Sitting on an X
U.S. Border Patrol agent Araceli Garcia gunned the truck’s engine and reached the top of Spooner’s Mesa, a broad field of daisies overlooking the ocean surf and the lowering sun. A sprawling wetlands stretches north toward San Diego’s downtown, about fifteen miles in the distance. It is a stunning spot, providing the sort of wide-open coastal panorama that rapid development and protective landowners have rendered all but nonexistent in modern southern California. But in May 1999 we came for a different view. Spooner’s Mesa happened to be an ideal vantage for seeing, up close, just how drastically the U.S.-Mexico border had been transformed along its westernmost stretch, as it slices between San Diego and Tijuana and kisses the Pacific Ocean here at Imperial Beach.
Atop the mesa, the change could be measured in the expensive new hardware installed in recent years. A mile-long row of border lights, mounted on poles and as powerful as those that illuminate sports stadiums, now extended to the rugged canyons on either side of the mesa. A ten-foot-high border fence provided a formidable barrier where a decade earlier immigrants had gathered by the hundreds in preparation for nighttime dashes to the other side. Buried in the ground at our feet were dozens of high-tech sensors that could detect movement and then transmit signals instantly to border agents in a control room at the Imperial Beach station.
The signs of change were also evident in what wasn’t here. As Garcia showed me around the Imperial Beach region, she checked out the narrow canyons, washes and culverts that once were favored crossing points for migrants. All were deserted today. She wheeled onto the beach at Border Field State Park and pointed out the very spot where her mother had sneaked into the country illegally from Mexico twenty-seven years before. (Her mother was now a U.S. citizen.) The beachside park is just across the fence from a pleasant middle-class neighborhood on the Mexican side. In between stands the first stone border marker erected after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the U.S.-Mexican war in 1848, granting modern-day California and much of the rest of the Southwest to the United States and creating what in these parts was the contemporary international boundary. Aside from the two of us, the park was empty.
The border fence had been labeled in orange paint with the names of nearby landmarks–a lighthouse, a yogurt shop on the Tijuana side–to help U.S. agents guide Mexican authorities on the south side when crowds gathered on Mexican soil and troublemakers heaved baseball-sized rocks over the fence at the American agents. Such cooperation was among the reasons officials in both countries insisted that crime on the border had dropped noticeably in recent years.
We slowly cruised along dirt roads where canyons finger across the international divide, undeterred by political boundaries. In the brushy reaches, the agent scanned sandy paths for footprints using a cobalt blue penlight. There were only squiggly snake trails and rabbit tracks, although a cluster of plastic water jugs told us that people had passed through recently. In a sobering reminder that serious trouble had not deserted this area altogether, Garcia pointed out the spot where a border agent had fatally shot a migrant the year before during an alleged rock-throwing attack. No charges were filed in the case.
The radio crackled, bringing word from the station’s control room that someone had tripped one of the motion sensors. Garcia zoomed off to check. It was a false alarm, the first of several tripped by sunset strollers or children riding bicycles near their San Ysidro neighborhood. On this night the only radio call approaching urgency was a query from an agent who discovered a child locked in a parked car.
During an entire shift this evening, Garcia, an energetic twenty-three-year-old who had joined the Border Patrol four years earlier, did not make any arrests. She saw not a single illegal border crosser, not one suspicious footprint. Here on what was once the wildest stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, the most stubborn foes that Garcia encountered were the undercooked potatoes she had brought for dinner. By shift’s end, the forty-five or so Imperial Beach agents on duty would make a paltry twenty-four arrests, about half of the day’s small total.
Night used to drop like a curse on Imperial Beach, turning the beaches and canyons into a pandemonium of illegal crossers, smugglers, bandits and the vastly outnumbered U.S. border agents who gave chase, mostly without success. Now, in the wide hollows where hundreds used to gather for the mad dash to neighborhoods and freeways on the U.S. side, only weeds clustered. Where enterprising Mexican vendors once dished up tacos to the hopeful hordes loomed not one but two strong fences and enough wattage to light up a Padres night game. Border Patrol agents were once in woeful supply. Now they were conspicuous in their trucks, parked a quarter-mile apart in a tidy string all the way to the sea. They were seeing fewer fence jumpers these days because migrants were more likely to try their luck in rural regions to the east than face almost certain capture here.
