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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.
This ten-state border strip is a magnet for newcomers from each country and therefore has grown at a galloping pace. The U.S. city of Calexico, California, and its much larger Mexican sibling, Mexicali, for example, grew by nearly 75 percent during the 1990s. Some demographers predict its population of about 12 million–those living in U.S. border counties and their equivalents, known as municipios, on the Mexican side–will double to 24 million by 2020. That would be an astounding increase that far exceeds average growth in either country as a whole. In fact, many border experts see the region as a zone unto itself–not the United States entirely, nor exactly Mexico, but a third country, with some characteristics of each and many others all its own.
The border also has tremendous symbolic power, which is one reason it has so often been depicted in noir-tinted movies, sung about in Mexican corridos, argued about on talk radio. It means very different things depending upon which side you’re standing.
From the north, the border appears woebegone, home to some of the poorest communities in America. It is beset with high incidences of breathing disorders–the four U.S. border states account for nearly a third of the nation’s cases of tuberculosis–and other health troubles, like diabetes. In many spots, the American side bears unnerving resemblance to its neighbor to the south, lacking even basic infrastructure such as sewage treatment.
But from Mexico, la frontera is a near-mythical promised land, a souped-up economic dynamo whose humming electronics plants, political inventiveness and proximity to the United States make it seem the very picture of Mexico’s hoped-for future: vibrant, relatively well-to- do, forward-leaning. It is why so many villagers from Mexico’s interior abandon the countryside for the border–and then head farther north into the United States. And it is part of the reason today you can spot families visiting through the fence at Border Field State Park.
There was little notice here when the border celebrated its 150th birthday in 1998. It was an anniversary many people preferred to ignore, marking as it did an especially painful moment in the history of relations between the two countries. American high school history students might pinpoint 1846 as the start of the Mexican-American War, which erupted over how much of Texas the United States could rightfully claim. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the two-year conflict. That agreement, signed on February 2, 1848, created the modern American Southwest, shifting about half of Mexico’s territory into U.S. hands. It delineated most of what we know today as the Mexican border, though maps used in Mexican schools as late as the 1940s labeled those lands as “temporarily” in American hands.
After the war, marking the border was the first joint project for the two countries. It went remarkably smoothly, considering how recently the nations had been at war. A pair of American boundary commissioners, John B. Weller and Andrew B. Gray, met their Mexican counterparts in San Diego in July 1849, two months later than the treaty prescribed; the late start was caused by shipping delays due to the throngs of travelers heading for California, where the gold rush had begun the previous year. The group set to work in San Diego and by October had agreed upon an end point for the new border, one marine league south of the port of San Diego, as called for in the treaty. It took six months to survey the line east 150 miles to Yuma, a job complicated by challenging terrain and the fact that members of the surveying crew kept quitting to join the parade of fortune seekers headed north to gold country.
The route east was fearsome. The brutal conditions where the border was carved across Imperial County impressed a subsequent boundary commissioner, John Russell Bartlett, who made the arduous trip as part of a border expedition in June 1852: “The weather was excessively hot today, the mercury standing at 105° Fahrenheit in the shade under the bushes. Took our departure, at 6 p.m. Each mile we advanced, grew more barren. The road continued through deep sand or loose gravel, reminding us that we had fairly entered upon the desert of which we had heard so much. On leaving this valley, all traces of grass disappear. A few stunted shrubs armed with thorns, strove hard for an existence; and the wonder is, that any vegetation life can flourish amid such barrenness. . . . The bleached bones and dried carcasses of oxen, mules, and sheep, began to mark our road, mementos of the sufferings of former parties.”
As he pushed his wagon across the deep sand, Bartlett found himself mired in a bizarre diplomatic controversy that threatened to bring the two nations to war again. When negotiators hammered out the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they established a boundary that would follow the Rio Grande west from the Gulf of Mexico until it hit the southern boundary of New Mexico. There, surveyors were to use as landmarks the city of El Paso del Norte and the Rio Grande itself.
Bartlett, a politically connected bookseller from Rhode Island who harbored fantasies of becoming a discoverer, landed the job of boundary commissioner in 1850, even though he had no practical experience or any real knowledge of diplomacy. Soon after taking the job, he and his Mexican counterpart discovered a serious problem: The map used by the diplomats to draw up the treaty was wrong. It placed El Paso too far north, by about 34 miles, and the Rio Grande too far east, by more than 130 miles. By following the erroneous map along with the letter of the treaty, the United States stood to lose out on a swath of land amounting to about 6,000 square miles. More important, by placing the border too far north, the United States would surrender what many believed was the most promising route for a transcontinental railroad, an obsession in the capital of a nation feeling the tug of Manifest Destiny. Ill-advisedly, Bartlett took it upon himself to settle the matter. He and the Mexican commissioner, General Pedro García Condé, haggled over the matter for months before settling on a compromise that accepted the northern alignment.
But the move set off a political tempest in the U.S. Congress and sent the two countries heading toward new hostilities. Then the United States, in 1853, decided to buy the disputed strip as part of what is known today as the Gadsden Purchase. For $10 million, the United States got 45,000 square miles in modern-day New Mexico and Arizona, a region rich with minerals and one that could be used someday for a railroad. The purchase filled in the final outline of the contemporary U.S.-Mexico border. His blunder having been corrected, Bartlett, the bibliophile and would-be adventurer, was discredited and stripped of his federal funding. He gave up his post and returned home to Rhode Island, where he would later write a massive two-volume account of his adventures on the border.
It fell to Major William H. Emory to finish marking the international boundary, a dangerous assignment that put his surveyors in heavily loaded wagons and sent them into the midst of marauding Indians, migrating gold hunters and some of the cruelest terrain they had ever laid eyes on. “The heat, commencing to be excessive in May, becomes almost unendurable in the months of June, July, and August. Even in winter the sun is so hot, and the direct as well as reflected light upon the sand-plains so dazzling, that, excepting a couple of hours after daybreak and an hour before sunset, it is only possible to see objects through the best instrumental telescopes in the most distorted shapes–a thin white pole appearing as a tall column of the whitest fleece,” writes one of Emory’s aides, Lieutenant Nathaniel Michler, in describing the work in an area that today is Arizona.
“The winds blow up quickly and violently,” Michler continues, “and it is useless to attempt to work with nice instruments. These dust-storms were our great drawbacks, as it was impossible to see many feet distant, and then only at the risk of being blinded. The gusts of wind which produce this unpleasant effect in winter are in summer like the simoons of the Sahara–they sweep over and scorch the land, burning like the hot blasts of a furnace.”
It is into such surroundings that so many Mexican migrants would wander on their northward treks to the United States nearly 150 years later.
From the Hardcover edition.