TIJUANA, Mexico — In the northernmost corner of Mexico, where the United States’ southern border fence extends into the Pacific Ocean, dividing California from its truncated southern limb—the Baja California peninsula—binational seagulls dive for borderless fish.
Here, on either side of the rusty steel barrier that splits the beach between San Diego and Tijuana, separated families can meet along a swath of caged land called Friendship Park. They used to be able to embrace each other through the bars, but, in an effort to reinforce the fence further with steel mesh, that access has been progressively cut off.
The mesh serves no apparent purpose, other than to keep visitors from sticking their arms through the fence. But what once was a place that allowed hugging, is now a place for touching fingertips.
On Friday afternoon, I walked in the company of a vagrant rooster toward the border wall. There, a gaggle of tijuanenses, Central and South American migrants, deported veterans and immigrants, and a newly-arrived Haitian migrant had gathered to lock hands, forming a human barrier alongside the steel barricade. “The human wall” they called the demonstration.
Fear over recent deportation sweeps and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE—raids, in compliance with the executive order signed in Donald Trump’s first week as president, has begun to spread throughout the U.S. in recent days. At this southernmost point, which has long served as somewhat neutral ground, the hostility is already becoming apparent.
In late January, with the signing of that executive order, the third to which he put his pen, the gears of what Trump has called a “fine-tuned machine” began to turn in preparation for “the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”
The controversial immigration and border security order made sure to specify the word “wall,” redundantly defining it as “a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier.” (Not to mention contiguous and physical.)
Trump has made clear that when discussing “the wall” he is referring to a “hardened concrete, rebar, and steel” barrier, which would span the nearly 2,000-mile stretch of beach, mountains, desert, and rivers dividing the U.S. from its southern neighbor.
Despite the obvious logistical challenges such a construction would bring, Trump has made himself resoundingly clear. “It’s not a fence. It’s a wall,” Trump repeated, yet again, last month.
But it’s clear that the wall, inevitably, will be anything but that.
"I'm not calling it a wall because we are talking about a fence that we can look through. That's what we need,” one senior U.S. Border Patrol official told CNN on Thursday. "You never want to have a barrier in place that will obstruct your vision, that prevents you from seeing the other side of the border."
President Trump, however, insists “We’re going to build a wall”—adding that he would rather not wait to begin construction for “a year-and-a-half until we finish our negotiations with Mexico,” a country he has claimed ad nauseam eventually will pay for the wall. (It won’t.)
The executive order itself suggests that the administration will not have gathered the necessary input from the various involved agencies until late July, at which point the administration would be able to act in accordance with the intelligence gathered by those paid to know what they are talking about, and their specific agencies’ needs.
Despite no definitive construction date, along the southern border continual efforts are made to reinforce the existing structure—which is largely comprised of miles of rusty fencing and steel barriers, sandwiching swaths of unfenced land currently patrolled physically and virtually by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers.
“I was at Friendship Park last week,” Tijuana-based immigration attorney Nicole Ramos said on Friday. “The U.S. border patrol were there checking people’s paperwork to see if they were there legally. That has never happened before. The families were fearful, and were forced to turn back without meeting their loved ones.” Note that they may well have been in the U.S. legally, but under the current circumstances, fear takes precedence over the law.
“This is going to have a terrible impact. At this fence, this is some of the only face time that some people will have with their family members, some of whom travel from very far to visit this site,” Ramos noted.
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Walking westward, toward the ocean, a break in the reinforced mesh still leaves enough room to squeeze a few fingers through. If families walked out into the ocean, where steel bars rise up from the water, they could still embrace through the bars, waste-deep in the sea—tide permitting.
But about a mile up the road to the east, past this site where demonstrators on Friday held hands and handmade signs calling for the U.S. to “deport Trump from the White House,” the barrier continues as a solid fence resembling corrugated sheet metal.
It’s an eyesore, of course, but one deemed increasingly necessary by the powers that be.
This corroded construction winds roughly 20 miles eastward, snaking its way through hillsides toward an impoverished and marginalized neighborhood on the city’s edge, made largely of clapboard homes and recyclables—like the stacks of tires that serve as stairways from one unpaved street to the next.
But it somehow fits right in, and appears to belong. Many of the surrounding homes’ roofs seem to be cut from the same fabric: scraps of rusted sheet metal.
This neighborhood, Nido de las Aguilas—Spanish for “Eagle’s Nest”—is known as a den of crime, human trafficking, smuggling tunnels, and illicit trade. But apart from that and in spite of it, this neighborhood is much like any other border barrio. It is dusty and dirty, but full of hardworking people, many of whom are just doing what they can to scrape by.
