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Part 4
At the Border

What is the answer to the nation’s $5.7 billion border question? It's complicated.

  • 7 min to read
What is the answer to the nation’s $5.7 billion border question? It's complicated.

ON THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER — U.S. Sen. Tim Scott is walking along one of the oldest stretches of The Wall, outlining his answer to the nation’s $5.7 billion question:

What should replace it?

Here, on a Border Patrol dirt access road in no man’s land, the suburbs of Tijuana are almost close enough to touch. And The Wall that separates one of Mexico’s most populous cities from U.S. soil is old corrugated steel Vietnam-era helicopter landing mats barely 10 feet high.

The senator has come to see The Wall in person, to tour it with Border Patrol agents, because this has become one of the most divisive issues in the nation — and he wanted to make sure he understood it. After a day with Border Patrol, his perspective has not changed so much as it was sharpened.

Scott says the key to this debate lies in the $2 billion dedicated to technology in the president’s $5.7 billion security budget. What the Border Patrol needs, Scott says, is an array of high-tech sensors and surveillance equipment that will supplement the physical barriers of the border wall system.

“It’s the technology that’s built in, above, around and through the walls that has been an important part of the (debate),” Scott says.

That, he says, is the difference between “smart walls” and “dumb walls.”

And he’s looking at a decidedly dumb wall. The landing mats were stood up with the corrugated ridges running horizontal, which basically means The Wall here has a built-in ladder.

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Senator Tim Scott tours the border wall with Border Patrol agents and San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Less than a mile from Scott, workers are constructing the modern version of The Wall — an 18-foot fence made of steel bollards with concertina wire and no-climb plates. It is an improvement, to be sure.

But Scott is right — alone, it’s not enough.

The debate over The Wall has been understandably complicated by concerns over U.S. immigration policy, but it has also become a partisan sideshow in which many people ignore reality and common sense.

Despite what many Republicans say, disagreeing with President Donald Trump’s plan doesn’t mean that Democrats want open borders. And no matter how much some Democrats deny it, drugs and illegal immigrants regularly cross the border from California and Texas.

Folks who live and work on the border will tell you that a continuous, solid wall along the border, akin to the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China, isn’t feasible.

And it wouldn’t work anyway.


A few day before Scott’s visit, someone cut the chain-link fence attached to The Wall on the beach at Playas de Tijuana.

Taking advantage of a spot where Pacific saltwater corroded the bollards, more than 50 men, women and children squeezed through the fence and took off running across a California beach in broad daylight.

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A man in Tijuana watches closely as construction workers repair fencing along the border wall in San Diego on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A Border Patrol agent on the scene called for back-up, and all those people were arrested in short order. Officials say most were from Central America, and all immediately asked for asylum.

By the weekend, the fencing supplementing that portion of The Wall was replaced by metal grating that cannot be cut so easily.

It is patchwork that resembles the secondary wall outside downtown Tijuana, which shows a checkerboard of repairs from past breaches.

A "smart wall," as Scott suggests, would have sensors embedded inside it to alert Border Patrol when someone was cutting it, or even using a car jack to pry apart the bollards.

A smart wall would have sensors that could detect tunnels beneath it, or anyone climbing on it. And for backup, surveillance cameras, along with live agents on the scene and possibly even drones, would monitor the border.

Right now, the Border Patrol depends on the National Guards to help monitor the cameras they have trained on The Wall. Going forward, they need more people.

Border Patrol agents call this plan the “border wall system,” and that is accurate terminology. It’s a savvy, common-sense approach. It will take a system of different technologies and approaches to secure the border because there is no silver bullet.

Not even The Wall.

“We are under no illusion that a border wall system is going to stop all illegal immigration along the southern border,” says David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the El Centro sector. “But it will definitely help.”

In October, 2 miles of The Wall in Calexico were upgraded — Vietnam-era landing mats were replaced with 30-foot steel fencing. It is the highest part of the border wall system, and it cost $1.8 million. That’s infinitely cheaper than a concrete wall, and safer for agents because they can see what’s happening on the other side.

Kim says U.S. Customs and Border Protection understands that cost is a factor in this equation, not just in money but also in the toll any structure could have on the environment. That is just one of many considerations.

Even fences have an impact on the environment. More than 300 miles east of Calexico, in a remote area of the desert near Sasabe, Ariz., the ground on the Mexico side of The Wall is a foot higher as a result of flash floods that push sediment and trash downhill toward the border. U.S. soil is eroding away, destabilizing The Wall and changing the topography of the Sonoran Desert.

