A less por­ous bor­der

Empty ‘soc­cer field’ is em­blem­atic of the change

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick J. McDon­nell

SAN YSIDRO — From here, where South­ern Cal­i­for­nia greets Mex­ico along steep canyons, im­ages of a bor­der gone awry once in­flamed the na­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion de­bate.

“The place was com­pletely out of con­trol back then,” re­called Os­car Peña, a veteran Bor­der Pa­trol agent who re­cently stood atop a mesa look­ing down on an iconic site — the “soc­cer field,” where U.S. au­thor­i­ties long strug­gled to hold back the as­sem­bled mi­grants poised to head north.

The soc­cer field — so called be­cause bor­der crossers oc­ca­sion­ally kicked around a ball — epit­o­mized im­mi­gra­tion po­lice chaos, but has since re­verted to a des­o­late and rel­a­tively serene swath of brush, bi­sected by

two se­cu­rity fences, where few mi­grants ven­ture.

“If you look be­hind me now … the soc­cer field is bar­ren,” said Peña, ges­tur­ing to the arid tableau be­low. “There’s no­body on it.”

In many ways, the story of the soc­cer field’s trans­for­ma­tion from a kind of law­less, lat­ter-day El­lis Is­land into a for­saken back­wa­ter re­flects the na­tion’s in­cen­di­ary de­bate about il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion — its high emo­tion, chal­lenges and cost, both in re­sources and lives, and the in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tions and mis­per­cep­tions.

The im­ages of unchecked im­mi­gra­tion per­sist — ev­i­dent in Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to build a bor­der wall — even as the re­al­ity on the ground has shifted dra­mat­i­cally.

“It’s noth­ing now like it used to be,” said Miguel Fernandez, 35, who was stay­ing at a Ti­juana Sal­va­tion Army shel­ter af­ter be­ing de­ported last year.

He ini­tially crossed as a youth in the early 1990s, when “it was all so easy — you just fol­lowed ev­ery­one else.”

Be­tween the 1980s and early 2000s, mi­grants would gather en masse at the soc­cer field, which sits en­tirely on U.S. soil, af­ter de­scend­ing through the ad­ja­cent Ti­juana neigh­bor­hood of Colo­nia Lib­er­tad. They would loi­ter un­til dusk as ven­dors hawked tacos, roasted corn and drinks. The site was known in Ti­juana as Las Canelas, af­ter a home­made, cin­na­mon-fla­vored bev­er­age, some­times spiked with te­quila, sold at makeshift stands

The mood among the north­bound le­gions was of­ten fes­tive, some­thing akin to the at­mos­phere at a Mex­i­can mar­ket, though many, es­pe­cially women and chil­dren, be­trayed ap­pre­hen­sion about the jour­ney to come. They spoke in hushed tones of planned re­unions with loved ones in the north.

As night­fall came, the smug­glers, or “coy­otes,” would sig­nal that it was time and groups large and small would be­gin frag­ment­ing and ven­tur­ing to the north, along dirt trails through the dark canyons. The odds were stacked against the heav­ily out­num­bered U.S. agents.

From time to time, frus­trated U.S. au­thor­i­ties would mount large-scale, em­pire-strikes-back oper­a­tions that in­cluded aid from Ti­juana po­lice, who would move in from the south as Bor­der Pa­trol agents con­verged on the soc­cer field from the north, east and west, he­li­copter spot­lights il­lu­mi­nat­ing the pin­cer as­sault. On one such op­er­a­tion, Peña re­calls agents ar­rest­ing some 1,200 im­mi­grants.

“That was about the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of my home­town,” noted Peña, a na­tive of ru­ral Texas, who was still in train­ing when agents on foot, on horses and in ve­hi­cles swooped in. “I re­mem­ber think­ing: ‘What in the world am I get­ting my­self into?’ ”

The soc­cer field also be­came a go-to spot for politi­cians, who called for tougher se­cu­rity against the back­drop of the mi­grant­packed canyon.

Other fa­vored TV im­ages in­cluded cin­e­matic runs, in which scores of mi­grants bull-rushed the in­ter­na­tional bound­ary through lanes of traf­fic. “They keep com­ing,” in­toned an in­flam­ma­tory 1994 cam­paign ad for Repub­li­can Gov. Pete Wil­son, over footage of mi­grant fam­i­lies dart­ing up In­ter­state 5 at the San Ysidro Port of En­try. At the end of the spot, Wil­son de­clared: “Enough is enough.”

