Category Archives: Border Logs

>Ni de aquí, ni de allá Border Log 3


By Jill Holslin

July 3, Tijuana- Today I’m walking with Dan along Avenida Internacional, the four-lane highway that runs along the border between Tijuana and San Diego, and I cringe as I feel the rush of speeding cars at my back, dragging on my body. I know we are far enough off the road, but it’s a little unnerving.

I’m getting a sense, if only briefly, how the migrants feel as they navigate an urban landscape so hostile to the solitary walker.

Here at the border fence, the intoxicating charms of nature yield to rough iron I-beams and massive plates of rusted iron, once hastily welded together as a makeshift barrier, now become a permanent blight on the landscape. The detritus of acts of violence long past, the “primary fence” separating San Diego from Tijuana is constructed from Vietnam aircraft landing mats.

Our reveries are interrupted by the drone of traffic and car horns, the rocks and natural greenery littered with mounds of jagged chunks of cement, dead branches, abandoned pieces of carpet, old TVs, scattered clothing tangled in white plastic bags, the stubborn green fronds of a fennel plant jutting out through the springs of an overturned sofa. We’re here to get a view of the DHS border fence construction from the Tijuana side.

Avenida Internacional ascends to the top of a high mesa, and from this vantage point we can see the original staging area–Area 5–for the construction of this last segment of the triple fence, slashing an 800-ft-wide scar into the land for 4.5 miles from here to the Pacific ocean. Down below, we can see 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, for those of you who are counting.

Ni de aquí, ni de all á

Up ahead we see a massive drainage culvert where winter rains bring toxic runoff, trash, and silt under the road and drain into the Tijuana estuary’s coastal sage scrub. Dan easily leaps down, landing safely on an old tractor tire–I have more trouble making the 6 foot drop, and go skidding on my hands and knees in the dirt. Suddenly I see why Dan has come down here: I see two young men, then four, then five, lurking in the shadow of the massive concrete retaining wall. Two men duck into the long tunnel as we arrive, while a teenager wearing a bright red nylon soccer jersey watches us climb down the wall. These men live here, directly under the rusty barrier wall, trapped in between the US 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 an old beat up metal computer case, opened his Macbook to record his interview with the men, and began chatting.

“So, how long have you guys been waiting down here?”

A man stretched out in the shade on a grey urethene auto upholstery cushion, answered,

“Pasé dos dias en la cárcel, y un mes aquí.”

He had been waiting here in the culvert for 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 US.

Another man, wearing a blue windbreaker, layered t-shirts, and a navy blue baseball cap, told us with some hestitation, that his name was Jose. 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.

“Es mejor cruzar que regresa a México,” the man on the cushion explained. 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, which I will say was Francisco A., and 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, reading a book, responded with a similar story. He had been stuck here for four months now, but works 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 San Diego-Tijuana and Juarez-El Paso areas, has been to push immigrants into more treacherous routes, through high desert with tempertures reaching upwards of 127 degrees, and rugged mountain passes where immigrants easily get lost and freeze to death.

The current ICE strategy–deporting Mexican migrants to regions far from their communities in the US–draws upon a long legacy of outrageous and unjust US immigration policy. In the 1950s, under Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” municipal, county and state authorities working together with border patrol, performed sweeps of agricultural areas and Latino neighborhoods, setting target goals of 1000 arrests per day, and picking up US and Mexican citizens alike, then transporting them deep into Mexico before being freed. 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 US than to try to make their way in Mexico.

While fence supporters like Congressman Duncan Hunter crow that the border fence has reduced the numbers of migrants who cross into the US 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 2000-mile border reported a 20% increase in the number of migrant apprehensions, while crossings in San Diego and El Paso dropped to less than one third of earlier levels. And an extremely high percentage of migrants succeed. According to a study by Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at The University of California, San Diego, 92% of Mexican migrants trying to enter the US illegally eventually succeed.

Thousands are dying now, from heat exposure, freezing, and car accidents caused when border patrol agents engage in high speed chase 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 4000 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,” Jose explained. “They shoot at us like rabbits, and they hit us.” Jose removed his navy blue windbreaker and pulled back the sleeve of his t-shirt to show me a bruise on his shoulder.

In April of 2007, a surveillance video of a deadly shooting near Calexico was leaked to the internet, prompting the Mexican government to call for an investigation into the incident. On March 26, 2007, a young man, Ramiro Gamez Acosta, age 20, was shot once in the chest by a border patrol agent armed with a M-4 carbine and died within minutes.

Dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt, and solid running shoes, clutching a bright green 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,” Jose 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. Then we climbed back out of the culvert and returned on our journey up the road.

Down below, we could see two of the men, surveying the horizon and looking for signs of border patrol from a spot way out on the the north end of the culvert. Foolishly we waved goodbye–we could just as well have sent up warning flares–and the men went running for cover.

“Oh, no, we shouldn’t have done that. Now they’re probably gonna get caught.”

But after we had walked a while we looked back, and they were long gone. “They hide really well, actually,” Dan remarked. No, we couldn’t see them at all.


>June 1 Border Vigil From Friendship to Hope–Gathering for the Future of the US-Mexico Border: Border Log 2


By Jill Holslin

SAN DIEGO-TIJUANA, 1 June 2008- The presence of border patrol surveillance, a force clearly intended to intimidate, couldn’t suppress our delight with the sparkling Pacific waves, sunny skies and fresh breezes in Border Field State Park. Nor could the aggressive militarization of the border that we experienced at our vigil impede the generous exchange of ideas, stories and a spirit of cooperation with those who gathered to meet us on the other side of the fence in Playas de Tijuana.

A broad coalition of religious organizations, immigrant rights and environmental groups, activists joined together on June 1 at Friendship Park in San Diego-Playas de Tijuana for a peaceful vigil calling for the immediate halt to the DHS project to construct a massive, aggressive triple border wall and border patrol road through the center of the park. Speakers at the San Diego-Tijuana Vigil included John Fanestil, of the Foundation for Change; Rosemary Johnston, of the Interfaith Shelter Network; Daniel Watman, leader of the Border Meetup Group; Jamie Gates, Point Loma Nazarene University.

Border Field State Park marks the southern end of the Tijuana Estuary, a unique habitat in the National Estuarine Reserve Research System. We stand vigil in solidarity with people all along the 1900-mile US-Mexico Border, including friends in “Hope Park” in Brownsville, Texas where the University of Texas, Brownsville and Texas Southmost College have become a battleground over the border fence project. DHS plans to build a border wall on campus property, dividing one part of the campus from another.

In Tucson, June 1 marks the conclusion of the "Migrant Trail," which
this week has seen dozens of activists march 75 miles through the

At Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, friends will gather in
solidarity in Santa Elena Canyon, near the banks of the Rio Grande.

Our vigil at Friendship Park

Click here for SLIDE SHOW on my Public Gallery

COALITION STATEMENT: An Offense to the Peoples of San Diego & Tijuana

We call for an immediate halt to the construction of supplementary border fencing near the coast in San Diego. This Federal Government project is an offense to the peoples of the San Diego/Tijuana region.

We call on elected officials at all levels of government to convene public hearings so that the far-reaching implications of this project will be brought to light, and so that alternatives can be explored. While reinforcing the current fence on the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, the Department of Homeland Security is now building supplementary fencing along the border’s western-most 3.5 miles.

The second fence – twenty feet high, made of steel mesh, and angled at the top – will stand north of the border at distances ranging from 130 feet to over 800 feet. DHS plans call for grading and clearing the land between these two barriers, uprooting all native vegetation and constructing an all-weather patrol road made of decomposed granite. A third fence will be built 20 to 24 feet north of the secondary fence, allowing for the construction of a maintenance road in between. Lights, sensors and cameras will span the project, which will run all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The project is one of the largest public-works projects in recent San Diego history. Cutting into the mesa tops and filling the alternating canyons, DHS will be re-locating over 3 million cubic yards of earth. The total cost of the project will exceed $70 million. The scale and scope of this project – and an honest assessment of its impact on our region – demand the public’s attention.

Toward this end we submit the following.

The plan to construct this supplementary fencing …

… is an abuse of the Executive Branch’s constitutional authority. To enable construction of supplementary fencing on the border, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has voided over 30 federal, state and local laws and regulations. While a 2005 act of Congress granted this authority to DHS officials, to date they have refused to submit their final construction plans for congressional oversight or release these plans for outside review or public scrutiny.

… is a Big Government boondoggle. Tens of millions of dollars in government contracts are being finalized without accountability, without Environmental Protection and State inspections and permits, without public input, without cooperation from the Mexican government, and without demonstrated commitment to sound engineering, anti-erosion, and hydrological practices.