In some places along the border, the natural environment makes it impossible to build a fence, much less The Wall. The Cuyamaca and Laguna mountains west of Calexico are essentially steep, mile-high mounds of rock, places where construction crews could not reach. That terrain wouldn’t support the service roads Border Patrol need to access The Wall.

Now, if agents want to patrol those rocky areas, they have to hike in on foot. It’s dangerous, there is little communication possible and little upside. Most people couldn’t traverse the mountains to make it into the country anyway.

The Wall runs nearly 50 yards into the Pacific, which is not so far that people couldn’t simply swim around it. People in Tijuana vaguely explain there aren’t more illegal crossings at the beach because of hypothermia.

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A borough of the Mexican city of Tijuana is seen across the border wall from Border Field State Park on Monday, March 18, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The Pacific is typically much colder than the Atlantic at this latitude, but the real reason more don’t try is probably the Border Patrol agents permanently parked on the U.S. beach.

In other places, eminent domain laws and politics also stand in the way of The Wall. Plans to extend The Wall across the Texas border have been met with resistance from land owners along the Rio Grande who don’t want to give up their property and don’t want their access to the river impeded.

Finally, there is the question of whether The Wall is needed everywhere. In much of New Mexico, California’s Yuha Desert and Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, there is currently nothing standing between Mexico and the United States except waist-high “Normandy barriers” — interlocking metal crossbars, which look like an X.

Those barriers are designed to stop vehicles, not people. A fence or wall could be built in those areas, most of which are owned by the government. But Border Patrol appears to have the deserts under control.

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A vehicle barrier crosses through the Yuha Desert at the U.S.-Mexico border in California on Wednesday, March 20, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

In 2002, a ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was shot and killed while chasing drug runners in the park. After that, the national monument was closed to the public for 11 years, ostensibly because it was dangerous. But now, park officials say the vehicle barriers, pedestrian fences and surveillance towers have made it safe for hikers, campers and tourists.

That combination of overlapping technology, electronic surveillance and human patrol is much smarter than a simple 20-foot concrete wall.

Which is powerless against a 21-foot ladder.


Of course, The Wall only treats the symptoms of the United States’ larger border issue. Many people say the nation’s broken immigration system must be fixed before it’s possible to secure the border.

Nogales, Ariz., Mayor Arturo Garino says no barrier will stop people, which is evident from the scores who continue to cross the border illegally every day.

“From the looks of it, the wall doesn’t work,” Garino says.

The way to deter illegal immigration, some suggest, is to look inside our own borders. That means targeting businesses who hire people that are in the country illegally. Despite claiming the country is full, Trump has almost doubled the number of guest worker visas the U.S. will issue this summer.

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Concertina wire covers the border fence dividing Nogales, Ariz., from Nogales, Mexico, on Thursday, March 21, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Administration officials say that’s necessary to fill jobs because of the low unemployment rate. And there already has been some crackdown on companies that hire illegal immigrants — including the president’s own resorts. But not everyone believes it is enough.

“Look at employers,” says Philip Skinner, the former mayor of Columbus, N.M. “They come here for jobs. If there aren’t any, they won’t come.”

That’s right, to a point. Many people sneak into the United States solely for the work. But these days, more are fleeing violence in Central America. The question is, does the country grant those families asylum or intervene in international politics to make those countries safer?

Some people favor a points system to rank people seeking asylum, a system used in other countries. Others argue immigration should be skills-based, that the United States should only accept people who are suited to do jobs for which there is the greatest need.

Scott says these immigration questions are complicated, and he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but that doesn’t minimize the need for The Wall.

“For me, being in a position to come to The Wall answers a host of questions,” Scott says. “I walk away far more impressed with a) my commitment to continue to provide the resources necessary to make sure that our country is safe, and b) to continue to work on a very complex and complicated issue of immigration in a way that continues to make America the most compassionate country on Earth.”

A reasonable debate on immigration has proven impossible in recent years, so the answers remain elusive. But Scott is correct; there must be a balance between security and compassion.

That balance is on display along the border from California to Texas every day. On one side of The Wall, thousands of people wait for the United States to grant them asylum; on the other, people question what form the U.S.-Mexico border should take: A fence, a high-tech security system manned by thousands of Border Patrol agents or ... The Wall.

As the debate lingers, life continues as it always has along the border — two countries mingling in a way that would seem foreign to most people. And they will do what they've always done.

They'll wait.

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People in Tijuana watch closely as construction workers repair fencing along the border wall in San Diego on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Read the rest of the series:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

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