The ferrous fence winds on for miles in shades of red, orange, and brown, with the occasional splash of colorful graffiti, or signs announcing the presence of “dangerous animals.”But then, abruptly, there, the wall just ends—its final panel landing just past one home’s backyard.A Doberman tied to a tree acts as the last guardian here on the Mexican side. But on the U.S. side the hills are teeming with border patrol agents in labelled vehicles. One such officer watched me from the top of the hill, as I roamed freely up from Tijuana into the United States and looked back at the chaotic city sprawl.
Within minutes an officer appeared beside me. “I’m a journalist, and came to take some pictures,” I explained, offering up my passport. But, politely, she declined to see it.
“That’s okay, as long you are going to stay in Mexico,” she said, wishing me a nice day as I backtracked down the hill and back across the border, convinced that this encounter would not have gone so smoothly were it not for my jumble of blonde hair and unavoidable SoCal inflections.
Past the Doberman, a few feet from the fence, a man stood building a cinder block wall. He had been watching me toe the line between the two countries for the past few minutes—curious, or perhaps incredulous.
“The fence, or wall, or whatever, doesn’t make any difference to me,” Javier said, cement dust on his jeans and boots. “If I really wanted to cross, I’d go under the border.”
“You’d have to be very pendejo to try to go over or around it,” he laughed. “I don’t want to cross now, but if I did I’d find a better way to do it.”
“Sometimes I think about trying to live in the U.S., but it isn’t this wall that keeps me in Mexico,” he explained. “It’s my family, and the fact that—thank God—I have found a job here and can make my life honestly.”
Tijuana, the capital of deportees in Mexico, receives roughly 40 percent of those ejected from the U.S, more than any other city in the country. Javier, like many Tijuana residents—as many as 70 percent in some local neighborhoods—is not from around here. He came from central Mexico, from the cartel-afflicted coastal state of Guerrero, which made international headlines in 2014 as the site of the disappearance and probable mass execution of 43 teaching students.
“Before this job, I thought about crossing every day,” he explained. “If it weren’t for this opportunity I would go north. But, right now, I’m not as desperate as I could be, like when I first got here.”
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As one travels east, away from the Pacific, away from Nido de las Aguilas, and toward the Gulf of California, clusters of shacks and brick homes dot the unfenced land, up the winding hillside. The contrast is striking: one side saturated with humble shelters, the other just rolling green hills.
Here, there is no “contiguous, physical” wall, yet an invisible line divides the two countries as starkly as any 22-billion-dollar rebar and concrete wall could.Here, faced with the challenge of carving roads out of the hills to allow for heavy machinery to build up fences and walls, the Department of Homeland Security had seemingly abandoned the thought of construction indefinitely, settling for the weight of sheer manpower and surveillance. But now, that’s all set to change.This mile-and-a-half long stretch over rough terrain is just the first of many expanses of unwalled border between the U.S. and Mexico, and would be among the first to see new border wall construction.
Here, the unfenced hill continues toward the next city over, Tecate—the birthplace of the eponymous corn-based beer that coddles America’s kids through college. Then, the fence begins again.
And then again, further east, in the border city of Ciudad Juarez—infamous for its unchecked murder rate and violence against women—this barrier continues onward.
Here, authorities have been gradually working to replace worn out fencing with upgraded metal barriers since well before President Trump took office. But, according to local media outlets, juarenses have already begun thwarting construction efforts, sneaking into construction zones to steal the heavy metal rods once the crews have gone home, to sell the steel by the kilo.
On Friday afternoon, the same scene that unfolded in Tijuana played out in Ciudad Juarez, as roughly 1,000 people—including hundreds of children—lined up alongside the border, holding hands to form a lengthy human chain, to protest the walls that they deem inhumane, and to show fraternity with the people of neighboring El Paso, Texas.
“The kids were so happy to participate, and were all super aware of what’s been happening,” said Rodrigo Cordera, a 31-year-old composer who travelled to Ciudad Juarez from Mexico City for the demonstration. “The protest was a symbolic gesture, of course. But anything I can do to participate in these events and to stand up against Trump, to show that we are united instead of projecting political division, I’ll do.”
According to Cordera, Trump is “reviving all of the bad sentiments that used to divide us, cancelling diplomatic meetings, damaging our economy, and stealing our jobs via Twitter.”
“Before this new chapter began, our nations were friends, but this crazy American fascist began this incredibly divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail, which painted Mexicans as drug addicts and rapists,” he said. “This made the wall, conceptually, obviously offensive.”
