Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 02 February 1998

LA LINEA: TIJUANA LIES JUST OVER THE WALL

San Diego's Rex Wockner, a Confirmed Mexiphile, Tours the Fence
America's "Berlin Wall" Separates the "Haves" from the "Have Nots"

By Rex Wockner
GayToday's International Correspondent

 

I've always hated the border fence.

Since I moved to San Diego four years ago, I've worked as a news reporter in Tijuana about one day a week. Add it up and I've spent seven months of my life across 'the line.'

I have friends there, I have favorite restaurants there, if I need to buy something, I'm as likely to know where to find it in Tijuana as I am in San Diego.

For me, the fence is a wall of bureaucracy and hatred running through the middle of what is obviously one metro area and through the middle of my life. Some of my friends don't have documents to cross and come have dinner at my house. All my friends are cast by the fence as somehow undesirable.

"WELCOME TO THE NEW BERLIN WALL" someone has carefully painted on the Mexican side of the fence at the point it descends 400 feet out into the Pacific Ocean.

On a gut level, that's how it feels to me. Whenever anyone asks my opinion, I say: "Take it down. Let poorer Mexicans work at restaurants in Orange County if they want to. Let San Diego and TJ blend together. American prosperity will slither south and fix some of Baja's problems and Mexican joie de vivre will slither north and spice up white-bread San Diego. I don't think anything very serious will happen if you just take the damned thing down."

News reporters, of course, are paid to look at all sides of an issue, and that's how it came to pass that my most recent Mexican experience was a three-hour Border Patrol tour of the fence.

Now, I don't know if the Border Patrol is all that shrewd, but, interestingly, the public-information officer they assigned to me was himself Mexican, with much of his family still living in the Mexicali area.

"It doesn't cause me any problem to arrest somebody who comes into this country in a manner that is illegal," Agent Salvador S. Zamora told me. "I have family that lives in Mexico and they know what I do. At first there was a lot of hesitation, a lot of mixed feelings, a lot of mixed emotions, but once you understand and once you explain to them that it is a job of every sovereign nation to protect their borders, they understand that it is laws that need to be abided.

"There's empathy on my behalf because I definitely recognize the frustration of most of the people who leave their country," Zamora conceded. "They are oppressed and they don't have the pay magnet to the United States -- it's a better life, you're making more per hour."

Sensors, Scopes and 520 Cops

Zamora and I began our tour in Border Field State Park. In 1993, the fence was extended 400 feet out into the ocean between the park and Playas de Tijuana (Tijuana Beach).

"People were swimming across or driving vehicles up the beach so we added 400 feet to the fence," Zamora explained. "The beach is also secured with ... seismic-intrusion devices. They gauge any seismic activity, such as a stomp on the ground -- even the rumbling of our helicopters will trigger it. It sends off a signal and our central communications system catches it. Via the antenna, it's transmitted into the computer which gives it a number. It comes out on the monitor, the number identifies the sensor and the agent knows the location. ... The sensors measure up to 30 or 40 feet in radius. There are 11,000 of them in the San Diego Sector. ... We can see at night up to the end of the fence. What monitors further out [into the ocean] is our infrared scopes. They can see a good image two to three miles. If it's a clear night and there's no obstruction, they can see out five miles."

Sensors and scopes or not, there's very little illegal crossing these days between the ocean and Interstate 5 because 1994's Operation Gatekeeper flooded the area with agents. More than eight percent of all U.S. Border Patrol agents (520 of 6,300) work those five miles.

"People here try once, twice, maybe three times and then say this is way too difficult, there's too much time involved for me to either employ a smuggler or there's money involved and I don't have that so I'm going to go try my fate out in the East County area," Zamora explained. "We targeted this area because this is the most chaotic area. It is close to San Ysidro, where you saw people coming through the port of entry up the interstates, you saw access to the United States through here into the interior via the buses that are available in the San Ysidro area. You have taxis, you have a big housing community so that people would run 200 yards, they're already in the city and they get lost.

"So, you have the fence, you have an agent right up against the fence, you have the area well-lit, you have the seismic sensors, you have the infrared scopes, and you have this program that is orchestrated so efficiently."

'Death Trap'

Illegal entry between the ocean and I-5 has been further dampened by a new two-mile fence that runs west from I-5. Unlike the old rusty metal fence, the new fence -- made of 14-foot-high cement pylons -- cannot be jumped over, bored through or tunnelled under. It was completed in September.

