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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tijuana Here I Come
By Chip Faulkner

Chip Faulkner's Border Report Commentary

I wanted to see some exotic scenery and examine drug smuggling routes at the same time. To accomplish this, I took the California/Mexico border tour sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies the first week in March. There were 14 of us, including four staff members from the Center, which is based in DC. Part of the tour included two days in Tijuana, which caused some apprehension in the minds of a few on the tour. Of course it didn’t help when the Center emailed everyone a copy of the U.S. Department of State “Mexico Travel Warning” which casually mentioned that “Mexico suffered an estimated 105, 682 kidnappings in 2012” plus stating that the number of U.S. citizens murdered in Mexico was 81 in 2012. But never fear, 14 of us went into Tijuana and 14 came out.


This was not my first border tour with the Center. In February of 2012, I did a similar trip along most of the Arizona/Mexico border and the following year an excursion along a good chunk of the southwest Texas/Mexico border down to Brownsville at the southern tip. I found myself constantly making comparisons about the areas and people we met during the three tours. For example the length of the border with Mexico varied widely among the three: Texas at 1240 miles, Arizona was 372 miles and California at 140.

Starting off the tour in San Diego, we learned that the city had a 15 mile border with Tijuana and two major border crossings. Almost 300,000 people crossed over each day; supposedly this is the busiest border crossing in the world. Many days a person who works in Mexico, but lives in the USA, faces a 2-3 hour wait at a crossing to get back home after work! One major issue San Diego has with Mexico is over the Tijuana River which flows for about 120 miles then empties into the Pacific. It’s one of the most polluted rivers in the world with raw sewage emptied into it all along its length.

Unfortunately the last five miles of this waterway flows through California where it empties into the Pacific Ocean at the southern end of Imperial Beach. The United States has built a sewage treatment plant, which helps somewhat, but efforts to make Mexico build a similar facility have failed.


As for drug smuggling tunnels, one discovered a few years ago was so big a person six feet tall could walk through it! The smuggling tunnels that exit in San Diego many times are inside warehouses. The cartel rents space in a San Diego warehouse near the border then tunnels from Mexico into a room they’ve rented from the warehouse owner. Since many sections are partitioned off from the others in the bigger warehouses, hundreds of people could be working in this facility and have no inkling of illegal activities!

A visit was paid to infamous Smugglers’ Gulch, which now features a lengthy border fence. Officials at the site told us, at times in the past, as many as a thousand illegals a day streamed over the border in this area. The fences there now consist of vertical iron rods/bars 15-18 feet high a few inches apart that go on for miles. A few, like the fence directly across from a notoriously crime ridden section of Tijuana, has razor wire on top. Border agents said the fences stop most of the illegal crossings, but there’s always some who can find ways over the top, as a pile of confiscated hook ladders near the fence attest. More than one enforcement officer (on all three of my border tours) has told me that nobody can accurately state how many illegals successfully cross over – either daily or yearly.


The comment reminded me of my Texas border tour when I was on the banks of a relatively narrow, shallow Rio Grande River where you could see hundreds of feet down each bank with no barriers whatsoever. How many slipped across easily at night? Guesswork at best; anyone who says they have precise figures is blowing smoke. The one thing they do know is that the crossings have decreased substantially over the last 2-3 years. Said one person I conversed with: “Illegals are still coming across, there are just less of them.” Three factors explain the decrease: The infrastructure has improved to stop movement namely the fences), there’s been increased use of camera/watch towers, helicopters, etc. and a hike in the number of border patrol personnel. For example, one sector we visited near the Arizona border had 1200 border patrol agents compared to 300 a decade ago.


The two-day trip to Tijuana was eye opening. Here you have a third world city of 1.3 million people bordering a US city with 1.4 million, the biggest disparity of wealth of any two cities side by side in the world. We felt no danger traveling around and in fact ended up in the beach resort of Rosarito about ten miles south of Tijuana. Some Californians call the area the Baja Malibu. Many Americans own beach homes here. The Tijuana Marriott (sounds like an oxymoron) was our home for one night on the trip. It was a carbon copy of an American Marriott with excellent service.

We made a 30 mile drive east to Tecate. This trip through the mountains offered some views of a pretty barren landscape. Border fences went up and down these small mountains continuously; it was like looking at the fence version of the Great Wall of China. A tour was taken of the Tecate Brewery and, of course, everyone  ended up drinking a sample of their product.


While in Tijuana, a visit was paid to La Casa del Migrante, which is one of the charities in Mexico providing shelter and orientation to those caught at the border and deported back into Mexico. The shelter is run by a Scalabrini priest, Fr. Patrick Murphy, who grew up in New York. Father said his last mission post before Tijuana was in Kansas City. One day he received a call from a Superior that he was being transferred to sunny Tijuana, leaving the mid-West, which was then in the grip of a brutal cold wave. “God works in strange ways,” said a smiling Fr. Murphy. The shelter accommodates up to 140 males at any one time. Another shelter, on the same street, takes in women.

Most of the money to run the shelter comes from donations of all kinds. The day we were there, a huge shipment of donated onions was being processed in the kitchen. Anyone admitted to La Casa was there, on average, about two weeks. During that time they’re offered all sorts of counseling on occupations, personal problems, future prospects, etc. I asked Fr. Murphy if any of the deportees still insisted on making another try across the border. “At first, almost all of them do. But after some counseling, most of them realize it’s more practical to return to their homes.”

Near the end of the tour, a visit was paid to El Centro, California in the heart of Imperial Valley. This enormous farming area was made famous by the labor struggles of Cesar Chavez. However if it weren’t for the All American Canal connected to the Colorado River, this area would be a wasteland.

Chip Faulkner

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