Among the un­in­tended con­se­quences of Wil­son’s rhetoric was a surge in Cal­i­for­nia’s Latino elec­torate — cit­i­zen­ship en­roll­ments in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly — con­tribut­ing to the state’s sharp left turn into the Demo­cratic camp.

Pres­i­dent Trump, too, has evoked the bor­der chaos with his sig­na­ture vow to build “a big, beau­ti­ful wall,” while la­bel­ing Mex­i­can im­mi­grants as crim­i­nals and “rapists.”

But Trump’s provoca­tive cam­paign or­a­tory harked back to soc­cer-field-style chaos of decades past and ig­nored a piv­otal de­vel­op­ment: a plunge in il­le­gal en­tries into the United States.

Bor­der Pa­trol ap­pre­hen­sions tum­bled from a near-his­toric high of more than 1.6 mil­lion in fis­cal year 2000 to 415,816 in 2016.

Bor­der-wide, from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, more and more agents have been ar­rest­ing fewer and fewer bor­der-crossers.

The 1,200 im­mi­grants whom Peña helped ar­rest that evening in 1985 would to­day rep­re­sent more than a two-week haul in the Bor­der Pa­trol’s en­tire San Diego sec­tor, which stretches 60 miles east from the Pa­cific.

Since 1992, the Bor­der Pa­trol

has seen an al­most five­fold in­crease in its ranks, to nearly 20,000 agents na­tion­wide. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to hire an ad­di­tional 5,000.

In 1992, the Bor­der Pa­trol recorded about 300 ar­rests for each agent. That num­ber plum­meted to about 21 ar­rests for each Bor­der Pa­trol agent in 2016.

Pro­to­types of Trump’s wall — which may end up be­ing a com­bi­na­tion of fences and other struc­tures — are ex­pected to be un­veiled along the San Diego bor­der this year. In an­nounc­ing the pro­to­type plan in June, a top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial in­voked the makeover of the San Diego bor­der, es­pe­cially the buildup of agents, bar­ri­ers and tech­nol­ogy, such as lights, cam­eras and sen­sors, fol­low­ing the launch in 1994 of Op­er­a­tion Gate­keeper.

“Where there was once law­less and un­de­vel­oped land … neigh­bor­hoods were built and com­merce grew,” Ron­ald Vi­tiello, act­ing deputy com­mis­sioner of U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, told re­porters in Wash­ing­ton.

In­deed, a pair of out­let malls and a stucco hous­ing de­vel­op­ment now stand in a stretch west of the San Ysidro Port of En­try that agents once re­ferred to as the “jun­gle,” a tan­gle of brush and swamp that pro­vided cover for clan­des­tine crossers.

Still, many ques­tion whether the en­force­ment and bar­rier-heavy ap­proach used suc­cess­fully in San Diego and along other ur­ban bor­der strips — no­tably in No­gales, Ariz., and El Paso — is ap­pli­ca­ble to more ru­ral cross­ing ar­eas, such as in Texas’ Rio Grande Val­ley, where the river forms a nat­u­ral im­ped­i­ment.

Some ex­perts have ar­gued that re­sources would be bet­ter di­rected at bol­ster­ing en­force­ment at ports of en­try, which are ma­jor con­duits for il­licit drugs and many unau­tho­rized im­mi­grants who en­ter us­ing false or stolen IDs or are con­cealed in ve­hi­cles.

Through­out the San Diego-Ti­juana area, il­le­gal cross­ings have plum­meted. Like the now-empty soc­cer field, the Ti­juana River levee zone — where bor­der-jumpers once slipped plas­tic bags over their shoes and pants to pro­tect against muck in the sewage-clogged chan­nel — seems mostly aban­doned. And mi­grants no longer gather atop Smug­gler’s Gulch, a his­tor­i­cal haven for il­licit traf­fick­ing of cargo and peo­ple dat­ing to Pro­hi­bi­tion days.

“They say it’s quiet, but I still like to catch as many as I can,” said Bor­der Pa­trol Agent Chad Nel­son, who was man­ning the fence at the spot where it de­scends to the beach and juts into the Pa­cific Ocean. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The Bor­der Pa­trol in San Diego is on track to record one of its low­est ar­rest to­tals since the late 1960s, well be­fore the soc­cer field achieved its no­to­ri­ety.

