My friend Dan and I walked along Avenida Internacional, the four-lane highway that runs along the border between Tijuana and San Diego, on our way to get a view of the DHS border fence construction from the Tijuana side.
Avenida Internacional ascends to the top of a high mesa. From this vantage point we could see the original staging area -- Area 5 -- for the construction of this last segment of the triple fence, slashing an 800-foot-wide scar into the land for 4.5 miles from here to the Pacific Ocean. Down below, we saw a bright yellow tanker truck bearing the Keiwit Corporation logo, a mining company out of Omaha, Nebraska, awarded a $48.6 million contract this year to complete the construction. That's a little more than $10 million per mile, not including cost overruns.
Up ahead was a massive drainage culvert where winter rains bring toxic runoff, trash, and silt under the road to drain into the Tijuana estuary's coastal sage scrub. Climbing down, I saw two young men, then four, then five, lurking in the shadow of the massive concrete retaining wall. Two men ducked into the long tunnel as we arrived, while a teenager wearing a bright red soccer jersey watched us descend. These men lived here, directly under the rusty barrier wall, trapped in between the U.S. and Mexico. Without papers, these migrant workers can end up in limbo for months, neither welcome to return to jobs and communities in the United States, nor able to enter Mexico.
Fearful at first, the men warmed up to us as Dan sat down on a beat-up metal computer case, opened his laptop to record his interview with the men, and began chatting.
"How long have you guys been waiting down here?"
A man, stretched out in the shade on a grey urethane auto upholstery cushion, answered,
"Pasé dos dias en la cárcel, y un mes aquí." One month, after being in jail for two days. Today he was waiting for the sun to go down so he could make another attempt to cross back into the U.S.
Another man, wearing a windbreaker, layered t-shirts, and a baseball cap, told us, with some hesitation, that his name was José. He reached up and put his hands above him on the border fence. "Ni de aquí, ni de allá." We're neither here nor there.
The man on the cushion explained that in Mexico, police patrol the area around the culvert, harassing and often arresting the men for vagrancy. Crossing back into Mexico is fraught with risk, and without friends in Tijuana, you can't make it. He told us his name was Francisco, and that he had lived for eight years in Seattle, working as a roofer until last month, when he was deported to Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. He just wanted to go back to Seattle.
Another man, who sat leaning against the far wall, responded with a similar story. He had been stuck here for four months now, but previously had worked in Escondido, in northern San Diego County. Four months earlier he had been deported -- and they took him all the way to Nogales, on the Arizona-Sonora border.
"Es muy caliente cruzar in Nogales," he explained. It's really too hot to cross in Nogales.
Indeed, one of the effects of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego and Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, efforts begun in 1994 and which focused on reinforced border fencing and increased border patrol in the San Diego-Tijuana and Juarez-El Paso areas, has been to push immigrants into more treacherous routes, through high desert with temperatures reaching upwards of 127 degrees and rugged mountain passes where immigrants easily get lost and freeze to death.
The current ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) strategy -- deporting Mexican migrants to regions far from their communities in the U.S. -- draws upon a long legacy of outrageous and unjust U.S. immigration policy. In the 1950s, under Eisenhower's "Operation Wetback," municipal, county, and state authorities working together with the border patrol performed sweeps of agricultural areas and Latino neighborhoods, setting target goals of 1,000 arrests per day. They picked up U.S. and Mexican citizens alike, then transported them deep into Mexico before freeing them. Many were put aboard ships and transported from Port Isabel, Texas, to Veracruz.
The only difference today is that ICE is deporting migrants to even more dangerous border cities with rough, hostile terrain. Not only do the migrants have no family, friends, or support network when they are dropped off in a strange, new city, they also arrive with no papers to prove their Mexican citizenship, and, as Francisco explained, they find that it is better to cross back into the U.S. than to try to make their way in Mexico.
While fence supporters crow that the border fence has reduced the numbers of migrants who cross into the U.S. to find work, statistics show that migrants are merely crossing elsewhere. Six years after the establishment of Operation Gatekeeper, the other nine sectors of the 2,000-mile border reported a 20 percent increase in the number of migrant apprehensions, while crossings in San Diego and El Paso dropped to less than one-third of earlier levels. An extremely high percentage of migrants succeed in crossing. According to a study by Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at The University of California, San Diego, 92 percent of Mexican migrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally eventually succeed.
Thousands are dying now from heat exposure, hypothermia, and car accidents caused when border patrol agents engage in high-speed chases with fleeing vehicles. A San Diego group called Border Angels has been working to put water tanks in the desert to help rescue lost migrants, but estimates are that between 4,000 and 11,000 migrants have died trying to cross the desert since the beginning of Operation Gatekeeper.
And even those few who do cross in San Diego County face violence from border patrol agents.
"La migra nos tiran como conejos," José explained. They shoot at us like rabbits. He removed his windbreaker and pulled back the sleeve of his t-shirt to show me a bruise on his shoulder.
Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and running shoes, clutching a 2-liter bottle of Sprite, Francisco looked prepared for the journey. His face still shielded by a straw cowboy hat, he gently asked us if we had any money.
"No uso drogas," José assured me. I don't use drugs or anything. "We are just trying to work." Dan and I left them with five bucks, enough to get them a meal for the evening, but not much else. And with that, we climbed back out of the culvert and returned to the road.
Jill Holslin lives in San Diego, California.
This account is taken from Voices of Immigration, a campaign of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) aimed at highlighting the stories of immigrants in our country. Believing that every person is made in the image of God, we seek to restore the human element to the conversation around immigration reform. Each day this week a new story will be highlighted on God's Politics, with additional ones posted throughout March at CCIR's Web site: www.faithandimmigration.org.