Walls! Walls! Walls! Trump's California trip will take him to many
March 13--The myriad fences that divide San Diego from the Mexican border vary from one spot to the next.
They are made from different materials, fluctuate in height and vary in design. Some are decades-old; some much newer.
In some spots, the fencing abruptly stops, punctuated by stretches of empty space.
The existing barrier, with all its fluctuations, is a stark contrast to the eight monolithic walls President Donald Trump is slated to visit Tuesday near San Diego -- prototypes of what his long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall could look like.
The president is making his first stop in California more than a year into his presidency and one week after Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, filed suit against California for what the federal government contends are unconstitutional immigration laws.
Trump's visit is expected to draw hundreds of protesters and supporters who will spring up at rallies and gatherings at various stops during the visit. Meanwhile, Trump is scheduled to speak to troops at a base in Miramar before reportedly heading to Beverly Hills for a Republican fundraiser and flying back Wednesday morning.
Trump's scheduled stop to see the wall prototypes, an event that is not open to the public, is what's generating the most public interest. Of all the immigration-related topics that have been the backbone of Trump's political appeal, none is as symbolic as the promised border wall.
"They would come back"
Christopher Harris, a leader with the union representing Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector, took a long ride Saturday along the boundary that divides the two countries, pointing out what needs to be fixed and where.
Barriers, he believes, work.
"When I was here 20 years ago, we were catching 1,000 people a night. It was out of control," says Harris, director of legislative and political affairs for the National Border Patrol Council's Local 1613, representing 2,000-plus agents in San Diego, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties,
"We would return them. They would come back," Harris said.
"My record was the same group three times in a night. Maybe they got lucky on their fourth try."
In contrast, the number of people now crossing in from Mexico in San Diego averages from 50 to 70 a day, he said.
Something that made a big difference, he said, was creating a secondary fencing barrier. In some places, there are even three types of fencing.
Beefing up security doesn't stop at the wall. There's a need to update equipment and hire more personnel, Harris said.
"Some of our technology is from the Vietnam era," he said.
The Border Patrol is also facing an officer shortage -- their numbers have fallen below the statutory minimum mandate. And many of the agents working in San Diego have been affected by sewage and toxic chemicals that pour in from Tijuana onto American soil and pollute local beaches, he said.
On Saturday, there was another unexpected obstacle: two gates that led to Ensenada Highway in Tijuana were accidentally left open, not by border agents, but by workers heading to a sewage treatment facility on the U.S. side.
Harris knows the federal roads built to stem illegal immigration and drug smuggling as if they were the neighborhood he grew up in, pointing out landmarks not well-known to the public.
Agents have names for the different areas. There's Old Monument Road, for example ("notorious for smuggling," he said) and Russian Alley, which gets its name because the Russian government once trained telescopes toward the U.S. Navy Fleet across the border.
The dry riverbed that marks the U.S.-Mexico border has a yellow line at points delineating where one nation stops and another begins.
During a tour Saturday, some people were seen hanging just over the American side, spotted by agents sitting in their white SUVs, binoculars at their side.
At least one man across the Tijuana River, but within the American boundary, was shooting up drugs. A Mexican police truck idled on the Tijuana side.
It's not unusual for Mexican people looking to get high and avoid hassles with Mexican police to wander over the line before they cross back, Harris said.
The United States and Mexico bump up against each other over roughly 2,000 miles of land. Of that, about 654 miles have some kind of barrier.
Between 2007 and 2015, authorities spent approximately $2.4 billion on border-related infrastructure, including fencing, roads, bridges, lighting and drainage. An estimated $3.5 billion would need to be spent over the next 20 years to maintain that infrastructure, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Prior to the 1980s, there wasn't much in the way of fencing.
"The border was mostly these small pillars that marked it every few hundred spaces. And in some spaces (there were) a few strands of barbed wire. Even a child could get across. They were symbolic," said UC San Diego Professor David FitzGerald, co-director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.
Initially, the government built eight-foot-high fences made from steel helicopter landing mats left over from the Vietnam War. By the 1990s, the U.S. also beefed up the presence of border agents and spent more on fortification in the border's urban hubs, such as San Diego/Tijuana. That meant new equipment, like motion sensors, video surveillance cameras and giant, stadium-style lighting, FitzGerald said.