“I’ve got a sin­gle,” Agent Ed­uardo Ol­mos called on his ra­dio one night as he drove in the 50yard-wide buf­fer zone, or se­cu­rity cor­ri­dor, be­tween the two fences that now mark the bor­der.

The im­mi­grant, wear­ing a straw hat and sun­glasses, was al­most at the top of the 16-foot, mesh-steel sec­ondary fence. He com­pli­antly de­scended and sub­mit­ted to be­ing hand­cuffed, searched and ar­rested. He turned out to be a 55year-old one-eyed man from Mex­ico’s western Guer­rero state. His be­long­ings: a cell­phone, a $100 bill and 500 pe­sos, the lat­ter worth $28.

“He’s a pretty good clim­ber,” the agent noted.

Dur­ing the bor­der’s hec­tic years, of­fi­cials es­ti­mated that three or four peo­ple made it through for ev­ery per­son caught.

To­day, dou­ble fenc­ing fol­lows more than 13 miles of bor­der line from the surf to a deep desert draw at eastern Otay Mesa.

The so-called pri­mary fence, be­tween 8 and 10 feet high and just north of the ac­tual in­ter­na­tional bound­ary, is com­posed of sur­plus mil­i­tary steel air­plane-land­ing mat, much of it from the Viet­nam era. The Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard be­gan in­stalling the bar­ri­cade in the early 1990s, for­ti­fy­ing ar­eas that for­merly had no fence or fea­tured only por­ous strands of barbed wire and ca­ble vul­ner­a­ble to pedes­tri­ans and ve­hic­u­lar “driv­ethroughs.”

Sta­dium-style light­ing il­lu­mi­nates once-dark stretches; all­weather roads al­low au­thor­i­ties rel­a­tively easy ac­cess, even in the rainy sea­son. Agents peer through state-of-the-art night-vi­sion scopes, while sen­sors mark fa­vored smug­gling trails. Video cam­eras mounted on poles pro­vide ad­di­tional eyes.

Key to the bor­der in­fra­struc­ture buildup was the con­struc­tion of the so-called sec­ondary fence, mostly a mesh steel af­fair of­ten with rolls of con­certina wire at the top, and some­times along the bot­tom. At 14 to 18 feet high, the fence is an im­pos­ing ob­sta­cle. Weld­ing crews en­deavor to keep pace with smug­glers who reg­u­larly em­ploy torches to cut holes in both fences.

The bor­der re­in­force­ment served to make cross­ings more prob­lem­atic on sev­eral lev­els.

With height­ened dif­fi­culty came sky­rock­et­ing smug­gling fees. Bor­der crossers once paid coy­otes sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars tops to guide them across the bor­der into San Diego’s San Ysidro district, from where they were fer­ried north. Th­ese days, the price for such a ser­vice can reach $5,000 or more.

“Smug­gling has be­come a very, very lu­cra­tive busi­ness,” noted Su­per­vi­sory Bor­der Pa­trol Agent David Reid, who spoke at a pa­trol sta­tion where about 15 de­jected mi­grants sat in a lockup await­ing de­por­ta­tion, sil­ver “space blan­kets” pro­vid­ing some warmth amid frigid air con­di­tion­ing.

Be­fore the mid-1990s crack­down, the vast ma­jor­ity of bor­der de­tainees were quickly re­turned to Mex­ico. Many were back at the soc­cer field or other cross­ing points within hours. There was no place to hold so many de­tainees.

Th­ese days, how­ever, U.S. of­fi­cials say, ev­ery sin­gle de­tainee is sub­jected to fingerprint checks to de­ter­mine if he or she may face crim­i­nal charges or de­por­ta­tion.

Shel­ters in Ti­juana that were once over­whelmed with fam­i­lies headed north to re­unite with kin in the United States now pro­vide refuge to the ris­ing tide of de­por­tees like Fernandez, the mi­grant who re­called cross­ing “was all so easy” decades ago.

Like Fernandez, many de­por­tees vow to re­turn to fam­i­lies in the north, but can’t fig­ure out how.

“I have to go back, no mat­ter what it takes,” said Fernandez, who added that he has sev­eral sib­lings and an 8-year-old daugh­ter, Bri­ana, liv­ing in the Chino area.

