Every month for the past decade, Scott Nicol, a 51-year-old artist and activist, has set out from his home in McAllen to roam the Rio Grande Valley in search of ladders used to scale the border wall in South Texas. On a cool and overcast day in early April, Nicol has centered his hunt on an eight-mile stretch of border between the towns of Hidalgo and Granjeno, where an Obama-era wall meets up with a newly constructed piece of Trump’s wall.

The first stop of the day brings him to a dirt field behind a flea market in Hidalgo. A pair of green and white Border Patrol SUVs are parked atop the eighteen-foot-high concrete levee wall, next to a section of bollard-style fence with a closed gate, their noses pointed toward the Rio Grande. Within minutes, Nicol has spotted a ladder roughly halfway up the levee; it’s about a dozen feet long and has only six rungs. “It’s made of cheap, rough wood, quickly nailed together because it is only going to be used once,” Nicol says. “Unlike the wall, these ladders are functional.”

Just a few minutes later, as Nicol is inspecting the ladder, a group of about thirty disheveled migrants emerge from the brush after crossing the river into Texas from Mexico. Young men and women toting small children in their arms walk to the agents, who jot down their information as the new arrivals place their meager belongings into plastic bags. These migrants are not sneaking in; rather, they are seeking out U.S. Border Patrol in this intensely patrolled area. A half hour passes before the agents open the gate and escort the group of migrants through it single file. They shuffle down the levee wall and onto a waiting bus bound for a processing center where they will request asylum. It’s early yet, a border agent tells me, and the groups will only grow larger into the evening. As for the ladder? “That’s from our regulars,” one agent quips over his shoulder. 

Scott Nicol, at the border wall just west of the Hidalgo/Reynosa port of entry.
Scott Nicol, at the border wall just west of the Hidalgo/Reynosa port of entry.Aaron Nelsen

Nicol, an ardent opponent of border walls, can’t help but note the irony: asylum seekers turn themselves over to agents who then escort them through gates in the wall, while so-called regulars—unauthorized migrants—make use of rudimentary ladders to easily climb a barrier specifically designed to keep them out. “These ladders are probably $5 worth of hardware,” Nicol said, “and they’re defeating a wall that cost $12 million a mile in that location.”

Few possess Nicol’s intimate familiarity with the 55 miles of wall intermittently stitched across the Rio Grande Valley. The artist has spent countless hours over the better part of a decade in the shadow of the wall, picking through the detritus of personal effects that migrants leave behind or lose in the chaos of an apprehension. “I try to understand the realities of migration and enforcement,” Nicol explained, “and the ladders show how absurd the idea is that a wall is going to stop anybody.” He has become a sort of connoisseur of ladders, amassing an impressive collection of several dozen photos of them. Some show the ladders strewn about, while in others they are in disorderly piles or set at varied angles of repose against the wall. They are almost always jerry-rigged, cobbled together from scrap lumber, and they are varied in length. Some are as long as the wall is high—about eighteen feet—and others are just tall enough for a migrant to reach the top.

Rope-and-PVC ladders that make use of metal hooks are popular in areas upriver, but along the Granjeno-to-Hidalgo stretch of border, where it is a short dash from the Texas bank of the Rio Grande to the levee wall, simple wooden ladders seem to be the preferred technology. They are heavy, cheap, and rarely used more than once. Border Patrol agents drive their trucks over the ladders to break the rungs, then toss the mangled wood into piles. When the heaps grow large enough, the City of Hidalgo hauls them off to a landfill.

The agents drive off with the migrants after an hour or so, and Nicol continues his search for ladders, by car and on foot, locating four more as the wall stretches westward. He finds still another in Granjeno, where the newly built 1.3-mile Trump wall joins up with a 1.75-mile piece of wall authorized during the Bush administration and built during Obama’s presidency. The cost of the Trump wall in this area—an 11.4-mile stretch from just west of Granjeno downriver to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge—runs to about $27 million a mile. In recent months, the number of apprehensions has soared. Border Patrol caught more than 171,000 migrants along the southern border in March, the highest one-month total in fifteen years. Nicol is finding more and more ladders—further evidence, he said, that the wall is not about stopping people or drugs. “Border walls are just backdrops for politicians who want to rile up their voters,” Nicol said. “They have political value, and that’s what counts.”  

