Border wall: San Diego's been there, done that

What you should know about the U.S.-Mexico border and the wall Trump has ordered.

Peter Rowe Contact Reporter

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump ordered the “immediate construction” of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Memo to the White House from San Diego: Done.

While Trump has portrayed this as a bold new initiative, reinforced fences have marked the border for decades. Today, they snake across one-third of the border — including 46 miles of the 60-mile boundary between San Diego County and Mexico.

“For somebody who lives in San Diego, we understand we already have a wall,” said Alejandra Castañeda, a Clairemont resident who researches immigration at Tijuana’s El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “Not only one wall, but a triple wall in some areas.”

Last year, The San Diego Union-Tribune published a series called “On the border wall.” It examined our wall, its history and its impact on both sides of the international divide.

Here’s what we found then, and what we find today.

Breaking point

Last week’s presidential executive order was needed, Trump said, because the federal government had failed to secure the nation’s borders.

Many in San Diego made the same argument — 30 years ago.

While barbed wire had been strung between parts of Tijuana from San Ysidro in the 1950s, that barrier was easily foiled. In the 1980s, migrants overran the border and the Border Patrol, some dashing across Interstate 5. Thousands gathered nightly on a small slice of the border that Americans called “the soccer field” and Mexicans referred to as “La Canela.”

There, men, women and children waited for nightfall before making their passage into El Norte.

The breaking point came in 1986, when Border Patrol agents in the San Diego apprehended 629,656 people, slightly more than the population of Las Vegas.

When agents attempted to stem the tide in San Ysidro, new routes were blazed in the rugged terrain to the east.

“We would have caravans of cars,” said Donna Tisdale, who lives on a ranch in the East County hamlet of Boulevard. “They came at all hours of the day and night.”

In 1989, construction began on a new layer of fencing in San Diego County.
A line of surplus helicopter landing pads, turned on their side and welded together, marched 46 miles east, rising to heights of 6 feet to 10 feet.

A secondary layer, 13 miles long and 15 feet to 18 feet high, came in 1996.

Later, a third layer was added in heavily trafficked spots, including where the border meets the Pacific Ocean at San Diego’s Friendship Park.

Large numbers of unauthorized immigrants continued to flow into the U.S., but they moved away from the coast, trying to slip around the fences.

Nationally, Border Patrol apprehensions peaked in fiscal 2000 with almost 1.7 million.

Post 9/11 security measures and the recession contributed to a decline in these numbers. In fiscal 2016, the Border Patrol arrested 415,816 people — of which 31,891 were nabbed in San Diego County. (More than half of all apprehensions occurred in Texas: 249,026.)

While significantly lower than historic highs, both local and national figures represent an increase over the previous year.

In fiscal 2015, apprehensions totaled 26,290 in San Diego and 337,117 in the U.S.

Will Trump’s wall cut these figures even further?

“Until we actually see a plan or a model, we don’t know,” said Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “In general, it’s still very theoretical.”

World’s busiest crossing

In the national debate over immigration, you could call the San Ysidro Port of Entry ground zero — or ground 20.8 Million.

The latter is the number of vehicles (13.9 million) and pedestrians (6.9 million) annually entering the U.S. there.

San Diego County is home to three ports of entry — the others are Otay Mesa and Tecate — but San Ysidro is the biggest. In fact, it's the busiest border crossing in the world, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

An aerial photo tour on Jan. 26, 2017, of the U.S.-Mexico border in California, from Andrade on the east in Imperial County to the Pacific Ocean, where the border fence ends in the water at Playas de Tijuana. The border barrier varies from stout concrete bollards and triple fence in some parts to nothing but air in the most rugged parts of the route through San Diego and Imperial counties.
(John Gibbins)

At this crossing, U.S. Customs and Border Protection attempts to turn back unauthorized immigrants — for starters. The agency also is charged with foiling terrorists, intercepting illicit drugs, seizing illegal weapons, barring insect-ridden agricultural products and much more.

“I don’t know of any other law enforcement agency that has a more complex mission than what we do on the border every single day,” Pete Flores, director of the agency’s San Diego field office, told the Union-Tribune last year.

The largest legal opening in our border wall, San Ysidro receives high marks from Castañeda.

“The regular crossing is now easier because they modernized the port of entry,” said the Clairemont resident, who commutes to Observatorio de Legislacion y Politica Migratoria, an immigration think tank at Tijuana’s El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

She calls this “the smart border,” citing improvements that are part of San Ysidro’s ongoing $741 million expansion and upgrade.