Be­sides the phys­i­cal and fi­nan­cial chal­lenges of try­ing to slip through the heav­ily for­ti­fied bor­der, ex­perts say that other broad fac­tors — in­clud­ing re­duced fam­ily size in Mex­ico and ex­panded eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties south of the bor­der — have also helped re­duce il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

“There are fewer po­ten­tial mi­grants left in send­ing com­mu­ni­ties,” noted Wayne Cor­nelius, di­rec­tor emer­i­tus of the Mex­i­can Mi­gra­tion Field Re­search Pro­gram at UC San Diego.

But peo­ple still try to cross, and many per­ish in the at­tempt.

The buildup here also served to push much of the un­doc­u­mented traf­fic far­ther east, es­pe­cially to back­coun­try stretches of Ari­zona and Texas. Hun­dreds have died of de­hy­dra­tion and ex­po­sure in such jour­neys, fu­el­ing crit­i­cism that the crack­down chan­neled bor­der crossers to their deaths.

How­ever, the San Diego-Ti­juana cor­ri­dor pre­sented its own risks, from ban­dits who preyed on mi­grants to traf­fic ac­ci­dents.

Peña, the veteran bor­der agent, re­calls how vig­i­lantes pum­meled a pair of men who had been ac­cused of rap­ing two sis­ters cross­ing the bor­der. The bat­tered and blood­ied body of one man was thrown onto his ve­hi­cle.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, he re­called, a preg­nant woman lost her foot­ing and rolled down a hill­side on a night­time trek. He helped de­liver her baby, who didn’t sur­vive.

The ill-fated ex­pec­tant mother had alighted from a stag­ing point like the soc­cer field, which for so long stood as a sym­bol of un­bri­dled im­mi­gra­tion. Not any­more.

“It’s noth­ing like it used to be,” said Mar­tin Perez, whose home over­looks the dou­ble fenc­ing.

He, like oth­ers in the neigh­bor­hood, pre­vi­ously made some ex­tra cash ped­dling food to the throngs at the soc­cer field. A cer­tain nos­tal­gia over­comes Perez as he re­mem­bers those fre­netic days, the sense of his­tory wit­nessed.

Some­times a priest would hold a ser­vice for the mi­grants, of­fer­ing his bless­ing be­fore they took off for the north.

“At least then there was work for ev­ery­one here, you could make a good liv­ing sell­ing to the peo­ple,” re­called Perez as a num­ber of rel­a­tives played cards in the pre-dusk calm. “It was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent place. There was a lot of ac­tion. You can’t imag­ine it.”

As he spoke, a Bor­der Pa­trol cruiser perched on the se­cu­rity road about 50 yards away. The agent in­side ap­peared to be peer­ing through binoc­u­lars at the Ti­juana side. But all was quiet in Colo­nia Lib­er­tad. No one was headed his way. The soc­cer field has been tamed.

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

AT THE U.S.-MEX­ICO bor­der, a fam­ily is es­corted back to San Diego af­ter pay­ing a visit to Friend­ship Park in Ti­juana. Decades ago, cross­ing was cav­a­lier.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

IN 1992, a Bor­der Pa­trol car speeds near Ti­juana, push­ing peo­ple back from the bor­der. “The place was com­pletely out of con­trol back then,” re­calls a veteran agent.

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

ON A RE­CENT, typ­i­cally quiet night: “I’ve got a sin­gle,” ra­dioed Bor­der Pa­trol Agent Ed­uardo Ol­mos. He de­tained a Mex­i­can man from Guer­rero state try­ing to climb the bor­der fence.

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

“IT’S NOTH­ING now like it used to be,” says Miguel Fernandez, 35, liv­ing in Ti­juana since he was de­ported last year. He ini­tially crossed in the 1990s, when “you just fol­lowed ev­ery­one else.”

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

A GROUP of young men jump down from the fence in 1992, de­spite the high­pow­ered sta­dium-type lights, hav­ing caught the Bor­der Pa­trol off guard.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

WOMEN AND CHIL­DREN sprint across lanes of the 5 Free­way just north of the bor­der in July 1990. Il­le­gal en­tries into the U.S. have plunged in re­cent years.

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

MAR­TIN PEREZ, 53, lives in a Ti­juana home over­look­ing the bor­der fence. He used to make ex­tra cash sell­ing food to bor­der crossers. “It was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent place. There was a lot of ac­tion.”

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