Constant Activity on the California Border

By John Wahala, March 27, 2015

The Center's fifth annual border tour began in San Diego earlier this month. On our week-long itinerary we saw most of the California border, from both sides of the fence, and made it as far as Yuma, Ariz. In five trips, we have now seen almost the entire 1,993-mile southwest border, from Brownsville to the Pacific. These excursions are mere snapshots of a particular area, but we meet with enough people to get a sense of current trends. Our most recent trip underscored the ever changing nature of cross-border traffic and why managing it requires sustained political will and vigilance.

The San Ysidro port of entry just south of San Diego is the busiest border crossing in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people cross daily. Many thousands more enter through neighboring ports in San Diego and Imperial counties. In fiscal year 2014, officers inspected more than 28 million vehicles and 18 million pedestrians entering southern California. To accommodate this crush of people, Congress approved a billion-dollar expansion of the facilities at San Ysidro and nearby Calexico that is underway. The project is said to have already reduced waiting times, which can exceed five hours.

Border fence extending into the Pacific

Then there is the illicit flow of people around the ports of entry. The San Diego sector is the historic epicenter for illegal immigration. By the mid-1980s, the number of apprehensions reached well over half a million. Illegal crossers would organize into groups of a hundred or more and enter on "banzai runs". The incursions became so brazen and frequent that Congress initiated Operation Gatekeeper in the mid-1990s, increasing the number of agents and constructing a fence. The initiative brought immediate results. Apprehensions dropped significantly.

Critics say Operation Gatekeeper — like its predecessor, Operation Hold the Line in El Paso — just shifted the flow of illegal immigration to other, more desolate, parts of the border while increasing the use of smugglers. Enforcement records suggest this was true initially. Neighboring sectors in both Texas and Arizona experienced an immediate spike in apprehensions after these initiatives. But the alternative was to allow the flow to continue unimpeded, either by continuing to be overwhelmed or by significantly increasing legal immigration. Instead, the initiatives helped regain control of the border, like Operation Jump Start did a few years later in Arizona. Overall apprehensions are now down along the southern border and expanding these efforts would further stem the flow.

Declaring the border is secure, however, is a mistake or a willful misrepresentation. The border is always in flux. As critics of enforcement point out, illegal crossers adjust to enforcement strategies. Tens of thousands of people still get through the most heavily patrolled areas each year. No place can be monitored completely. An agent put it simply to us: Any fence can be scaled when it is left unguarded. He pointed out a neighborhood in Tijuana right along the fence that is so crime ridden the local Mexican police refuse to patrol it and estimated that 70 percent of the illegal aliens they apprehend are involved in criminal activity, such as gangs, human smuggling, or drug dealing.

Authorities have discovered more than 75 underground passageways since 2008, some of which were designed by professional engineers. One had lighting, ventilation, hydraulic doors, and a railway. Traditionally used to smuggle marijuana, they are now being used to smuggle other narcotics. The San Diego area is particularly susceptible to underground incursions because the clay content in its soil is easier to dig (although cartels have exploited the drainage systems in other border regions).

While the resourcefulness and ruthlessness of human and drug smugglers is a serious problem, more damaging to border control efforts is a lack of political will. President Obama's amnesty decrees are only the most high profile actions taken by an executive branch that has systematically eviscerated large sections of the immigration code. This refusal to enforce the law triggered the migration of tens of thousands of Central American illegal aliens to the Rio Grande Valley last summer. Almost all of them were relocated by the administration to various cities and towns in the United States rather than face deportation proceedings. There is now news of thousands more arriving in Texas with the expectation that they, too, will be resettled.

Desert west of Yuma

Such decisions are contrary to the mission of the Border Patrol and leave agents demoralized. On our visit to the sand dunes near Yuma, we were told by one of the principals in Operation Jump Start, the 2006 initiative that significantly reduced illegal crossings, that Attorney General Eric Holder has put an end to the program. He then told us that a group of 48 illegal aliens were detained days before by a single agent a few miles from where we were. He stressed that decisions made by the administration like the one to only pursue certain criminal aliens sends the message to everyone else to come. This internal tension between those sworn to protect the country and their politically appointed supervisors has been an enduring theme on these trips.

An agent in San Diego reiterated to us what has been widely reported: morale is low and turnover is high. Border control efforts are not only subverted by political decisions within the Department of Homeland Security, they are also hamstrung by the decisions of other agencies. Environmental concerns often take priority. Even recreational considerations can trump enforcement efforts. A small but poignant example of this was the recent decision by the park service to install bollards on a dirt road a few hundred feet from the fence in Border Field State Park. The thick wood beams are securely anchored and rise about four feet above the ground. One is placed approximately every 50 feet. Their purpose is to divide the road for park traffic. But the vast majority of traffic is Border Patrol vehicles in pursuit of illegal crossers, oftentimes at night. The bollards slow these efforts and present a serious safety hazard. The agents we spoke to are confounded by the decision to install them.

