The border between the United States and Mexico has been called one of the most dangerous places in the country. The 1,900 mile line juts through rural and urban areas, and it's a prime operating ground for illegal activity, like drug cartels pushing their illegal products and smuggling people into the United States.
For much of that rural area, the border is protected by a simple fence. We made the 1,600 mile journey from Birmingham, Alabama to a camp near the small border town of Nogales, Arizona. That's where a group of self-proclaimed "Patriots" runs operations, trying to stem the flow of illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants coming across the border. While the group is made up of different entities and come from different states, they share that common mission. Among the group's latest operation in April were six Alabamians, members of the Border Keepers of Alabama.
The Fence between Borders
We wanted to see what that fence looks like. We weren't the only ones.
"It was greater than I anticipated it would be. I thought it would be an occasional border crosser. It's like a major corridor through here," said one member of the organization, who goes by the nickname "Tennessee."
"We need a wall. Seriously. That or enforce the laws we have," - Trigger
The fence we saw is made up of a few rungs of regular wooden board and a few strings of broken barbed wire. We saw no signs indicating that crossing it meant crossing into a different country, although it is the official border between the United States and Mexico.
"These are areas in the fence that we find all along the blind spots. They come through and they cut the barbed wire, and it's literally just a few seconds to be on the other side," said one Border Keeper of Alabama known as "Geezer."
Official Border Crossing
While much of the fence near Arizona does little to deter people from crossing through, the official border crossing in nearby Nogales, Arizona is a different story. That's where we saw a large wall, protected by several Border Patrol agents. People passing through from one side to the other were checked extensively. Part of the wall itself is pitted with holes, where people from the Nogales, USA side can communicate with those on the Nogales, Mexico side.
We're told some separated families meet here for lunch. That includes one man we met at the Nogales border who was meeting with parents through the fence. He tells us he's been in the US for nearly a decade.
"This is the first time that it try to continue to visit my parents, but you know, in here, I am American, but I don't have a passport for come back from Mexico," he said.
There are fewer illegal crossing attempts here because of the presence of Border Patrol, but the agents tell us they do happen. Often, groups of four or five will climb the fence on Mexico's side and run into the packed streets of Nogales, Arizona. There are usually two or three who will make it into the city safely. There are usually two or three Border Patrol agents at this crossing, and they cannot chase them all.
The Political Side
That makes protecting the border a hot topic of conversation, one that's come up again and again in this political cycle. At the Border Keepers' camp, there's one candidate's idea that draws a lot of support.
"Yes, it's gonna cost some money. I doubt Mexico's going to pay for it, like [Donald Trump] has suggested. However, it can be done," - Doc
"We need a wall. Seriously. That or enforce the laws we have," said "Trigger," an Alabama Border Keeper. He's talking about Donald Trump's proposal to construct a reinforced wall along the entire border, one he says he will force Mexico to finance.
"Yes, it's gonna cost some money. I doubt Mexico's going to pay for it, like one of our presidential candidates has suggested. However, it can be done," said "Doc."
However, "enforcing" the law comes with an element of danger. Dangerous wildlife, risks of exposure, and ruthless drug cartels are a part of life on the border. That's not all the Border Keepers face, though. During our six days at camp, we saw two different men hospitalized for high blood pressure and suspected heart attacks.
"The danger I'm usually worried about isn't a heart attack, but hey it comes in all forms. Rattlesnakes, bears, oh my," said "Trigger."
There are registered nurses at the camp to handle any medical issues that arise, since the nearest hospital is a thirty minute drive. However, they can't handle every crisis. One evening, a man comes back to camp, complaining of fatigue and nausea. His blood pressure is sky high. Border Patrol comes, and he's airlifted to the Nogales hospital.
"You don't ever want anything bad to happen. I mean, I'm still kind of shook up," said "Trigger."
Both of these men are expected to make full recoveries. The Border Keepers all told us they understood the dangers they faced, and that while not everyone agrees with their mission or actions, they will continue to their operations.
"You gotta watch your brother's back while he watches yours out here. That's why they preach us all the time, practice safety. We don't want anybody getting hurt out here," said BOA member "Too Tall."
With danger lurking in nearly every corridor, that's a risk they're willing to take.
Temperatures that swing wildly, from below freezing at night to 80 degrees at noon are part of the everyday reality in Nogales.
The men have learned to make water a priority, and it became evident after two were hospitalized during our stay on the border for dehydration.
The heat and cold are not the only factors, as storms can quickly take over the sky.