Agents now spent eight hours or more keeping watch this way. They called it “sitting on an X.” With few migrants to chase, some passed the time scanning the newspaper. Others tapped out reports on laptop computers or jotted to-do lists. A few, contemplating life after the Border Patrol, even used the time to study for after-work classes. “A lot of the guys look at it as an eight-hour mobile office,” one agent grumbled. Out on the line where mayhem once reigned, you could now hear an unexpected lament among the young, go-getter agents: the job had become dull. The stationary work gave rise to an acerbic job description: “human scarecrow.”
As we sat in the night darkness, soft rock playing in Garcia’s cab, the young agent recognized that the quiet hardly matched the adrenaline-stoked image of the Border Patrol’s recruiting brochures. But it represented a measure of success that would have been inconceivable to her predecessors. “They thought they had no hope,” she said. “They thought they’d never see the day. And the day is here.”
. . .
The new ennui in the Imperial Beach patrol zone, covering five miles from the San Ysidro port of entry–the nation’s busiest–to the ocean, was the product of politics and provided testimony to the power of a hot-button issue to focus the will of policymakers when the perceived cost of inaction was even higher. By the outset of the 1990s, Imperial Beach had become the immigration equivalent of Three Mile Island, a disaster area of legendary lawlessness and, as a result, a handy rhetorical backdrop for Republicans and Democrats alike to decry a border out of control. Robberies and rapes of migrants were common in the ravines. Illegal border crossers overran the horse ranches of the rustic Tijuana River valley and the residential streets in the city of Imperial Beach. Some migrants were killed as they raced on foot across the two freeways leading north from the San Ysidro port of entry toward downtown San Diego. No more.
Presidential politics played a huge role in this transformation. At a time when Republicans were capitalizing on growing public fervor over illegal immigration, it was President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who launched the unprecedented get-tough strategy, beginning in San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper. It was no accident that the effort would take root first in California, with its trove of electoral votes and years of chaos at the border. California also was the incubator in the early 1990s for an emerging movement of Americans expressing increased hostility toward undocumented immigrants. The Clinton administration unveiled Operation Gatekeeper in October 1994–one month before California voters were to vote on the controversial Proposition 187 ballot measure to cut off public services to illegal immigrants.
The border initiative first zeroed in on fourteen miles in San Diego, starting at the worst spot: Imperial Beach. National Guard troops helped erect fences made of steel construction panels handed down by the military. The barrier’s final portion, a huge blade the length of a football field, jutted into the ocean at Imperial Beach to discourage swimmers. The number of agents assigned to Imperial Beach jumped immediately from 250 to about 400. One of the new hires was Garcia, who had grown up in the Los Angeles suburb of Artesia and was working as a manager in a discount clothing store before she decided to join the Border Patrol.
In the ensuing years, the San Diego contingent of the Border Patrol, covering sixty-six miles of the international boundary altogether, would continue to receive a huge infusion of funding and manpower. A similar push was launched in trouble spots across the country. Overall, the unprecedented expansion in five years doubled the number of border agents nationwide to about eight thousand. By 1999, arrests of undocumented immigrants in Imperial Beach had plummeted to a daily average of about forty-three, down from more than five hundred a day in 1994, when it was the most leaky spot on the Southwest border. Moreover, officials now figured those arrests included nearly all who still were foolish enough to try crossing. Before, even when arrests were far higher, most actually got away, sprinting north, often through residents’ backyards toward the trolley and bus at San Ysidro, the Mexican-American neighborhood sitting at the border portal.
