Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Notes from the U.S./Mexico Border South of San Diego, California

This month, the United States has seen renewed serious discussion of immigration reform in the U.S. Senate.  After meeting with President Obama, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) floated a “blueprint” for reform on the opinion pages on the Washington Post. This followed a long silence after Representative Luis Gutierrez’s introduction of a comprehensive immigration reform bill (CIR ASAP) in the U.S. House of Representatives last December.  On March 21, tens of thousands of supporters of immigration reform marched in Washington D.C.  President Obama, appearing by video on the big screen for the marchers, voiced general support for immigration reform.

The national dialogue is the first time during in the Obama administration that we have seen serious national discussion of reform of the much-maligned immigration system in the United States.  But, even that was overshadowed by the unforgettable brouhaha over health care reform.  With health care reform legislation passed by Congress, the time is ripe to move on to immigration reform.  Of course, a discussion of this volatile issue -- replete with fiery rhetoric over amnesties, an out-of-control border, and “illegal aliens,” along with generalized concerns with the drug war, violent drug cartels in Mexico, and terrorism, is extremely difficult for politicians in an election year, especially an off-year election in which the Democrats in Congress are expected to take a big hit.

What better time than to visit the U.S./Mexico border, the place that many -- perhaps most -- people thinks of when the topic of immigration and immigration reform come up in the United States.   An immigration conference in San Diego, which included a Border Patrol tour of two local ports of entry, offered me the opportunity. 

    Not long after the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, I toured the U.S./Mexico border near San Diego with the Border Patrol.  Along with a group of U.S. and European academics with research interests in immigration, I rode with Border Patrol officers, visited then-expanding detention facilities, and met with Gustavo de la Viña, the well-known Border Patrol chief who then was in charge of the San Diego sector.  One of the things that struck me was the military “feel” of the operation; it sure did not seem like ordinary law enforcement at work.  Recall that this was long before the “war on terror” after September 11, 2001, which led to much greater border enforcement and the oft-stated sentiment that better enforcement of the the nation's southern border with Mexico was essential to ensuring the safety of Americans in a post-9/11 world.  I also felt that I had more in common with the hapless immigrants in detention than the heavily-armed Border Patrol officers attempting to chase them down.

Despite the many border enforcement operations -- Operation Gatekeeper was only one of many -- put into place since the early 1990s, the United States has seen a doubling of the undocumented immigrant population, from around 5.5-6 million in 1994 to 11-12 million currently.  To make matters worse, the death toll of the border operations continue to mount.  Because of the expanded border fence and greater Border Patrol presence in large cities like San Diego and El Paso, migrants have been re-routed from urban areas on the border into more remote – and more deadly – deserts and mountains.  As my fellow blogger Professor Bill Hing has thoughtfully and eloquently written, the moral consequences of Operation Gatekeeper -- thousands of horrible deaths -- is a blight on the American conscience.

More than a decade later in April 2006, I visited the U.S./Mexico border region with a group of journalists south of Tucson, Arizona.  In Sasabe and Altar, Mexico, we saw where undocumented immigrants began the last leg of their journey to the United States.  Etched is my memory is a discussion with a young woman who planned to make the crossing with her toddler daughter (who reminded me of my youngest daughter, Elena), a journey through the desert and mountains where life and death literally were at stake.  I also will never forget the people praying for a safe journey in the church in the Altar plaza.

This past Monday (March 29), I traveled to San Diego for a conference of U.S. and European academics devoted to “Population, Integration and Law: Implications for Immigration Policy,” sponsored by the German Marshall Fund TEAMS, UC Berkeley European Center of Excellence, and UC San Diego Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.  It was organized by Phil Martin (Agricultural Economics, UC Davis) and Kay Hailbronner (University of Konstanz, Germany).  Here is the full program, with links to some of the papers presented.

The conference provided a rich discussion of recent developments on immigration, integration, and immigration reform in the United States and Europe.  Speakers came from universities, government, and think-tanks in the United States and Europe.

At  the end of the presentation and discussion, the group went on a tour of the border region near the Otay Mesa and San Ysidro ports of entry and along the border fences to the Pacific Ocean.  There are two fences along this section of the border:  (1) one is made of old corrugated metal air strips used in Viet Nam that created a rickety fence on the actual border between the United States and Mexico: and (2) the other fence is a relatively new, stainless steel (appearing at least) mesh fence with razor wire on the top located a few hundred yards from the first fence on the U.S. side.  (See the picture below.).  Our Border Patrol guide explained that the razor wire deterred migrants from climbing the fence and falling, thus requiring the “waste” of taxpayer money because a Border Patrol officer had to spend time at the hospital watching over the migrant.  That made me wonder about the human costs of razor wire and the migrants who tried to get over it.

During the one-and-a-half hour afternoon tour, there appeared to be relatively few migrants in the general vicinity of the two border fences.  We stopped to look at a neighborhood in Tijuana known as Colonia Libertad, which we were told was a haven for drug dealers; the only things we could see were a run-down neighborhood with children and dogs peacefully playing on a springtime afternoon.  As we drove past Smuggler’s Gulch, the road, which had been paved in places since my last visit, was bumpy and windy but no smugglers appeared on the horizon.  We made it to the famous bull ring by the beach where the border fence that had extended a short way into the ocean had been washed out by the waves.  The state park on the U.S. side of the fences had a grand vista of the Pacific but was inhabited, it appeared, only by Border Patrol vehicles.

All in all, it was a pretty uneventful trip.  The U.S./Mexico border south of San Diego appeared much calmer than I remembered  it more than 15 years ago.  Still, at least listening to the Border Patrol officers, it did appear that the old game of cat-and-mouse remained; some migrants seek to come up with new schemes to enter the United States and the Border Patrol attempts to figure out and stop the new schemes.

Importantly, the fence only goes for 12 miles or so inland and, after it ends, migrants can enter, only at greater risk to their lives.  Ultimately, the enforcement does not appear to have put much of a dent in undocumented migration but rather only appears to have redirected migrant traffic, resulting in many deaths.

In the end, one is left to wonder what the border enforcement build-up accomplsihed.  Billions of dollars were spent and migration in a few major border hubs was quieted down.  But, even though the flow appears to have been reduced with the recession, migrants continue to come and millions of undocumented immigrants live in the United States.

Border 1
Colonia Libertad, not far from the Otay Mesa Port of Entry 


Border 2
Razor Wire on the Interior Fence Near Otay Mesa


Border 3 
First Border Fence


Border 4 
Interior fence Near Pacific Ocean (Across from the Bull Ring)


Border 5
Bull Ring at Pacific Ocean  


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