Lanes and booths have been added; pre-approved motorists are shunted into faster SENTRI and ready lanes; pedestrians’ documents are scanned by computer.

There’s also the Cross Border Xpress, which opened in December 2015. Travelers can park on the U.S. side of the border in Otay Mesa, then pass through customs and walk across the border in an enclosed bridge leading to Tijuana’s international airport.

In 2016, almost 1.4 million people used this service. Traffic runs in both directions, with most Americans bound for Guadalajara, Mexico City and beach resorts, and the majority of Mexicans heading to Southern California attractions.

“The Mexicans are accessing economical flights into Tijuana and then coming over to Disneyland and SeaWorld,” said Elizabeth Brown, chief commercial officer for Cross Border Xpress. “And lots of shopping.”

While lagging behind San Ysidro, the county’s other crossings also see significant traffic. Last year, Otay Mesa recorded 7.6 million vehicles and 3.5 million pedestrians coming into the U.S.; Tecate, almost 1 million vehicles and close to 700,000 pedestrians.

Building and maintaining

Walling off the border is not cheap.

In 2007, the Congressional Research Office estimated that building 700 miles of border fence, then maintaining it for 25 years, could cost as much as $49 billion.

How the Trump administration will pay for its wall is unknown, although the White House raised the possibility of a 20 percent tax on imports as a potential revenue source.

Then there’s the never-ending job of maintaining the wall’s integrity. This task is complicated by what the Border Patrol calls “compromises” — holes cut in the fence, usually by “coyotes” paid to bring migrants into the U.S.

About 550 times a year, two-person teams assault the San Diego fence. One man swings an ax, cracking the metal mesh.

The second uses a battery-powered saw to make an opening large enough to crawl through.

“From the time they punch a hole in the fence,” agent R.C. Martinez told the Union-Tribune last year, “it takes about 30, 40 seconds to make the cut.”

In this chess game, each move prompts a counter-move.

When the fence is breached, the holes are welded shut by Border Patrol repair crews. These crews work in pairs, with one person welding, the other guarding against an attack.

Annually, Border Patrol agents working along the fence are “rocked,” targeted with stones, bottles and gasoline-soaked rags set afire. In fiscal 2016, which ended Sept. 30, there were 52 assaults on agents.

Since then, the pace has quickened. The first three months of fiscal 2017 saw 28 assaults.

Agents sometimes respond to these attacks with pepper spray and, in one episode that left 11 people in Tijuana receiving medical attention, tear gas.

Do walls work?

The numbers are clear: Today, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are one-quarter what they were in 2000.

What’s unclear is this: How much of the decline is due to the 653 miles of fencing that has sprouted along this boundary since 1989?

An April 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service cited other factors limiting migration, including “the most severe recession since the 1930s.”

“Nonetheless,” the report concluded, “the drop in recidivism rates suggests that an increasing proportion of migrants are being deterred by CBP’s (Customs and Border Protection’s) enforcement efforts.”

Researchers at the Urban Institute credited increased enforcement — including fences and 1994’s Operation Gatekeeper, which boosted the number of Border Patrol agents — with spurring development in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.

“You have shopping centers and housing developments right next to the border, and it was impossible for that to have happened in the pre-Gatekeeper environment,” the institute’s Jeffrey Passel told the Union-Tribune last year.

USD’s Meade disagreed: “Regional growth happened despite the border build-up, not as a result of it,” he said, “and the human cost of the border fence is totally unjustified.”

Moreover, Meade said, walls do nothing to stop a significant source of illegal immigration — people who arrive in the U.S. legally but then overstay their visas.

“Visa overstays, that’s the big enchilada,” Meade said. “If this is really about immigration control, the first and easiest way to do this is to reform the visa system.”

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an estimate for the number of people in the U.S. on visas that had expired in fiscal 2015: 527,127.

Border Patrol apprehensions nationwide for the same period: 337,117.

While the wall is unpopular in Mexico, some Tijuana residents say there have been benefits.

In the city’s Zona Norte, the fence “changed completely, everything,” Tom Zarate told the Union-Tribune last year.

“There’s a lot less crime. Remember there used to be a lot of deaths? A lot of people who died, trying to get over to the other side.”

Human toll

In the Imperial Valley community of Holtville, a field contains stark reminders this can still be a deadly passage.