"The intention of the [older] fence was not to prevent the entry of the border crosser on foot," Zamora said. "People were driving across and that was the main focus of the fence. It was also put up just to mark the border. It gave us jurisdiction as far as to what extent we could go to arrest a person and not be in Mexico. I believe the first fence, a chain fence, went up in 1980. In 1991 came this fence with the military-style corrugated-steel landing mats.

"The [new cement] fence is a pilot program ... mandated by Congress," Zamora said. "It's the first fence that's been put up to prevent the entry of foot traffic. As you can see, it stands 14 feet high with hangwires facing south. It still gives us visibility on the south side, which was a nice consideration because it's an officer safety issue. You don't want to be trapped in a situation where you're being fired upon or rocks are being thrown at you."

Indeed, many Border Patrol agents oppose the new fence. When my official tour was over, I drove the dirt roads along the fence in my own car and talked to agents who are not public-information officers.

None supported the second fence. They're afraid of being caught between the old fence and the new fence and getting shot.

"We don't need this. It's a death trap," said one agent who stopped me to ask what the hell I was doing driving along the fence. (You, too, can drive along the fence. It's private property and only the absentee owners -- not the Border Patrol -- can shoo you away.)

Even Zamora admitted that getting caught between the fences "is the safety issue that's been the prime concern for the agents. Nobody wants to be caught in the middle of these fences anytime, much less in a situation where you're being fired upon," he said. "And ... we have been targets of sniper fire."

Zamora also acknowledged that the second fence isn't needed to stop illegal crossers, given that Gatekeeper has the area sealed. (Crossings in the area are down 99.5 percent from three years ago.)

"The new fence has been put in a place where the crossings are not occurring as frequently -- or even at all in some cases as they did in the past," Zamora said. "This project had been authorized previously and it was in finishing stages as we consistently shifted the traffic out east.

"Officially, we are given different projects to pilot, we are mandated through Congress to do certain things. ... There's certain politics that we must follow, and at this level, we cannot do anything. Any changes that need to occur are [via] representatives of the Border Patrol back in Washington.

"The pilot program [the new fence] gives us an opportunity to see the efficiency, whether it's going to decay or not, whether it's going to propose a danger to the agents or not, and whether it's going to funnel people through those areas that we want to funnel [them through]. But you're right, the number of people coming across here in the first five miles are averaging 12 to 15 people in a 24-hour period whereas three years ago we were averaging 1,300 people in a 10-hour period."

In a nutshell: The new fence is dangerous. The new fence is a waste of money.

The new fence also is much meaner than the old fence. The old fence is almost a virtual fence. I even hopped over it once a few years ago just to say I'd done it. Even today, just east of I-5, there's a big hole in it that no one seems in a rush to fix. The new fence, though, is menacing. It would have kept East Germans in East Germany quite efficiently.

Zamora blamed the new fence on U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon. More of it is under construction east of I-5.

"He favors fencing, he favors the role of the military along the border," Zamora said. "We as a law-enforcement agency can only take suggestions and analyze the fencing. There are certain mandates that come down from Congress."

Indeed, government spending on border control increased from $374 million in 1994 to $631 million in 1997. Since 1994, 31.7 miles of new fences have been constructed between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. An additional 23 miles of fencing is under construction and 10 additional miles are planned. In the end, there will be 78.7 miles of fences where there used to be only 14.

And so...

What's an undocumented worker to do these days? Where there aren't fences, there are rivers, deserts or mountains that even costly "coyote" smugglers find challenging.

One option is to walk through the car lanes and amble up I-5. "People are now using more sophisticated measures to try to get into the United States, like fraudulent documents or exploiting the ports of entry," Zamora said. "We are restricted from apprehending anyone on the freeway because it poses a threat to both the motoring public and the people we're trying to apprehend."

Apart from that, our government has become quite efficient at enforcing its "We've got ours and you ain't gettin' none. STAY OUT!"

I don't feel particularly good about this. National borders are arbitrary lines and I never did anything to deserve a 10-times- cushier life than most folks in Tijuana.

Yes, the world isn't fair. But one of humanity's key long-term goals should be to make it fairer.

Neither you nor I have much of a chance of changing the world on some macro scale but almost anyone can make a difference locally. Couldn't San Diego be a tad more neighborly than just sitting by while the feds militarize our back yard with hundreds of cops, helicopters, buried sensors, night scopes and a new fence right out of the Communist era?

I believe anyone who takes the time to get to know Tijuana and its people will come to the same conclusion I did: that our border policies have nothing to do with making the world a better place and everything to do with separating the haves from the have-nots -- an approach that, historically, frequently has led to violence and social disintegration.

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
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