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Border Report: Vargas on the Calexico Crossing's Big Facelift

In a Q-and-A, Rep. Juan Vargas applauds Obama’s proposal to fund the Calexico expansion, breaks down what it means for San Diego and Imperial County businesses and recounts one of his most memorable border-wait experiences.

Last week, Rep. Juan Vargas announced he was “ecstatic” over President Obama’s inclusion of $248 million for the Calexico West Land Port of Entry reconfiguration and expansion project in his latest budget.

Phase I of the expansion project included the addition of 10 northbound inspection lanes and the construction of a head house, among other projects, according to Vargas. If given the green light, Phase II would add a pedestrian processing facility, administrative offices, five southbound inspection lanes and six additional northbound ones.

In an interview with Voice of San Diego, Vargas, whose district stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border and into Imperial County, applauded the proposed funding, broke down what it means for Imperial County and recounted one of his most memorable border-wait experiences.

Enrique Limón: Why is this monumental?
Rep. Juan Vargas: Because it’s so necessary. The interesting thing is, you know Calexico? During the summer there, it’s not unusual for the heat to be way over 100 degrees, and for cars to be waiting there for a couple of hours in that heat with children in the car … the human toll it takes, I think, is incredible. But even putting that all aside – which I can’t, but others do – the business problems that it creates. You know, the amount of money that’s wasted when people are just sitting there in line, and nothing’s been done. So all these years, people have always talked about it, but no one has ever done anything about it.

Think about all of the issues we’ve had on borders and border crossings and all that; it’s been huge. Trying to keep everybody together on the same page to understand the needs of the border, and trying to keep the rhetoric out, it’s been very important for us to stay focused on the [human aspect] and also carefully understand the business problems that we have.

On that note, what do you think the expansion would represent to Imperial County businesses?
Well, right now the businesses suffer to the tune of literally hundreds of millions of dollars because of that bottleneck, so this, I think, is going to be a huge boon for the economy. From small businesses – which I think will probably be the most benefited – to large companies and individual people, this is going to be a huge deal once when we fix that border. We gotta do it.

This comes on the heels of $98 million being approved for the expansion’s first phase. Why are these projects so expensive?

If you take a look at the actual size of what you’re doing, I mean, in this case, we had to buy a bunch of land, move a lot of dirt – just look at the physical nature of the crossing – it’s big! It’s expensive, you’re creating a lot of traffic, you’re buying a lot of stuff. These things are gigantic, they’re huge. You don’t think about it when you’re racing through there. Like, on the freeway, people don’t think about the how the interchange that you just drove on cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Why are facelifts and expansion projects like this one so important to border ports of entry?

One of the things we find, is that the border in San Diego has been very beneficial to both sides, but there are problems associated with it, obviously. Unfortunately, if you listen to the television, you think all the [immigration] problems are insurmountable, but they are not. The biggest problem we have is business with that bottleneck due to insufficient infrastructure at these border crossings. So land ports of entry have become, in many ways, as important or more important than the ports of entry from the ocean. Everybody thinks about ships moving in, and how important it is to send goods in and out of them – well, I gotta tell you – land ports of entry are every bit as important.

When it comes to crossing the border, we all have our horror stories. What is one of yours?

[Laughs] One of the worst stories for me was when we had an earthquake a number of years ago, and I went over the border to see how we could help and get on the same page, and the reality was that it took me about four hours to get across. It was unbelievable. A more personal one, was when my wife and I, as well as both of our daughters, went to celebrate a friend’s wedding anniversary over in Tijuana. It was great – a 25-year celebration – they renewed their vows and everything. Coming back across the border, it took us almost four hours. When you sit in your car for three hours and 45 minutes breathing in exhaust, you think about your friends and you love them, of course, but you do question, was it worth it?

So was the party worth it?

It was a great time. They’re friends I’ve known forever. I would do it again, but I gotta tell you: If it was only their 10th anniversary, maybe I would just send them a card.

Pope Mania

The devil’s in the details, the old adage goes, and if you’re Pope Francis, the details are everywhere. The pontiff’s visit alongside the U.S./Mexico border this week has prompted headlines like “Pope Francis Sees Devil’s Hand in Mexico’s Drug Violence” and “Donald Trump on Francis’ trip to Mexico: ‘I think that the pope is a very political person.’” The L.A. Times put together a good analysis on the impact the Pope’s visit has on the political spectrum:

Pope Francis … has during his Mexican trip made his feelings clear, most specifically on Saturday during a speech in front of top church bishops, in which he called on clergy to act courageously against an “insidious threat.”

