee, Arizona, a Trump-supporting Republican rancher whose land abuts the border said that he thought the wall was a waste of money in remote areas. Many conservative ranchers dislike the idea of the wall on their land both for political reasons (“government coming in to use eminent domain to seize part of their land for border easement is the definition of federal overreach,” Ross says) and because the construction and other patrol activity can block cattle from accessing water. In Nogales, the border wall caused catastrophic flooding when it was built.
Most Americans, Ross and Allison say, don’t have a full understanding of what the border is like. “From the imagery that’s available through the media and online, there was kind of a limited representation of what the border looked like, and what narratives were presented,” says Allison. The book hopes to help present a more nuanced view.