Holtville is home to Terrace Park Cemetery, final resting place of hundreds of migrants. Blocked to the west by fences, they ventured into the mountains and deserts of Imperial and San Diego counties, where they succumbed to heat stroke, dehydration and other causes.

Between 1994 and 2009, about 240 unidentified persons have been buried in Terrace Park. An unknown number of them were migrants. Plots hold another 280-plus who were identified but whose families lacked the means to pay for a funeral and grave closer to home. Most of them were from Mexico.

In recent years, unidentified migrants have been cremated, a move that saves Imperial County an estimated $860 per person.

“It’s really sad because each one of these people, they did not expect to die when they crossed the border,” said Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels, a San Diego nonprofit.

As Zarate noted, deaths along the border pre-date the fence.

Joseph Wambaugh’s 1984 nonfiction book, “Lines and Shadows,” followed a U.S. task force formed to combat murders, rapes and robberies of migrants in canyons and mesas near San Ysidro.

Today, migrants’ deaths are relatively rare in the San Diego sector — there were seven in fiscal 2016.

However, the Border Patrol reported 322 migrant deaths on the Southwest border. (The historic high, according to the agency, was 492 in 2005.) Most of these migrants perished in deserts and mountains.

Between 2000 and 2014, the International Organization for Migration said, more than 6,000 people had died while trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

Thousands have died, “and you just don’t hear about that,” said Sandra Convery.

A Seattle stay-at-home mother, Convery flew to San Diego last weekend and joined other volunteers in a trek into the desert in Imperial County. Led by Morones, they left water bottles, cans of beans, coats, hand warmers and emergency blankets along well-trod paths.

“For me, this is not about politics. It's about human dignity,” said Convery, a board member for Esperanza International, a nonprofit dedicated to global citizenship. “Migrants need water for life. Women and children and men are dying out there all the time.”

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, listed Border Angels among its “pro-women, pro-immigrant, pro-earth, anti-bigotry organizations that need your help.”

Since then, Morones said, the nonprofit has been flooded with offers of help.

“The only positive thing that I can think of that has happened with the Trump election is we have had ‘unpresidented’ donations and an ‘unpresidented’ number of volunteers,” he said. “It’s never been like this before.”

A quiet oasis

In Tecate, Rancho La Puerto is a world-class resort with world-class prices — recent weekly rates ran from $3,550 to $6,500, depending on accommodations. Guests are urged to leave their worldly cares at the door, which can be tough when the news is full of Trump's wall and drug cartels.

“Every time those conversations happen, there is a direct negative effect on our town,” Roberto Arjona, the resort’s chief executive and general manager, told the Union-Tribune last year. “When those comments are made, 98 percent of the time I’ll get calls from my guests, wondering what the heck is going on, whether it is safe to come.”

Nonetheless, the resort operated at capacity throughout 2016, welcoming 140 to 160 new guests every Saturday.

Longtime residents of Tecate insist the town is safe, even if it has lost the rural 19th century atmosphere it maintained well into the 20th century.

“We used to have more horses than cars,” said Daniel Reveles, a Los Angeles native who moved here in 1980. “I used to do local errands here from my ranch in a surrey.”

Horses are rare now in the compact downtown, which features a tree-shaded square, Parque Hidalgo, restaurants and shops, plus the massive Tecate brewery.

Then there’s Rancho La Puerta, a lush, peaceful haven founded in 1940 by Deborah and Edmond Szekely. Edmond died in 1979, but Deborah — who is in her 90s — is often at this spa.

(She’s also a regular presence in Point Loma, where she chairs the New Americans Museum, and Escondido, where she founded the Golden Door in 1959.)

The little town also contains a history museum; an arts center; a popular new dining spot, El Lugar de Nos; and views of the border fence. The steel posts climb halfway up Tecate Peak before halting, allowing the steep slopes to deter unauthorized crossings.

“Look at how much they spend for absolutely nothing,” Sergio Martinez, director of Tecate’s Parque del Profesor, a public park dedicated to Edmond Szekely, told the Union-Tribune last year.

Some, though, don’t mind this ever-present reminder of their neighbor’s border security concerns.

“I don’t have a problem (with the fence). I can cross any time I want,” said Cristela Melendrez Taboada, a 17-year-old waitress who spoke with the Union-Tribune in June. “And I’m pretty happy with life here in Mexico.”

Related: On the border wall series

Contributors to this story include staff writers Sandra Dibble and John Wilkens, staff researcher Merrie Monteagudo, and former staff writers Roxana Popescu and Tatiana Sanchez.