“There’s a good chance you’re going to think I’m nuts,” I said to the Border Patrol agent as I walked up to his SUV, parked at the top of a hill, facing south toward the border wall on the edge of Nogales, Arizona.
I’d been photographing along the wall, the rusted steel bollards thrust 20 feet toward the sky, cascading coils of concertina wire hanging from the northern side like combat zone tinsel.
Scraps of the razor wire were strewn around the base of the wall, 10-15 inches long and curved to match the coils that hung above. I gently lifted a piece off the ground and quickly understood just how sharp it was.
Often, I build peace signs at sites that require some sort of healing. Acknowledgement. Witness. I’ve done it at the 9-11 Memorial, at an abandoned white supremacist compound in Idaho, at the intersection where George Floyd was killed last summer and along the riverbank where Emmett Till’s body was found after he was lynched in Mississippi.
From where I stood, I could see three Border Patrol vehicles standing watch at the wall. I had talked to enough agents while photographing the wall that I knew they weren’t concerned about someone who looked like me wandering with a camera, but this was going to take some time (and look a little conspicuous) so I wasn’t going to start building a concertina wire peace sign without first asking for their nod of approval.
As I explained to the Border Patrol agent what I hoped to do, he seemed neither bothered by nor particularly interested in my plan. He was friendly enough.
“Go ahead,” he said, and I returned to my truck for a pair of thick work gloves. No matter how careful I was picking up the scraps, the barbs bit into my gloves and tangled with one another. Eventually I was reduced to picking up the sharp wire fragments one piece at a time and lining them up on the pavement.
The process was slower than usual as I arranged the circle and three lines. The scraps grabbed onto one another and adjusting one strand shifted all the strands. I watched the Border Patrol agent watch me as he passed his long shift and I continued my humble installation art project.
Making peace signs is a meditation of sorts. I use the time to think about the history and human drama held by a place. The issues along the border are woven into such a complex tapestry that it becomes as inextricably intertwined as the razor wire on the ground in front of me. You cannot impact one thing without shifting and altering all of the others.
Wildlife ecology, family dynamics, national security, economics, culture.
On this day, my mind returned to the simple thought that you don’t have to know the answers in order to ask the questions. In fact, it is a constant examination of our most challenging issues that will lead us to new and transformative possibilities.
Is the wall effective in reducing drug traffic and human migration?
Is a physical barrier the most efficient use of national resources?
What are the human costs of tighter border security?
How is the desert ecology impacted by interrupting water flow and migratory patterns?
What are the push and pull factors that drive human migration?
How has the reduced flow of visitors affected the local economies of border communities on both sides of the wall?
How would the situation change if resources were redirected toward development of the countries whose citizens are migrating north?
What are the ethics of exploiting low-wage employees while not affording them full protection of their human rights?
What are the political motivations for creating a highly visible and militarized border?
How is it that we can create trade agreements that allow for the free flow of goods but not the free flow of people?
What is the morally acceptable number of asylum seekers to allow into our country?
And who do we deem worthy?
Many of the answers are uncomfortable.
I completed the peace sign. I photographed it. And I moved it off to the side of the road so nobody would drive over it. I waved to the Border Patrol agent and shouted a thank you as I returned to my truck. Rain was on the way.
Most people would agree that our immigration system is broken. It will require political will, intellectual examination and a compassionate heart to find a path forward.