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Mexico & the U.S.: What Kind of Border?

A new fence to deter illegal crossings from mexico symbolizes the intense debate in the u.s. over immigration

By Randal C. Archibold in Imperial Beach, Calif.


During this period of controversy over immigration—with federal agents routing out illegal workers from meat-processing plants and other businesses, record levels of deportations, and border walls getting taller and longer—Friendship Park in Imperial Beach has stood out as a spot where international neighbors can chat easily over the fence that separates California from Mexico right up to the Pacific Ocean.

Or through it, anyway. Families and friends, some unable to cross the border because of legal or immigration trouble, exchange kisses, tamales, and news through gaps in the tattered chain-link fence. It all takes place near a stone monument commemorating the area where Mexican and American surveyors began demarcating the border nearly 160 years ago, when the Mexican-American War ended.

"It's hard to see each other, to touch," says Manuel Meza, an American citizen sharing lunch through the fence with his wife, who was deported back to Mexico and now drives three hours for visits at the fence. "It's strange, but our love is stronger than the fence."

But new border fencing that the Department of Homeland Security hopes will help curtail illegal crossings is going to slice through the park, limiting the visiting along the current fence. While more agents and fencing have pushed many illegal crossings to the deserts to the east and the Pacific to the west, people still climb over, tunnel under, or cut through the fence.

Impact of 9/11

Things were different when George W. Bush was elected President in 2000. Both Mexicans and Americans had high hopes for the situation along the border. Bush had been Governor of Texas, a border state with close ties to Mexico, and seemed to understand how tightly the people and the economy on both sides of the border were linked. In addition, Bush had long favored a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans to legally enter the U.S. to work.

But the post-9/11 emphasis on border security, along with concerns about the impact of immigration on the U.S. economy, complicated the situation. In 2007, Congress failed to pass an immigration bill that would have put many illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. Washington also increased border patrols, ordered tougher steps against employers who hire illegal workers, and authorized the construction of 700 miles of border fence (bringing the total to about 800 miles of the 2,000-mile border).

As a Senator from Illinois, President-elect Barack Obama voted for the border fence. During the campaign, he favored a path to citizenship that includes learning English and paying fines for entering the country illegally. (There are currently about 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.) Obama also supports granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a guest-worker program, and increased penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Representative Bob Filner of California has urged the Department of Homeland Security not to build the fence in Friendship Park. "It's harmful to the kind of family culture we have at the border," he says. But Border Patrol officials say the park has an underside. Smugglers pass drugs and other contraband through openings. People have even tried to pass babies through ragged metal slats that mark the border on the beach, says Michael J. Fisher, the chief patrol agent in San Diego. The agency now operates a checkpoint to screen people leaving the park.

A report released in October by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that fewer people are trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Experts say the loss of low-wage jobs as a result of the economic crisis, along with intensified enforcement at the border and in the workplace, has caused those considering an illegal border crossing to think twice before risking the journey.

But Fisher says illegal crossings have increased in the San Diego area, along with attacks on Border Patrol agents.

International Communion

On a recent Sunday, a steady stream of people came to Friendship Park to visit with friends and relatives. Jacqueline Huerta pressed her face against the fence on the Tijuana side to get her first look at her 4-month-old niece, Yisell. "Oh, how cute you are," she exclaimed, forcing her hand through an opening to caress the baby's hair.

Nearby, the Reverend John Fanestil offered his weekly communion, passing the wafer through a hole to a small gathering on the Mexican side.

Juventino Martin Gonzalez, 40, accepted the wafer. He was deported to Mexico in September after living and working in the U.S. for 20 years and fathering three children here. He came for a glimpse of the U.S. side he still considers home.

"It is hard because I was the one paying the rent," he said. "I belong over there, not here. But until then, this is the closest I can get—but it is not close enough for them."