The internal conflict over illegal immigration sends mixed messages abroad. But whatever actions the federal government does take have a direct effect on would-be illegal crossers. For Mexico, this is true for the actions of Americans in general. Local professor Victor Alfaro Clark described to us Tijuana's parasitic relationship with the United States dating back to the city's founding in 1889. For decades, Americans traveled to Mexico to engage in things they would not do back home — drink alcohol, do drugs, engage in prostitution, have abortions. The prohibition years bolstered the local economy and for decades afterward tourism remained a primary source of revenue.

In more recent times, Tijuana has established the maquiladora industry — factories that manufacture goods for international companies using cheap labor with little regulation. The working conditions and the city's proximity to the United States have made it a very desirable place to do business. Much has been written on the deplorable conditions in these factories, but the jobs have always been coveted. Migrants from southern Mexico and Central America leave home to fill these positions, which pay better than the $3.75 per day minimum wage in Tijuana.

San Diego and Tijuana

Like many Mexican towns on the southwest border, Tijuana has a sprawling infrastructure that abuts an undeveloped American side. The stark image shows the dependent relationship the city has with the United States. Two recent trends, however, have altered this relationship: a considerable decline in tourism and changes in international markets. Local reporter Sandra Dibble told us that the 9/11 terror attacks significantly increased wait times across the border while, at the same time, internecine drug violence in Baja raged. Both discouraged Americans from traveling south. Wait times have since decreased and cartel violence has waned, but tourism remains slow. The other development has been a change in the maquiladora industry. The city has become a less desirable location for companies who can now produce their products with even cheaper labor and less regulation in places like China or Bangladesh. The number of factories in Tijuana has significantly declined in the last decade.

While this appears to be bad economic news, the city is making adjustments. Dibble spoke enthusiastically about a vibrancy that is coming primarily from a resurgent art community and technology entrepreneurs. Both are revitalizing a downtown area that once catered exclusively to the seedy desires of American tourists. There was a flurry of activity on our visit, as our slow ride through rush hour traffic attested. A similar thing is happening in the maquiladoras. Although they have lost business to cheaper labor markets elsewhere, they are innovating, developing advanced skills, and producing more sophisticated and expensive goods. These are bright spots in a city where income disparity remains extreme and corruption pervasive. But the drug violence has subsided, for now, and certain sectors are thriving. Dibble told us that most Tijuanans are proud of their city; they do not commute into the United States and do not wish to move there.

The development that is taking place in Tijuana is different from previous dependency on the United States. It is an example of local initiative. This kind of development does not empty towns and sever families like the economic benefits that come from mass emigration. Granted, Tijuana is one of the more affluent cities in the richest part of Mexico and they have more capital than most other places in the country. But the point is still valid. Lasting improvement can only come from within.

This point was made by two other people we met with on the trip. The first was Father Patrick Murphy who heads La Casa del Migrante, a Catholic shelter for men who have either been deported or are thinking of heading north illegally. Located in a rough part of town, Father Murphy told us they have never had an incident at the shelter, despite housing folks who have been involved in rival gangs or the drug trade. He does not preach law and order, but he discourages his guests from crossing the border illegally. Rather, he encourages them to reunite with their family members and build a life for themselves in Mexico or wherever they are from. The shelter is a place of peace and hope and empowerment for people who have nowhere else to turn.

The second person who made this point was Magistrate Judge Peter C. Lewis of the U.S. District Court at El Centro. Judge Lewis generously shared with us his experiences with the many immigration law violators who appear before him. Later in the day we sat in on his court proceedings. One of the cases involved a man who was caught reentering the United States after returning to Mexico City to attend a family funeral. The man's young family resides in California and his wife is getting legal status through the president's executive decree. The penalty for reentering is serious one. The man faces a felony conviction and 120 days in jail. Judge Lewis, however, spent far more time talking to the defendant about his future and the future of his family than the charge. His advice was genuine and ran counter to most of what you hear in the media or from politicians. He told the defendant that he should consider relocating his family back to Mexico City. It is a tough message of taking responsibility for one's own circumstances.

For the United States, taking responsibility means controlling the massive flow of people coming across our southern border. There are many people who reminisce about the way it was many decades ago, when San Diego and Tijuana were a single community with no border restrictions. Dibble and an activist we met in El Centro both shared this nostalgia. But the reality is that those days are gone. The ease of transportation in the modern world has made southern California a gateway for people trying to enter the United States from all over the world. Controlling that gateway is a herculean task, but one that is essential to preserve our security and sovereignty.