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Tales from the Borderland

Holding cell, Nogales, Arizona

Border patrol, Laredo, Texas

“I took this photo [above] of US border patrol agents on a long exposure at night, but there’s no blur – that’s how still the agents are. In the middle ground is the Rio Grande and in the background is Mexico. These guys just sit and wait until somebody reaches the other side and then they pounce. A lot of the agents are first or second generation immigrants and it is their job to stop people following the same dream their parents or grandparents had.”

Robert “Li’l Dog” and Freckles, Campo, California

“‘Li’l Dog’ was the first man I met on my journey. He was a member of the Minutemen Militia, which believes it’s their patriotic duty to patrol America’s borders. He lives on top of a hill that looks right down into Mexico with his military truck, his dog and a lot of guns, and he sits there watching for ‘invaders’. The border patrol lay a special material along the border which leaves traces on the shoes of anyone that walks on it. These traces can then be tracked by patrols. To combat this, illegal immigrants wear traditional Mexican slippers. Hanging from the mirror of Li’l Dog’s truck are a string of these, a sort of a scalp of the people he’s helped to capture. He ended up splitting from the Minutemen, who were too moderate for him, and forming his own militia of one – two, I guess, with Freckles the dog.”

Minutemen October muster, Three Points, Arizona

“Every October the Minutemen have what they call a muster, when they call all volunteers to come down and be extra vigilant in watching the border. This was Grandmother Day, when the grandmothers were taking their turn to be vigilant. If you look through the bush you can see a little spot of pink – that’s the grandmas. They had bought camouflage outfits, but in bright neon pink. They were so earnest and serious, but nobody had told them for the camouflage to work you have to lower the boot door and turn off the lights on your car, and you might not want to wear bright pink in the yellow desert.”

Sister Maria, Palomas, Arizona

“I came across Sister Maria’s bus by chance and I thought it was empty. It was only when I saw the curtains move that I realised somebody actually lives there. She is in her 80s, originally from Austria and has lived on this bus since the ‘60s. She was one of a flock following a preacher around the US spreading God’s word, but the preacher died of alcohol poisoning and the flock disbanded until it was just her left. Just behind her is Mexico: she lives here alone and talks about her beliefs with anyone who comes across the border. She has no opinion on immigration – to her everyone is one of God’s children.”

The view from Hamburger Hill, Nogales, Arizona

“On the left-hand side is Nogales, Mexico. On the right is Nogales, Arizona. The border seems like a mirror. There’s a symmetry to the sides, with the cars and the colour palette. But it’s not really a mirror, it’s a wall and people die trying to cross it. The name ‘Hamburger Hill’ references the Hamburger Hill in Vietnam that cost both sides hundreds of lives. Every night this is the scene of a pitched battle, with border patrols being pelted with stones and shot at and people on the other side trying to scale the wall. Law versus desperation.”

 Elotes La Rosita #2,  San Elizario, Texas

“This photo for me sums up the American Dream, which so many people risk their lives for by crossing the border illegally. This taco shop is in the middle of nowhere in Texas, right up against a power station. You can hear the lines crackling overhead. But what I love is that this is ‘Elotes La Rosita Number Two’ – this is the second in their franchise. I also love the mop and the brush. This is their own corner of the United States and they’re going to keep it clean.”

Trailer to Mexico, Nogales, Arizona

“This is a Mexican man who goes around the States collecting things that Americans are throwing away and taking them back home to sell. His truck is so well packed, every scrap of space is used. I like to imagine him getting back to Mexico and saying ‘This is just what they throw away!’ and further instilling the need in some people to get there, to what must be the richest place on earth: This is their trash!”

Miguel’s Malverde Ring, Mecca, California

“I was in the small town of Mecca, California, where around 90 percent of the population is Hispanic, many of them illegal immigrants. It was the Day of the Dead and in the church courtyard there was a band playing narcocorridos – odes to the mythical figures of the drug cartels. Narcocorrido singers can increase a group’s infamy, attracting the next generation of gangsters, and this singer, Miguel, was so good that the rival gangs had put out a hit on him. The person on his ring is Malverde, the so-called patron saint of drug dealers. For me the whole experience summed up what the Day of the Dead is today – someone serenading people with odes to the drugs trade, one of the biggest causes of death on both sides of the border.”

A 4000

“For all the harrowing things I saw while travelling the border, there were hilarious moments too. This was at a diner and cheese shop on a farm. The room was completely dominated by this stuffed cow. As I got closer to it I saw there was a small photo of the cow pinned up, almost like a shrine. The owner approached me and told me that this was his favourite ever animal. ‘She was such a good milker,’ he said wistfully. So I asked her name. His eyes glazed a little and he said ‘She was cow number 185’.”

Borderfest, North Hildago, Texas

“Borderfest is an annual festival in North Hildago, Texas and Hildago, Mexico. Every year they celebrate in the two cities and I saw more commonality than difference. On the left are the girls from Hildago, Mexico and on the right are the girls from Hildago, Texas. Both looked Hispanic; they’re united by heritage, but divided by culture – the Americans come with one narrative, the Mexicans with another.”

Detention cell, El Paso, Texas

“This is a detention cell in El Paso, Texas, and this guy has been caught and is waiting to be returned to Mexico. The screen plays a propaganda film on loop about the evils of illegal immigration. I asked the people working in the centre if they ever saw the same people twice. They laughed and told me they catch people, send them back to Mexico, then six hours later they’re back. I liked the ‘Groundhog Day’ element of some of these people watching the video over and over again, trying again and again. ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘1984’.”

Potter’s field, Holtsville, California

“This is the saddest photograph in the series. Since the border patrols have become more sophisticated in urban areas, people have been pushed further and further into the desert, a very unforgiving place. To America’s credit it puts in a great deal of effort to repatriate the bodies to where they came from, but inevitably there are people with no identification on them and there is no way of knowing where they are from. Those people end up in a place like this, a ‘potter’s field’ of unmarked graves. What strikes me about this photo is that at the other end of every cross there is somebody waiting by a phone, expecting a call saying ‘I’m here, I’m safe, I made it, don’t worry.’ Those people will never get that call.”

Holding cell, Nogales, Arizona

“In Nogales, they have a huge immigration centre which can process 15,000 people a day and they have holding cells for people who have been caught and processed and are waiting to be sent home. The place is often full, but I was there in ‘off-season’, the height of summer when the heat deters people from attempting to cross. I had time for one shot, this one of the American flag which you could see from the cells. I deliberately framed it so there was one row of stars and one stripe above the wire. I didn’t want that American icon to be closed off. There’s an opening there. As long as you project prosperity and civil society to a place that has neither, then no amount of barbed wire will deter people. No matter how many times you catch someone and send them back, they’ll keep searching for that opening, to make something better of their lives.”

You can see more of Jeffrey Aaronson’s work at

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