A Growing Divide at the Border

A resident from the Mexican side shares tortillas with a Mexican resident from the U.S. side during a World Communion celebration in Tijuana, Mexico.
A resident from the Mexican side shares tortillas with a Mexican resident from the U.S. side during a World Communion celebration in Tijuana, Mexico. (By Guillermo Arias -- Associated Press)
By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

BORDER FIELD STATE PARK, Calif. -- Each face would be overlaid with the rusted chain links of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, but Jorge Ibarra snapped the photos anyway.

There was his cousin, holding up her baby boy for the family to see. There, his aunt, wiping her eyes under the shade of her parasol. And there, his grandmother, her face filled with joy as she touched her daughter's fingertips through the fence with her own.

Ibarra, 17, of National City, Calif., shot the family photos on a recent Sunday afternoon here, where the 2,000-mile line separating the United States and Mexico sinks into the Pacific Ocean. For years, Mexican American families have flocked to this beachside park to see, touch, hear and feed loved ones through the modest openings of the fence.

But the days of such reunions are numbered. Starting this month, construction of a more fortified barrier along the southern edge of the park and the three miles to the east will begin as part of the federal government's crackdown on drug and document smuggling, illegal crossings and violence in the surrounding area.

Two 15-foot-high fences will flank the current one, forging a 90-foot-wide stretch for a paved border patrol road and stadium lights, according to Angela de Rocha, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokeswoman. The gap will transform the dynamics of the gatherings here, preventing touching and close conversation. With only distant glimpses to offer, it may mark an end to many, if not all, such visits.

"We don't know when they're going to do it," said Ibarra, standing with his sister, mother and young nephews. "So we've been trying to come every weekend."

The $60 million construction project comprises the western portion of the San Diego Border Infrastructure System, a 14-mile, federally mandated initiative that dates to 1996. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) secured funding for the fence and thousands more Border Patrol Officers to combat rampant smuggling of illegal immigrants and border gangs who raped, robbed and murdered along portions of this border north of Tijuana.

Some construction was completed, slicing the numbers of illegal immigrants, bandits and drug smugglers who traversed the border, Hunter said.

But until this year, litigation has delayed construction of these three miles. Environmental groups opposed flattening terrain by lopping the tops off two mesas and pouring 5.5 million cubic feet of dirt into a canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch, an area prone to narcotics smuggling.

In 2005, when Congress gave Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff the power to waive all regulations that govern border construction, the project was cleared to proceed.

A newly erected mesh enclosure in the 418-acre park has squeezed visitors into a smaller space, sending them down to the beach or a small strip on a bluff. Most prefer the bluff near the 1851 border monument, the Italian marble obelisk that marks the end of the Mexican-American War and Mexico's ceding of the land that now forms the Southwestern United States.

This is where visitors come now, against the backdrop of Tijuana's Bull Ring, with umbrellas or folding chairs slung under their arms. They bring photo albums. They share updates and laugh. Many say nothing for long periods, standing, eyes closed, foreheads against the fence, fingers intertwined through the links.

But the scene is not as harmless as it looks, said Lloyd Easterling, assistant chief with the Border Patrol. Drugs and false documents are passed through the fence's holes -- holes that are repeatedly repaired and sliced open -- while thieves cross illegally to burglarize nearby communities.

"It's going on in secret but in a very open area, right under people's noses," Easterling said.

Easterling said agents are compassionate toward visitors and families. Many have relatives of their own living in Mexico, he said. But with smuggling and assaults increasing, he said, securing the border is a necessity.

Since October of last year, agents have apprehended more than 150,000 people, more than 45,000 pounds of marijuana and 654 pounds of cocaine in the San Diego area alone, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. Hunter said the illegal activity and violence in bordering Tijuana, where escalating drug wars have killed scores of people in a matter of weeks, has scared people away from visiting the otherwise beautiful destination.

"Nobody gets to enjoy this park. There are tons of gangs there. They are passing narcotics through the wire. Because of the historic rapes and murders there, people are afraid to go out after dark," he said. "Once we fence the park, people will be able to enjoy it again."

The characterization clashed with what San Diego Spanish teacher Daniel Watman has known.

"For 10 years, I've never seen one iota of violence," said Watman, who also heads the Border Meetup Group, a band of people who participate in poetry readings, yoga, and language exchanges along the fence. "I don't think it's dangerous at all."

Watman said most people no longer bring food to the fence. "They stopped a lady who was passing tamales through the fence to her grandkids," he said.

Some remain unaware of the construction, such as one 35-year-old garment worker from Los Angeles, who declined to give his name. He had driven three hours to visit his wife at the park, a routine they had recently started.

"Now that I've barely laid eyes upon her, they're going to push me back," he said in Spanish. It wouldn't be worth coming anymore, he said, if he could not talk to or touch her. His 5-year-old daughter stared up at him from the other side of the fence, her fingers curling around its links. What would he say when she asked why she could no longer see him?

He looked down at her. "Because of the wall."

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