For the first time, officials said, they had achieved “control” over the border around San Diego. Arrests were at an eighteen-year low by the time Garcia was showing me around that area. “We’re working without a net. We’ve never been where we are right now,” a senior Border Patrol official claimed with obvious pride. Officials said the Imperial Beach experience had set a standard that others would come to demand elsewhere. Those appeals for help would soon become acute in places such as rural Arizona, as they became overwhelmed by undocumented migrants skirting this clampdown in San Diego and a similar one in El Paso.
Relying increasingly on paid smugglers, the undocumented border crossers were now traversing the countryside to the east of San Diego, first in the boulder-studded mountains an hour’s drive from downtown and later, farther still, in the wide spaces of Imperial County. As new areas became overwhelmed, residents demanded more border control. And as more agents rushed to stanch the flow in these spots, immigrants streamed eastward yet again, to even more desolate terrain. The shifting flow–and the unwelcome new realities of this U.S.-Mexico border–were soon crashing down on quiet communities like Douglas, Arizona, that had long inhabited the border without great consequence or much notice from the outside world. Suddenly, they found themselves beset by hordes of border crossers and an instant influx of agents in hot pursuit.
. . .
Framed by a fence of steel grate, a fourteen-foot-tall white obelisk sculpted from Italian marble makes the border official at its western terminus, just steps from the Pacific Ocean. On the north side is the state park where Araceli Garcia and I enjoyed a stunning view of the coastline but no people. Just to the south is Playas de Tijuana, a middle-class enclave with a majestic beachside bullring, medical clinics offering alternative cancer cures to American patients and a string of seafood shacks along the sandy beach. It is a stretch favored by Tijuana weekenders seeking refuge from the crowded city. It also is believed home to a suspected drug lord, whose house sits just feet from the fence–maddeningly just out of reach for the U.S. prosecutors who would love to get their hands on him.
Border Field State Park sits out of the way, miles from the nearest freeway, and hence draws few visitors. Occupying the southwestern corner of the continental United States, it is a gorgeous, bluff-top spot for gazing at bobbing surfers and an assortment of seabirds, like the light-footed clapper rail, that inhabit the massive estuary at the foot of the mesa.
But the park also encapsulates as clearly as any spot can the utter strangeness of the border, how sharply and unapologetically it delineates and divides, even while cinching the two sides together. Through a two-hundred-yard stretch of grated fence–a rare interruption in the ten-foot solid-steel barrier separating the two sides here–you can chat with people in Mexico. Since it got so hard to cross in Imperial Beach without papers, some couples who have found themselves estranged by circumstance now come on weekends to visit, show off their newborns to relatives, share a lover’s kiss. With one person on each side of the international boundary, it is one of the strangest romantic rituals you’ll ever see.
Residents of Imperial Beach recall a time not so long ago when families from Tijuana strolled freely across a fenceless border to join relatives on the U.S. side for Sunday afternoon picnics in the park and then return home. A plaque mounted near the fence notes that the spot was dedicated in 1974 as a symbol of friendship between the people of the United States and Mexico.
Now, nearly three decades later, the park was the site of a controversy over plans to build a second, backup border fence ordered by Congress in 1996. The second fence, parallel to the first, would cut across the top of the grassy mesa, effectively chopping the picnic area in two. Entombed inside the planned double wall would be the border monument, whose original version was erected in 1851 as the first formal marker along this odd and troubled international boundary.
Running 1,952 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico border is unique in the world because it separates two countries with such wildly disparate standards of living. Here, the First and Third Worlds lie pressed together, cheek to cheek.
From Border Field State Park, the line runs overland across the bottom of California, Arizona and New Mexico, then southeast along Texas’s Rio Grande before ending at Brownsville, on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a long and varied seam of boulder-crowned mountains, giant farms, the hottest desert in America, vast stretches of emptiness and a dozen or so important nodes of population–twin cities linked by language, history and commerce. Opposite the four American border states are six Mexican states, from Baja California and Sonora in the west to Tamaulipas and Nuevo León on the eastern end and, in the middle, Chihuahua and Coahuila.<