“As a sovereign nation, the U.S. has every right to enforce its laws, and deport anyone they want. What it does not have the right to do is to step on a country that is economically and militaristically inferior, to use it as a campaign platform,” Cordera said.
“It’s because of all the things he publicly said that we now have to stand up for ourselves, against him… The wall has become a symbol of animosity, needlessly.”
Past the site of Friday’s demonstration along the Rio Bravo in Ciudad Juarez, travelling from west to east, the fence continues. And this scene repeats itself over and over again. Here, some fence. There, some wall. Then nothing. Then something. Then sensors, drones, and CBP officers on horseback in the desert, where animals and the threat of dehydration support the DHS by acting as Darwinian deterrents to migration—picking off the weakest migrants or those who succumb to injury.
Then comes the serpentine winding and forking of the Rio Grande, which has been the legal marker of the southeastern border since the 1880s, and remains as fickle a delineation as could be.
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The river flows into the Gulf of Mexico, defining the border throughout, while serving as a reminder of more cooperative days between the two countries. This living border, though imperfect and complex, represents the ultimate in bilateral fairness and binational compromise.
It’s diplomatic, and tit for tat—it’s give a mile, take a mile. And the language of the 1970 treaty that negotiates and defines this border somehow manages to bring nostalgia for the Nixon era.
Importantly, the treaty establishes precedents for how the two countries should delineate and finance shared liquid borders. “The means of physically marking the maritime boundaries and the division of work for construction and maintenance of the markers”— “the cost of which shall be equally divided” by both countries—will be determined when “the two Governments” are in full agreement, pending approval from the International Boundary and Water Commission.
The fluid nature of a shifting border along the Rio Grande and Colorado River is delineated by treaty, establishing that barriers cannot be constructed to impede the river’s natural flow, and that the international boundary “shall run along the middle of the channel occupied by normal flow and, where either of the rivers has two or more channels, along the middle of the channel which in normal flows has the greater or greatest average width over its length.”
So, basically, if the river forks, the widest fork becomes the border. The sovereignty of land cut off by shifting waters is then determined by which side it is now on.
By today’s standards, it is fair in tone, and sensible in nature. And it serves as a roadmap for compromise and consensus.
When the author Norman Maclean wrote poetically, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,” he could very well have been speaking of the border dividing these two countries, and the billions of dollars in trans-border trade that codependently binds the U.S. and Mexico.
Yet this administration has been wrapped up arguing semantics and reestablishing the definition of “wall,” with apparent disregard for the evolving geographical makeup of this roughly 2,000 mile stretch, and the ingenious resilience of transnational criminal enterprises, and people desperate enough to try anything to change their circumstances. The debate has become a distraction from the issues at hand.
Like a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery, the wall demanded in Trump’s executive order on border security does little or nothing to address the currencies fueling the cross-border violence—drugs, money, guns.
Nor does it acknowledge the underlying issues that threaten security on both sides of the border—like the lack of economic opportunity and the bloodshed that exacerbates the need for migration, the roughly $100 billion demand for illegal street drugs in U.S. streets, and the thousands of lives lost each year as cartels battle over the supply chain.
In the U.S., street gangs serve as the brokers of the Mexican drug war. And in Mexico, organized networks fulfill their deadly task, serving as a gruesome sort of postal service.
But, a wall is unlikely to kill that economy. There is too much money and too much creative criminality involved.
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Back in Tijuana, 43-year-old Manuel polished off a liter of dirt-cheap mezcal on Friday, watching the demonstrators from a distance as they locked arms to form a human chain along the fence. He sat rolling and unrolling a Mexican flag he’d been handed, but was uninterested in the demonstrators.
Manuel had more pressing distractions. He sleeps wherever he can now, he said, since his 2008 arrest at the border, which sent him to prison in Arizona for five years, before he was finally deported. He shouldn’t have tried to smuggle cocaine, he said, “that was a mistake.”He hasn’t seen his kids or wife since before the arrest, and could not recall exactly how old his youngest is. He is an addict now, quite obviously, but insisted that he didn’t used to be. About four months ago, while lying on the beach, he decided on a whim to jump the wall in broad daylight. “It was easy. I ran and hid behind a bush, but they caught me en chinga,” he said, snapping his fingers—“real fucking fast.”“I spent a few days in detention and then ended up all the way in Sonora,” Manuel said.“That little joke cost me a couple of weeks,” he laughed. “But that’s okay. I wasn’t busy.”