… is a land-grab by the Federal Government. At least one hundred acres of San Diego County land and California State land, long held for recreational and open-space use by the public, have now been condemned for exclusive Federal Government use. County and State taxpayers have invested over one half billion dollars across many decades to acquire, improve and protect lands along the Tijuana River Valley Estuary and the adjacent border highlands. These public investments are now being placed at great and enduring risk.

… threatens the vitality of the Tijuana Estuary. The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve is a combination of county, state and federal lands preserving one of the few salt marshes remaining in California. This fragile ecosystem is home to over 370 species of migratory and native birds, including six endangered species, and has been declared a “Wetland of International Importance” by the International Ramsar Committee, which promotes wetland conservation throughout the world. Because it depends on the unobstructed ebb and flow of the coastal tides, the estuary could be severely impacted by DHS plans to relocate such massive quantities of erosion-prone soil. The grading alone will remove or impact the habitat for twelve species of rare plants. There are no suitable mitigation sites left in San Diego for these coastal species, because of development. Having waived laws that guarantee compliance with environmental protection, DHS cannot presently be held accountable for its plans to control for erosion, sedimentary runoff, backwater flooding, and other risks.

… will thwart the purpose of Border Field State Park. Border Field State Park is built around a stone monument placed on site on June 16, 1851 as the first marker of the new boundary between the United States and Mexico. At the heart of the park’s 396 acres lies “Friendship Park,” with a central plaza at the international boundary, allowing people from Mexico and the United States to visit through the border fence. DHS plans will result in “unmitigatable adverse impacts to public use and enjoyment” of the Park, according to the California Coastal Commission. The Coastal Commission describes the proposed construction as “mutually inconsistent with the recreation goals” of visitors to the Park.

… will destroy a rich cultural landscape. The construction will limit or prevent public access to many historic and cultural resources, while outright destroying others. At jeopardy are pre-historic and Native American archeological sites, early Spanish exploration and settlement routes, remains of early ranches, the 1850s border monument, and WWII coastal defense gun control bunkers. These are places that matter to the citizens of both nations.

… is a most inefficient allocation of law enforcement resources. The Congressional Research Service reports that apprehensions within the bounds of the Border Patrol’s two western-most stations fell by over 94 percent between 1993 and 2005. Border-crossings near the coast have already been brought to a virtual halt.

… continues a failed border enforcement strategy. Heightened border enforcement near the coast does not prevent migration, but pushes migrants into more dangerous rural areas along the border. This strategy has created a human rights disaster: since the implementation of the Southwest Border Enforcement Strategy in the mid-1990s, to date more than 5,000 people have died crossing inhospitable areas into the United States. The construction of additional barriers along the border does nothing to address the economic disparities which drive Mexican migration to the United States.

… discourages bi-national partnership and cooperation. By reinforcing – both literally and symbolically – the division between our region’s two nations, the construction of more barriers promotes mutual suspicion and mistrust. Additional barriers make it more difficult to create peaceful relationships and partnerships that can help to resolve our region’s problems. The challenges we face in our border region are real and complex. They require solutions that are realistic and forward-looking. The future of our region depends on the peoples and governments of Mexico and the United States working in concert to create greater degrees of economic equality and social justice. The construction of supplementary border fencing by unilateral decree of the U.S. Federal Government drives another wedge between the people of our sister cities when we should, instead, be promoting greater bi-national collaboration. We call on elected officials at all levels of government to convene public hearings so that the far-reaching implications of this project will be brought to light, and so that alternatives can be explored.

Organizations endorsing as of May 28, 2008

Activist San Diego
American Civil Liberties Union, San Diego & Imperial Counties
American Friends Service Committee – U.S./Mexico Border Program

San Diego Audubon Society

Border Angels

Border Meetup Group

California Native Plant Society, San Diego Chapter

Center for Social Advocacy

Citizens’ Oversight Projects (COPs)

San Diego Coastkeeper


Endangered Habitats League
Environmental Health Coalition

Foundation for Change
San Diego Friends Meeting

Fundación La Puerta

Green Party of San Diego County

Immigrant Rights Consortium

Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights

Lipan Apache (El Calaboz) Women Defense

Peace Resource Center of San Diego

Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental (PFEA)
Save Our Heritage Organisation

Sí Se Puede Immigrants’ Rights Organization

Sierra Club, San Diego Chapter

Surfrider Foundation


>Secondary Fence: Border Log 1


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 circling 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.