“I urge you not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the church,” he said.

The pope’s challenge — an upbraiding of an institution rarely criticized — was hailed for recognizing the widespread perception in Mexico that the church has often failed to protect society and its own priests from drug violence …

The mixed reactions of some clerics, some experts said, suggest they remain tone-deaf to the church’s aloof and uncaring image. The pope’s message was loud and clear, they said, and should not be ignored.

“I don’t think anyone has dared to criticize the Catholic Church so vocally and so openly in recent times. And arguably it could have only come from the pope himself,” said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego. “The church’s leaders have basically rested on their laurels, and in the worst cases have been as corrupt as the rest of Mexico’s political leaders.”

Wall Divisions

The L.A. Times also reports on a cross-border meetup organized by Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based nonprofit, apropos of the papal visit. Families divided due to immigration status got to catch up, embrace as much as possible and share candy through the wired fence:

The event, timed to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico, drew about 300 people to a rural site near where Texas, New Mexico and Mexico meet. About 50 gathered on the Mexican side and 250 in the U.S. at a gravel lot that is also the site of an annual get-together for families split by the border.

“Here they come!” Sabino Montes, a 36-year-old who lives in Juarez exclaimed, pointing to his mother, Maria Ceniseros Galvan, in the crowd.

Ceniseros, the matriarch of the family who lives in Las Cruces, N.M., walked quickly toward the fence. Her eyes welled up with tears as she approached. Granddaughter Stephanie Rodriguez, 8, sprinted toward the chain link.

“Hola! Hola!” shouted Stephanie. She offered up a foot-long strip of heart-shaped pink lollipops.

The Fence’s Environmental Impact

A debate of the border fence’s impact of a very different kind is taking place in the Rio Grande Valley. Newsweek quotes Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen, Texas, who says Mexican nationals spend about $1.3 billion annually on shopping, and shifts the conversation to the fence’s environmental impact:

Wildlife watchers spend $463 million each year in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most biodiverse places in North America, with more than 700 species of vertebrates alone. It sits at the convergence of two major flyways for migratory birds, and people come from all over the world for a chance to see some 500 different bird species.

Before construction of the fence began in 2009, a list of species likely to be affected was prepared by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It included 10 plants and animals on federal and state endangered lists, 23 on Texas’s threatened list and dozens of species of concern. But the wall went up anyway.

Species with small populations and specialized habitats have suffered the most from the disruption, says Jesse Lasky, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State. He co-authored a 2011 study reporting that the barrier reduced the range for some species by as much as 75 percent. Small range size is associated with a higher risk of extinction, and, according to the study, the wall puts additional stress on Arroyo toads, California red-legged frogs, black-spotted newts and Pacific pond turtles — all listed as endangered or threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — and the jaguarondi, a small wildcat endangered in the U.S. and threatened in Mexico.

The report specifically notes the region is home to 50 or so ocelots remaining in the U.S. who might not survive given “the fence has fragmented their habitat and separated these few dozen Texas cats from their larger and more genetically diverse cousins in northern Mexico.”

Water Woes

Volunteers with the Tucson-based Humane Borders Inc. are calling the vandalism of some their water stations designed to aid immigrants “gory.” Six of their water barrels were shot at, and in one instance, a coyote carcass was placed next to one of the stations.

Per The Arizona Daily Star:

“It was gory and premeditated,” said Juanita Molina, executive director of Humane Borders and the Border Action Network. “Somebody had to put some thought into the message they were sending there.”

The Mother of Invention, Narco-Style

Finally, Business Insider counts down the clever, odd and simply baffling ways smugglers get their goods across the U.S.-Mexico border and beyond. It includes the usual suspects (tunnels, planes), gets a little more high-tech with submarines and drones and includes the edible (donuts). Is nothing sacred anymore? “In late 2013, authorities in San Andrés Island in Colombia, a popular tourist destination, found almost a kilogram of cocaine hidden in 12 donuts,” the roundup says.

Among the more inventive methods: there’s a cross-border catapult that seems straight out of “Game of Thrones.” “They just put the drugs there and, whoom! — over the border fence, and then somebody picks it up on the other side,” Ioan Grillo, author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” tells Business Insider. Valar morghulis, hermano.

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