Sasabe Notebook: Big Contracts, New Border Walls, and a Humanitarian Crisis

New wall construction near Sasabe. Photo by Todd Miller.

Off the side of the border road, there was a young woman cradling what turned out to be her sick one-year-old. Slowing down, we turned the corner and saw that she was part of a larger group, who were sitting on blankets placed on the dirt road against the towering 30-foot rust-colored border wall. We were to the east of Fresnal Peak (Cerro de Fresnal), about 10 miles from Sasabe, Arizona. The group had tied several ground cloths and blankets, including a white one from the Red Cross, to the bollards of the wall to tame the wind. The nights had been cold. They tied the last metallic-colored blanket to a white sign nailed to the wall that said, ironically, No Trespassing. To the east, the wall continued snaking up and down through the hills and mountains. This was the last part of wall that the Trump administration constructed during his waning presidency at the end of 2020. And this was the wall that the Biden administration was now finishing up.

No Trespassing sign near the group from Veracruz and Guanajuato. Photo by Todd Miller.

This group of 12 people from Veracruz and Guanajuato, Mexico, had a bunch of kids. The one-year-old was sick, but then it turned out that the three-year-old was also sick. And so were the four- and five-year-olds, the latter’s small body a lump under a blanket up against the wall. The children’s eyes were glazed and gaunt, signs of sickness, signs of three very cold nights. Respite seemed a million miles away. Usually that would be Sasabe, Sonora, but warring factions of organized crime had made the town unsafe. On top of that, according to a security guy I had talked to earlier, the U.S.-based militia Veterans on Patrol was going to be “in the area” later that day. As the evening approached, the prospects of another night with sick kids at the wall seemed likely. As we stood there assessing the situation, the silver trucks of Spencer Construction—a company that had just received more than $600 million for “border infrastructure,” including wall construction—rumbled by. That was the biggest contract that Spencer, which was first contracted by Trump in 2020, had ever received from Customs and Border Protection. Spencer was also the company that San Diego activists blockaded from doing wall construction in September.

As The Border Chronicle has reported, when Joe Biden took office, he promised that he would build no more wall. This border infrastructure contract issued in July, however, says otherwise. Besides Spencer, the companies Sisco and Fischer Sand & Gravel also received hefty contracts. In total, the contracts were worth $1.4 billion, with a $4 billion ceiling. And now, as we stood with the group, there was the surreal imagery of the contractors’ seemingly new trucks juxtaposed with people, like this group, camped along the border wall, sick and seeking asylum. The children’s gaunt eyes and faces were flush with misery, and the adults told us that they had just called 911. For the children, a man from Veracruz told me. The situation, he told me, has become desperate. Gail Kocourek of the humanitarian aid group Samaritans and cofounder of the Sasabe, Sonora–based Casa de la Esperanza offered the group water, food, and blankets.

Gail Kocourek at the border wall near Sasabe. Behind her is water and blankets left by the Samaritans. Photo by Todd Miller.

The term the Democrats have used for continuing to build onto Trump’s wall has been “filling gaps,” as if the border wall were missing part of a tooth and now needed a crown. One of the recently filled “gaps” was much closer to Sasabe, and was precisely the place where asylum seekers had been arriving. But after the new wall, this was no longer possible. The new portions were colored gray—not rust—and the bollards had a time stamp on them that said 09/26/23. Spencer Construction had barely built it. While Biden didn’t put up a commemorative plaque as Trump had, this was his border wall. As Gail told me, that additional wall construction forced people farther out into the desert, into more isolated regions like the one where we found that group with the sick kids.

New border wall time stamp. Photo by Todd Miller.

And there were more people coming. In the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, encounters with people had increased from 27,318 people in June to 59,421 people in October (along the entire border, however, encounters slightly decreased). Although there was new context, people forced into the dangers of desolate locations was a story we’ve been hearing on the border for 30 years, resulting in at least 10,000 deaths.

Have you been cold at night? I asked. Yes. Very cold. Maybe that’s why the kids are sick. The Border Patrol, they told us, had passed by many times. They had not stopped. Could we, they asked, call 911 for them? As we talked, another Spencer truck came. The trucks were rumbling by what turned out to be many people—many more groups besides this group—along this stretch of border, many with smoldering campfires to keep warm. One such fire was from a group of Guatemalans whom we met 15 minutes later along the border wall. The fire, they told me, was for our two-month-old, who was also sick. I looked across the fire to where a young woman was placing a blanket over the two-month-old’s body, the child’s tender face looking out from the covers, up into the dimming blue sky in the lowering sun, with the omnipresent border wall undoubtedly in her view. They told us that they too were cold at night. The same for another group from Chiapas, Mexico, near Tapachula, whose kids were also sick. Every single kid by the border wall was sick. There was not one child who was not sick.

A large group of asylum seekers at the border wall. Photo by Todd Miller.

After driving around and talking to several such groups, we went to the top of the hill, the only place where we could get a cell signal. Gail called 911. From where we stood, looking out at Fresnal Peak, which Trump blew to smithereens for wall construction, was (besides that unfortunate fact) a view of one of the most beautiful places in the world. Mountain ranges surrounded us in all directions like waves in an ocean—in Sonora, in Arizona—crisscrossing and in constant disrespect of the human-made border. In the distance we could see the sacred Baboquivari Peak of the Tohono O’odham. You could also see a scope truck operated, according to Gail, by the National Guard, and an Integrated Fixed Tower—one of 50 or so in Arizona constructed by the Israeli company Elbit Systems—staring toward Mexico.

The 911 operator transferred Gail to a Border Patrol dispatcher. While she was talking, I thought of one of the sick children, the five-year-old girl who was but a motionless lump under her blanket. The group lifted the blanket so we could see how sick she was. Her eyes were open but glassy and gaunt like the other kids’. She didn’t look at us but stared off into the distance, along the bottom of the border wall, a nightmarish symbol that would probably forever be branded in her mind. Maybe I thought of her in that moment because I have a daughter who is also five. I imagined my daughter on the ground, sick, drained of hope, like her, looking at the world she had inherited from the generations before her and their political systems.

Now talking to the Border Patrol, Gail told them there were groups out here and that they had been there for three days. Gail told them—her voice forceful—that there were sick children, lots of sick children. She told them that the groups had told them that Border Patrol had passed them and not stopped. Why hadn’t they stopped? Gail asked. Can you send someone out here? Meanwhile, the sun continued to go down, shifting the colors to rich browns and glowing yellows and earthly greens throughout this high-elevation desert near the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge. The final trucks from Spencer were leaving, done for the day, Gail would tell me. The last one was doing a security sweep. It was a border civilization, the rhyme and reason of profit and suffering and border policy and strategy all surrounding us; while at the same time, there was this sweeping view of the world, as if somewhere in there was the potential that things could be different, better, much more beautiful.

Baboquivari peak and if you squint you can see a surveillance tower on the hill in the foreground. Photo by Todd Miller.

Night was on its way, and I was pessimistic about the Border Patrol coming. I knew that their record with 911 calls was less than desirable, as the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths has documented now for years. But I was wrong. The Border Patrol came rumbling over the hills, going at high speeds, as they do so often. They picked up the group of 12. Later, one of the agents pulled beside Gail to tell her that they were picking up as many people as they could who were at the wall. As the Border Patrol truck passed us, I saw some of the kids, the same sick ones, in the back caged area of the truck, their small hands clenching the bars on the window as the agent drove them to the Border Patrol substation in Sasabe, Arizona.

This was originally published by The Border Chronicle.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.