When photographer Elliott Ross and writer Genevieve Allison decided to travel all 2,000 miles of the US-Mexico border for their latest book project, they estimated it would take around five weeks. In the end, it took five months.
“Yeah, it was a bit of a naïve undertaking,” Ross admits with a laugh.
Ross and Allison, both New York residents, hatched the idea for the project after attending the January 2017 inauguration of President Trump in Washington, DC, where they interviewed attendees about their reasons for supporting the New York real estate developer. At the top of the list for supporter after supporter was Trump’s hardline stance on immigration, particularly his calls for a border wall. “It was a very emotional issue for them, which was confusing because none of the people we spoke to were from the border region,” Ross recalls. “But they had very strong ideas about the border, and very strong feelings about it.”
To understand the source of those strong feelings, Ross and Allison felt they needed to see the border for themselves. (Allison had never been there; Ross had only visited once.) Was America’s southern border really a war zone beset by drugs and violence, as Trump has described it and as news outlets often portray it? What was ordinary life like for residents? What did they think about the proposed wall?
Starting in Brownsville, Texas, Allison and Ross set out to find the answers. Driving—and often sleeping in—a Mercedes van, they followed the Rio Grande west through Texas, then continued tracking the border through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona before ending their trip in San Diego. They visited border communities of all sizes and met countless people, many of whom ended up becoming friends. “A lot of people were horrified that we’d been living in the van for so long, so they’d invite us in to take a shower and have tacos and sleep in their driveway,” Ross says. Many of those people ended up in Ross’ empathetic photographs.
Ross and Allison expected that Trump’s proposed wall would be a contentious issue along the border, but in fact they encountered near-total unanimity: Nobody wanted it. Not liberals, who worried about the wall’s humanitarian and environmental impact. Not conservatives, who worried about having their land rights violated by the government’s use of eminent domain. “We interviewed thousands of people, and I think we met three people who were pro-wall,” Ross says. “And we were actively seeking out pro-wall people. They were just very difficult to find.”
Even border residents who voted for Trump said they didn’t want the wall. “People would kind of dismiss the wall as something symbolic,” Allison explains. “A lot of people just figured it wasn’t going to happen and he didn’t mean it.” Rather than immigration or the wall, most residents wanted to talk about their more pressing concerns, like the need for better health care and education. “People just want to get on with their lives,” Allison says. “They don’t want to be identified by their proximity to the border.”
Before embarking on the trip, Allison and Ross sought and received the blessing of US Customs and Border Protection’s press office in Washington, DC. But that didn’t stop Border Patrol officers from regularly stopping and searching their vehicle as they wended their way along the border. “We were being stalked,” Allison says. “Several times a day we were searched. We were constantly having to talk through all of our intentions, what we were doing. And we were well aware that the project would have gone differently if we had looked vaguely Latino. It would have been much more difficult.”
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