The Fence and the Mexico-U.S. Border

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

The last three miles of the California Coastal Trail south from the town of Imperial Beach follow the beach adjacent to the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (TRNERR). You can’t miss the end of the journey at Border Field State Park. A huge fence made out of foot-thick pipes descends from the bluff into the surf, marking the border between Mexico and the United States of America. It denotes an abrupt and unsightly end to a remarkable trail tracing one of the world’s great coastlines. Across the border the decrepit buildings of the city of Tijuana fill the landscape. The “Bullring by the Sea” sits just beyond the fence on the coastal bluffs.

 The fence defines more than a line on a map or different set of cultural values. For one, it symbolizes official U.S. policy towards a friendly neighbor, a policy meant to stop illegal immigration by Mexicans seeking employment in the robust American economy. Plans by the U.S Border Patrol to strengthen the fence not only represent the rising zeal to keep out Mexican citizens, but also signal an uncaring attitude towards the sensitive marsh lands and hills inland from the sea along the border.

For many years the border area suffered from a host of problems. Massive illegal immigration created equally huge enforcement problems for the Border Patrol. At the same time, the extensive wetlands along the Tijuana border and the watershed of the Tijuana River suffered severe pollution and erosion problems. The proposed solution to immigration threatens to unravel years of efforts to clean up the watershed while heightening bi-national tensions. Congress authorized the Border Patrol to build a second and bigger fence and even a third one. The new 15-foot high fence plan, to run 14 miles east from the ocean to the Otay Mesa, includes an all weather road between the fences with sensing devices and lighting. The project threatens newly acquired and existing parkland. Cut and fill of the hills and gullies would create serious erosion problems for the estuary and destroy sensitive habitat. Equally alarming, the law allows for the waiver of any environmental review. 

This mammoth project comes in spite of recent doubling of border patrol agents and a sharply declining arrest of immigrants in the zone. Now much immigration occurs inland through Cleveland National Forest. The immigrants create new trails and campsites, and they are jeopardized by rough terrain and cold weather.

None of this sits well with organizations concerned with the health of the TRNERR or with relations with our Mexican neighbors. For sixteen years the Tijuana River Management Agency, made up of ten agencies and organizations from both sides of the border, has spent around $15 million to restore the natural resources and improve access to parklands.

The summer of 1998 saw no engineering plans nor any environmental documents submitted to state or local agencies even though 3½ miles of the eastern portion have already been built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. This in spite of the fact that much of the fence project lies on land designated within the city of San Diego’s Multiple Species Conservation Program, TRNERR, and Border Field State Park. The coastal segment of the project comes under the jurisdiction of the Coastal Management Act as managed by the California Coastal Commission. Mexican agencies involved in environmental cleanup and conservation received no notice of the project. Many groups have awakened to the threat to this sensitive landscape and now demand that environmental assessments be made and that other less severe and more humane solutions be found to the problem of immigration.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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