A ladder at Hidalgo's pumphouse.
A ladder near the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse Museum and World Birding Center, roughly a mile east of the Hidalgo/Reynosa port of entry, in March 2017. Scott Nicol
Ladder at the border wall.
A ladder at the border wall. Scott Nicol
Left: A ladder near the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse Museum and World Birding Center, roughly a mile east of the Hidalgo/Reynosa port of entry, in March 2017. Scott Nicol
Top: A ladder at the border wall. Scott Nicol

Despite its obvious vulnerabilities, some border agents maintain that the wall serves a useful purpose. While it won’t stop everyone, it will slow them down and give agents time to react, said Chris Cabrera, a McAllen-based Border Patrol agent and local spokesperson for the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union that supported Trump. “Nine times out of ten we’re going to catch them,” Cabrera said of immigrants who use ladders. But lately, Border Patrol agents have been swamped with the volume of immigrants in the Hidalgo area and cannot effectively respond to climbers. “We have people turning themselves over, and at the same time, when it’s dark we have people with ladders, but we got nobody to go over because we’re tied up.”

One McAllen-based Border Patrol agent, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media, told me that the number of ladders the agency is finding has increased as well. “Ladders and walls go together like peas and carrots,” he said.

Ladders have been used to counter walls for thousands of years, pointed out Ronald Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. “A wall is a medieval war technology, and the responses to it are antiquated technologies that have been proven to surmount it, that includes ladders, catapults, and tunnels,” said Rael, who made headlines in 2019 with a short-lived art project titled Teeter-Totter Wall, which placed pink seesaws between the slats in the border fence that separates El Paso from Juarez.   

The fact that a DIY ladder is enough to beat it makes spending billions of dollars on further construction seem folly, according to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The sections of levee wall that broke ground under the George W. Bush administration and continued under the Obama administration cost about $12 million per mile. Though contractors are still billing for Trump’s wall, the average cost per mile in Hidalgo County, based on contracts and appropriations, is roughly double that amount. “The companies that build the wall are the ones who are benefiting, not just from building it, but maintaining it and adding technology to it,” said Correa-Cabrera.

Despite securing about $6 billion in funding from Congress and diverting nearly $10 billion more from the Department of Defense budget, the Trump administration managed to complete only forty miles of “big, beautiful wall,” about twenty of them in the Rio Grande Valley. One of its unfinished projects can be found in Granjeno, where a section of levee wall (with no fencing on top) built during the Obama years abruptly ends at the edge of this no-stoplight town. The Trump administration set out to fill in the gap between Granjeno and Hidalgo, building a new section of levee wall topped with steel bollards rising some thirty feet high. But contractors didn’t manage to finish installing all of the bollards before President Joe Biden paused construction. Situated at the base of the incomplete Trump wall is Cabrera’s Bar, an open-air watering hole.

The wall, a ladder, and the border patrol in 2018.
At this site a mile east of the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, Border Patrol stores ladders that agents have collected. The ladders are occasionally taken to a nearby dump.Scott Nicol

On the day I visited in late March, a band called the House was covering classic rock standards to the delight of a few dozen winter Texans, the retirees who spend their winters on the Texas-Mexico border. I asked the proprietor, Guadalupe Cabrera (no relation to the security expert or border agent), if he had seen any makeshift ladders recently. Without uttering a word, Lupe, as he’s known locally, pulled out his mobile phone to show me a photo of a wooden ladder. It was broken and dumped in his parking lot, he told me, his train of thought interrupted by a pair of white buses with tinted windows driving past his bar in opposite directions. “That would make for a good photo,” Lupe said, “one bus hauling (immigrants) off, the other heading to pick up another load.”

For the better part of the last decade, Granjeno has been smack in the middle of the most heavily trafficked migrant corridor on the southern border. A few of the town’s residents are rumored to offer help to immigrants for the right price, Lupe confided. More often than not, the immigrants Lupe sees around town, and on occasion inside his bar, are doing their best to hide from Border Patrol. “I’ve found them hiding in the bathroom,” Lupe told me. “One guy with tattoos yelled ‘shut the fucking door’ and I knew right away that he was gang member.”

Border Patrol agents and construction crews building the Trump wall also frequent Cabrera’s Bar. After Biden paused construction in late January, leaving a gap in the wall by the bar, some contractors kept on stopping by for a drink. “These guys are making money whether they build or not,” Lupe said of the contractors, “but really, what good is a wall if they don’t change immigration policy?”      

A few days before my visit to Cabrera’s, Nicol had paid a visit to the bar. He quickly found a ladder—about twelve feet in length, all wood—lying at the edge of the parking lot. He found another wooden ladder of about the same length on the opposite side of the levee wall. He sent me a photo of each ladder and gave its approximate location using the border wall and the bar as reference points. “There’s a band and the place is packed,” Nicol said of Cabrera’s. “It’s a real party.”