By Jill Holslin
SAN DIEGO, 26 May 2008- The scrub landscape around the border fence at the southern edge of San Diego county is raw from neglect and overuse. Turning off Dairy Mart Road onto a bumpy dirt path, I realized Paul’s Volvo wagon was never meant for this. A gentle slope, then a steep drop straight down a rocky bank, and here and there, bright red California buckwheat and leggy yellow-tipped fennel jut up out of this stubborn coastal sage scrub habitat.
Over to the east of us, a flat square had been scraped out of the earth for a landing strip, and two or three brightly colored remote control airplanes flit and dart randomly as their grounded pilots hold the controls steady, arms outstretched, eyes raised to the sky in contemplation. Looking west, the graded gravel road and the secondary border fence rip a long golden scar into the dark green scrub, winding its way far over the horizon.
Click here for my Slide Show on border fence construction
California’s obsession with the border fence began at least as early as 1988, when Congressman Duncan Hunter (R, California’s 52nd District) passed an amendment making the Defense Department the lead agency in federal drug interdiction efforts. According to Christian Ramirez, Project Voice Base Builder Coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, the increased militarization of the border functions to reframe both “war on drugs” and US immigration policy as matters of national security, occluding the root economic causes of the labor migration. Nothing less than hermetically sealed, impermeable national borders could ensure security for the nation. Beginning in 1990, Hunter began to push for a series of road, fence and searchlight projects along the border that have culminated in the long dreamed of triple border fence project, through the Border Security Act signed in October 2006, and funded by $1.2 billion in 2007.
Under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the Department of Homeland Security was authorized by Congress to build up to 700 miles of fence along the 2,000-mile Southwest border, and Michael Chertoff has several times used waiver authority that Congress included in the act. DHS plans to build 650 miles of fencing this year, estimated cost of $1 million per mile, and the Real ID Act of 2005 has allowed Chertoff to waive local environmental laws and by-pass local controls. So far, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has waived more than 40 laws and regulations. Waivers of local laws have prompted many legal challenges.
After hearing about the rapid pace of border fence construction, my friend Paul and I decided to drive out early this morning to check it out. We could see a big “No Trespassing” sign further west near the construction area on the westernmost end of the secondary fence and a dusty, abandoned vehicle marked “SECURITY” was parked nearby; other than that, the area where we hiked in was unmarked. Within five minutes, we saw the familiar green and white logo of a border patrol jeep speeding toward us, a yellow dust cloud in its wake, and we laughed at how quickly they had spotted us. After their obligatory warnings about the dangers for Americans of walking too near the primary fence—“It’s ok to be up here, but don’t go down there. They [Mexicans] throw rocks at you, and it is really dangerous”—we asked the two agents what they thought about the fence.
“This fence is the biggest waste of federal money I have ever seen,” one agent noted with frustration.
We asked, “So, is it doing any good? What are you noticing here on the ground? Are there fewer crossings now with this new, secondary fence?”
“No, we have seen no decrease at all.”
We told them thank you, and the agents drove off, disappearing in another cloud of dust.
It was refreshing to hear an honest perspective from a border patrol agent, a group often demonized by those of us who oppose the fence. It easy to imagine the border patrol as a unified group of gung-ho, flag-waving patriots, flag lapel pins secured firmly to their chests. Yet, the low morale and dwindling ranks of border patrol agents speaks to their frustration with the mixed messages of the Bush Administration, signing appropriations and throwing away billions on more border fencing, all the while stumping for his notoriously unpopular guest worker program.
After advantaging ourselves of the photo op in front of the formidable secondary fence, and poking around a massive lot of abandoned military surplus vehicles, we jumped back in the car and headed west to look at the Smuggler’s Gulch site. Driving west on Monument Road, we saw an entryway to a ranch festooned with dozens of tiny American flags, a rancher ambling out astride a beautiful russet horse followed by his loyal German Shepherd. Across the road was the entrance to the Tijuana River Valley Open Space Preserve, and what I thought was the location of the Smuggler’s Gulch construction project.
Once again, within 10 minutes of our entering the preserve, the border patrol rode up on us. We tried to chat him up by pointing out a pair of cooper hawks cir
cling above us, but he would not be distracted from his duty to warn us of the many dangers for Americans who hiked too near the border.
“Oh really?” we asked, feigning concern.
“Yes, you really shouldn’t be in here. This is a construction site.”
“Oh, but isn’t this a public park? It says this is the Tijuana River Valley Open Space Preserve, and we’re here to look at the birds. We won’t go over there past the “No Trespassing” sign.
Determined to strike fear in our hearts, the agent went on. “They break into cars here, you know, and then you have to watch out for people playing geocache.”
“Ok,” he concluded, “well, I will let the guard up there know you are coming in here then. You set off the sensors.”
We looked up then, and saw a guard standing at his post halfway up the canyon, observing us through binoculars. We waved and took a few pictures, and decided not to push the issue. We could see a construction site ahead, but without hiking in, there was no way to survey what was going on inside.
Our last leg of the journey brought us out to Border Field State Park. Only open on weekends and holidays, Paul and I had lucked out—today was Memorial Day, and so we could safely hike in and walk up to the beach. Resolved to see the fence up close, we decided to hike in on the south side, taking a path that brought us up along a high ridge, and straight down to the primary fence. No sign of construction here, we hiked in peace, enjoying unusually clear blue skies, and a terrific view of the surrounding Tijuana estuary, the ocean up ahead, and the city of Imperial Beach in the distance.
Soon our reverie was disturbed by a helicopter, not the happy green and white of the border patrol this time, but an unmarked black helicopter flying up on us from behind. At this point we might have expected as much, but then the copter pulled up alongside us, flying in close enough for us to see the face of the pilot. For the next 15 minutes we were observed, North by Northwest fashion, by this low-flying, unmarked black helicopter as he flew out to the coast, then returned flying straight at us, circled back around and over us again, and again for a third pass. It was creepy, to say the least, and very intimidating.
Nonetheless, we continued on, took some pictures at the primary fence, and hiked down to the park where we found, to our dismay, that the bathrooms were locked and that the park was officially closed that day because of sewage runoff flooding the surrounding trails.