The physical barriers and beefed up agent presence helped to slow illegal immigration in San Diego, but shifted it to Arizona, where the terrain and the weather were more difficult and more dangerous.
"It's in the 1990s that you see a huge spike of deaths among people crossing the border," FitzGerald said. "That's continued to this day."
FitzGerald termed it "lethal, symbolic policy" and noted that it is "extraordinarily expensive."
California's Democratic legislators have made it clear they're not supporting Trump's wall.
One pending bill, SB30, would prohibit working with contractors involved in constructing a barrier along the 130 miles of international border shared by Mexico and California.
Border agent Harris said such proposed laws cost California businesses and taxpayers. A pending request for proposals to replace current fencing isn't attracting vendors to bid on it because they're afraid of the consequences should SB30 pass.
"This has nothing to do with Trump's wall. This is replacing areas that are already there. It's been in the works for two years. And it keeps my men and women safer," Harris said.
"It strikes me as a little petulant: 'We don't like the president, so we're going to block everything he does, even when it's a good thing.'"
Companies building the prototypes were instructed to build something between 18 to 30 feet high.
They all came in at the maximum.
Four of the walls are built from concrete and four others are made up of other materials. Cost for the prototypes ranged from $300,000 to $500,000.
Eight other mock-ups were built at an undisclosed area nearby.
The first set, at Otay Mesa, was tested to see how each wall would hold up against people trying to climb it or dig under it; they all must prevent tunneling at least six feet under ground.
Other prototypes were subjected to jackhammers, saws, torches and other tools, according to the Associated Press. Highly trained testers scaled 16 to 20 feet without help but needed assistance above that, AP reported.
"Can it be climbed? Can it be dug under? Can it withstand cutting tools?" Acting Deputy Commissioner Ron Vitiello said at a press conference last October, when the prototypes were unveiled.
How much the wall would cost to build depends on who is doing the calculation. Estimates have ranged from an early estimate of $12 billion to Democrats' more recent assessment of $70 billion, and a whole lot of big numbers in between.
"It will be expensive," is how Vitiello answered the question at his press conference.
There's a misconception among some that the administration plans to pick one prototype and run with it.
Instead, the goal is to pick the best from several different wall samples and create guidelines that would fit best at different locations. Then, the contract (or contracts) would again go back out to bid, officials said.
Agents say one feature they'd like from any wall is the ability to see into Mexico. Even in the current, rag-tag style of fencing, agents have created windows of sorts by cutting through metal and inserting mesh screens to see who is coming across the border.
"That's what we told Trump we wanted. Whatever you put in, we have to see through it," Harris said.
Who will pay?
A rallying cry -- literally -- during Trump's campaign was a call and refrain about the border wall.
"Who's gonna pay for it?" Trump would ask a campaign crowd, before theatrically raising a hand to his ear.
"Mexico!" the crowd would scream.
But during the campaign Mexican officials made it clear they will not, in fact, pay for the border wall.
As president, Trump has insisted Mexico eventually will pay for the wall, (though he has been told otherwise by current Mexican officials), and said we should start construction as soon as possible. He also has used the wall as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Congress over the fate of immigrants who have an Obama-era status called DACA, which gives them temporary relief from deportation.
Across the border, near the spot where Trump will visit, that notion elicits smiles, if not smirks.
"If that's what he wants, let him pay for it. He says he has a lot of money, so let him spend his own money," said Marisela Reyes, 53, a Tijuana resident who called the prototypes and the larger wall proposal "a useless expense."
"No wall is going to detain Mexicans looking for work from finding a way to cross over," she said.
That sentiment was echoed in Tijuana this past weekend.
"When people are in great need, they'll do whatever it takes," said Patricia Parra, 45, a Tijuana resident. "People will do whatever it takes to keep crossing."
But on the American side of the border, there are agents like Harris who believe that the walls -- the very tall walls -- will make a difference.
Twenty years ago, his boss told him he couldn't really stop illegal immigration.
"He said, 'Chris, you're just a speed bump,'" Harris said.
"Well, I don't want to be just a speed bump."