Two weeks near the Mexican-American border

by Jessie O’Brien

Shouting “Build that wall” might have been invigorating for some, but the repercussions of building a barrier across the America-Mexico border are far more complicated than a three-word chant implies.

Local artist and photographer Michele Sensing wanted to investigate the potential repercussions for herself. She packed her camera equipment – and thankfully, an extra car battery – and set off for the Sonoran Desert. What she captured on the Southern border will be on display April 20 at the Durango Art Center opening of “The Wall.” The exhibit explores the implications of creating barriers. Sensing’s work is a representation of the two weeks she spent exploring Madera Canyon, the Santa Rita Mountains, and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Her initial plan was to explore the environmental destruction that would take place if the wall was built, but she soon realized her focus was too narrow.

“Once I was down there, I couldn’t ignore the human aspect – it was a humanitarian crisis,” she said.

Sensing said that over 10,000 people have died crossing the border since 1994. Over 36,000 unaccompanied juveniles were either rescued or died in the Tucson sector where Sensing was located from 2011 to 2015.

“It’s not mostly criminals (crossing the border). These are people who want to get out of a country that is dangerous and scary,” she said. Such is the case with a large caravan that was captured traveling through Mexico in early April. Two-thirds of the migrants were from Honduras, one of the most dangerous countries on the globe.

The images prompted President Trump to threaten to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement, trade deals with Honduras, and send the National Guard to the border. Around 900 troops have deployed from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Lawmakers rejected Trump’s request for $25 billion for the wall in March, and instead supplied $1.6 billion for border security and fencing. On April 9, the groundbreaking for an overhaul to a 20-mile vehicle barrier in Santa Teresa took place. The Department of Homeland Security announced that it would be waiving over 30 environmental laws to execute the project. Sensing said with all the technology and surveillance monitoring the border, and with immigration at historic lows, the wall is more of a monument to the president.

“Walls are a false sense of security,” Sensing said. “It’s not going to keep out the ‘bad hombres.’ In fact, the only thing it’s not going to keep out is humans.”

Sensing said every new piece of fence that is erected only pushes immigrants to more extreme, remote parts of the desert. Because of this, humanitarian groups such as No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths) scatter full water bottles throughout the desert.

“The Border Patrol is now slashing water bottles,” Sensing said. “They have destroyed 3,587 water bottles so far.” She said that Border Patrol has arrested humanitarian workers as well.

Sensing did not encounter any immigrants during her stay, but she did find evidence of their crossing. Human trails, a broken cell phone, and a child’s sock stir the imagination about who has traveled through the empty desert and the physical challenges they faced, such as the extreme temperature fluctuation Sensing experienced during her stay.

In February, the temperature would be 31 degrees in the morning and 96 degrees by the afternoon, and the wind was relentless, she said. But more imposing than the elements was the 24/7 surveillance.

“Every night, helicopters would shine a light on you,” Sensing said. Underground infrared sensors and towers allowed her to be seen at night and in her tent. “The feeling of constantly being watched was very uncomfortable.”

The film Sensing used for the project reflects the prominent surveillance on the border. She used discontinued Aerochrome film by Kodak, which was developed by the American government in the ’40s to expose camouflage. Greens show up as magentas, and reds are greens. She used trail cameras for wildlife, but was only able to capture a deer and a jackrabbit.

“(A wall is) going to completely cut off nature, which doesn’t understand barriers,” Sensing said.

Sensing also recorded the animals and other sounds that she heard. She is hoping the exhibit gives people a full sense of what the border is really like. She said some of the areas that are protected take millions of dollars and years of time to establish.

“I don’t think people understand what it cuts through. All the years of research on protecting these areas are lost,” Sensing said. “My fear is that this is all going to change and I am taking the photographs of the open space that will soon be (gone).”

Sensing said she plans to do a before and after project if the wall is built.

“I hope I don’t have to do that,” she said.

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