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The centerpiece of President Donald Trump’s plan to make America great again begins in San Diego – 13 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, to be exact.
That’s where six companies from across the country are competing for a future contract to build a big, beautiful wall.
As of last Wednesday, five prototypes were completed. The rest is expected to be completed in the next two weeks. After construction wraps up, Customs and Border Protection will help assemble teams to see which prototypes are hardest to scale over, dig under or break through.
Despite the often hostile and isolationist rhetoric the wall has come to symbolize, the atmosphere on Wednesday morning was almost celebratory. Construction teams assembled in front of the prototypes, smiling for group photos. The protests San Diego Sheriff’s Department planned for never materialized.
Ironically, the prototype construction comes at a time when border crossings are down, driven in part by shifting migration patterns and immigration enforcement actions. According to a report from the Office of Immigration Statistics released in September, people attempting to illegally cross from Mexico into any state along the U.S. border are unsuccessful 55 to 85 percent the time.
Tekae Michael, public affairs officer for Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector, said what’s proven most effective in San Diego over the years is a combination of agents to patrol the border, technology like its remote control surveillance system and infrastructure (the border fencing itself).
But I wanted to know, if fewer migrants are crossing the border, and what exists already in San Diego seems to be working, why the need for a bigger wall?
“Things are working, but there’s always room for improvement,” Michael said. “(Smugglers and border-crossers) change their tactics to circumvent what we’re doing, so we change our tactics, too. If we’re always reacting defensively to what they’re doing, we’ll always be a step behind.”
In terms of what agents are hoping to see in a wall, Michael said whichever best keeps her colleagues safe and prevents unauthorized immigrants from crossing into the country.
Border Patrol agents face a range of threats, including softball-sized rocks people can hurl from the south side of the border. Assaults on Border Patrol agents already number 83 so far this year, according to numbers provided by San Diego Sector’s Border Patrol. That’s an uptick from last year – when 52 assaults occurred – but nowhere near the peak in 2008, when agents recorded 377 assaults.
But what in a wall could prevent that? Initially, Trump spoke of one, contiguous wall, made from cement or other solid materials. But in July, he backtracked, saying it might be better for the wall to be see-through so people can step out of the way instead of getting hit in the head with a 60-pound bag of drugs.
Of the five prototypes, so far only one could pass as see-through. That one has cement bollards at the bottom, similar to one section of fencing that already exists in San Diego.
But Michael said whether the wall is transparent may not be so big of a deal after all. For most of the 13-mile stretch from the beach, two sets of fencing run parallel. Even if the wall was made from a solid material, agents would still see migrants coming once they passed the first, shorter fence.
The prototypes are variations of a similar design. All are 30 feet high and 30 feet wide, and the fact that each one is isolated gives them a towering appearance. One wall, a solid design, is topped with sharp-looking spikes to snag those trying to climb over.
The prototypes cost $300,000 to $500,000 apiece. Because the final design is yet to be chosen, exact estimates for the total cost aren’t available.
An internal report from the Department of Homeland Security said the wall could cost about $21.6 billion, not including maintenance. But Senate Democrats estimated the costs to top $70 billion to build and $150 million a year to maintain, which amounts to $200 for every American man, woman and child, according to a report released in April. Currently, the fencing costs $55 million a year to maintain.
Part of those repair costs come from patching up the fence when someone cuts through, something agents say can be accomplished with hand tools in 30 to 45 seconds.
Some big points are still up in the air, however. For example, will the winning prototype design eventually stretch the entire length of the southern border?
“That’s a good question,” said Michael. “I think it will vary based on location. California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas all face different kinds of threats. I don’t think there’s one wall that solves all.”
Aside from grueling work conditions, physical danger and the knowledge that by enforcing immigration law you may have to separate families, working for the U.S. Border Patrol sounds like it would be … kind of fun.
Border Patrol has a variety of operations, including teams that patrol land and sea, those that detect drugs tunnels and teams that patrol on ATVs and horseback. A team of agents on horseback cut through the construction site on Wednesday as the prototypes went up.
ATVs and horses both go off-road, and next to a four-wheeler, a horse seems sort of old-fashioned and smelly. So what’s up with the horses?
Agent Theron Francisco said that ATVs get farther, faster. They can climb the sandy hills near the beach in no time. But they’re also very noisy. Horses are quiet, Francisco said, and because they have good eyesight and sense of smell, they can prove helpful in tracking a group of migrants. And then, there’s the intimidation factor. When you come upon a group of migrants in the desert, horses can help with crowd control, Francisco said.
The idea of fixing or improving the border can mean very different things depending on where a person lives. For many outsiders, fixing the border means building up the border itself to make it harder to cross illegally.
Many San Diegans, however, are much more interested in improving border-crossing times for pedestrians, vehicles and goods entering or leaving the country. Now, thanks to a new, joint U.S.-Mexican program, wait times for trucks crossing into the United States through the Otay Mesa Port of Entry could be slashed dramatically.
The program has proven successful elsewhere. In Nogales, Ariz., for example, the program has drastically reduced wait times for commercial truck trade from three hours to 30 minutes.
“Whether NAFTA is signed or not, these are operational efficiencies we need to have. This region should be at the forefront of these things,” Gustavo de la Fuente, executive director of the Smart Border Coalition, told the San Diego-Union Tribune.
Before Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 54 into law earlier this month, much of the discussion between immigration advocates and law enforcement agencies focused on public safety.
Opponents of the bill, including local law enforcement agencies, argued that limiting cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement agencies would threaten community safety by making it harder for federal agencies to detain and deport immigrants engaged in criminal activities.
Advocates, on the other hand, argued that without a firewall between local and federal officials, undocumented immigrants would be more fearful to report crime. A story published last week supports advocates’ thinking.
So far this year, Latinos are reporting fewer instances of domestic violence in some of California’s largest cities, including San Diego, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“In Los Angeles, Latinos reported 3.5% fewer instances of spousal abuse in the first six months of the year compared with 2016, while reporting among non-Latino victims was virtually unchanged, records show. That pattern extends beyond Los Angeles to cities such as San Francisco and San Diego, which recorded even steeper declines of 18% and 13%, respectively,” reports the Times.
Now this is my kind of party. For a month now, a giant portrait of a baby named Kikito has been peeking over the border fence near Tecate. It’s an installation by French artist JR. Sadly, Kikiko is coming down. But before he goes, artists, advocates and yes, even Border Patrol agents gathered for a party to see him off, writes Food & Wine magazine.
Here’s a paragraph from the story, with imagery good enough to bring a tear to the eye.
“A band played Norteño-style music—singer, guitar and accordion on the American side, tuba and drummer on the Mexican side. A mobile taqueria from Tecate set up shop, passing carnitas tacos through the fence for the Americans. Cellphones were shuttling back and forth to document the whole thing. Drones flew back and forth to document the whole affair. The Border Patrol were in attendance, but seemed to have a pretty good time, too, even accepting refreshments from the revelers. For one blissful moment, it was as if the wall didn’t exist.”