New wall at US, Mexico border travels tricky course near homes

Updated February 9, 2019 - 10:59 pm

ALONG THE SAN DIEGO-TIJUANA BORDER — For all practical purposes, the purple-and-white stucco shrine that Jose Arias built to celebrate his recovery from a heart attack and honor his family lies in Mexico.

The only way in and out of his plywood shack is through one of Tijuana’s oldest neighborhoods, a patchwork of dirt and paved roads where dogs roam freely and the sounds of roosters and power tools fill the morning air. The shrine’s backside once rested against a wall separating the U.S. and Mexico, blocking passage to San Diego.

But, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, Arias’ structure encroaches on U.S. soil, posing a dilemma for the Trump administration as it pursued a $147 million replacement of 14 miles of barrier stretching east from the Pacific Ocean: Should the shrine be saved or destroyed?

The U.S. faces a similarly delicate dance as it charts a course to extend or replace barriers that blanket nearly one-third of the border. The path of the San Diego replacement cuts through a gated Tijuana subdivision of luxury homes with pink stripes on Spanish tile roofs to mark the official border. It collided with old trees that sprout on the Mexican side.

The Rio Grande marks the border between Texas and Mexico, ensuring that any land barrier on the U.S. side creates space between the wall and demarcation line established in bilateral treaties. One treaty limits construction on the Rio Grande flood plain, trapping homes in a no man’s land between a wall built in the 2000s and the river.

Sometimes, soil and rugged terrain prohibit walls right on the border. In other areas, the Border Patrol wants space to access the Mexico-facing side for maintenance and repairs.

Home at the border

Rodney Scott, the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector chief, initially thought the shrine was doomed but he sympathized with Arias as he learned more about it and a nearby shack belonging to Arias’ daughter.

“They’re doing the best that they can with what they have,” he said. “There was no malice, there’s no intent. There was really no reason that they would understand that they couldn’t build right up to the border.”

Arias moved to Tijuana in 1957 from central Mexico and settled in Colonia Libertad, a neighborhood where residents crossed — unimpeded and illegally — to work or play soccer and baseball in San Diego. “It was a free pass,” Arias said.

He and his wife raised 14 children at the home they bought in 1978; he turned its dirt floors to wood and added a second level. In the 1980s, illegal crossings were so rampant that street vendors set up outside his house to sell clothing, shoes and other goods, as well as chicken mole, Mexican stews and tequila. Arias even opened a slow-cooked pork taco stand.

Illegal crossings slowed after an amnesty granted during the Reagan administration, and Arias returned to full-time construction work.

Scott, who grew up in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, where his father commuted to work at a Mexican factory, became a Border Patrol agent in 1992 and was assigned to a station a few miles from Arias’ home. Thousands would gather on U.S. soil on a nearby soccer field and run past agents when night fell. Other large groups rushed inspection booths at a nearby border crossing.

Scott estimates that nine of 10 crossers eluded capture.

“We were arresting thousands of people in an eight-hour shift routinely and watching thousands more get away,” he said.

Border wall’s history

The first stretch of border wall was built in San Diego in the early 1990s, made of corrugated steel matting used by the military as temporary runways. In 1994, the Border Patrol cracked down with more agents and orders not to cede an inch of ground to anyone crossing illegally. In the mid-2000s, a steel-mesh fence formed a second barrier, much of it topped with coiled razor wire.

Border Patrol arrests in San Diego plummeted 96 percent from nearly 630,000 in 1986 to barely 26,000 in 2017. A factory outlet mall with upscale brands opened on the border, near new homes that sell for more than $500,000. An area called “Smuggler’s Gulch” became nearly impenetrable.

Scott described San Diego’s transformation to President Donald Trump on live television when he toured border wall prototypes in March. Trump repeatedly touts San Diego as evidence that walls work, most recently in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

The crackdown pushed illegal crossings to less-patrolled and more remote Arizona deserts, where thousands have died in the heat. Border Patrol arrests in Tucson in 2000 nearly matched San Diego’s peak. Critics say Trump’s argument is undermined by the fact that building a wall in one spot will mean that migrants will find an opening elsewhere.

Scott said the Border Patrol had to start somewhere, and San Diego was the busiest corridor for illegal crossings by far in the early 1990s.

“It wasn’t, ‘Do it in San Diego and stop.’ It was, ‘Let’s prove what works and then let’s copy it on the southwest border so we can improve security for the whole United States,’ ” Scott said.

Trump inherited 654 miles of barriers, mostly built from 2006 to 2009, and has awarded $1 billion in contracts, almost all of it to replace existing wall. Work on his first addition starts this month — 14 miles in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. He wants another $5.7 billion for more than 200 miles, but Democratic leaders in Congress have offered nothing, an impasse that led to a five-week partial government shutdown.

Replacement coming

A contract awarded in December will replace San Diego’s steel-mesh barrier, which worked like a fortress a decade ago but is regularly breached with powerful battery-operated saws only recently made available in home improvement stores.

The Border Patrol is almost finished replacing the first layer with steel bollards up to 30 feet high. Agents couldn’t see through the old fence, which was only about 10 feet high. A Mexican highway rose above the fence at one point and cars that ran off the road occasionally tumbled over it into the United States.

The U.S. State Department and U.S. delegation to the International Boundary and Water Commission are working with Mexico on one of the few unfinished areas — the luxury homes and a tennis court that poke into the U.S., Scott said. From a distance, they look like guest quarters.

The U.S. government, coordinating with Mexico, removed some trees in Tijuana because trenches for the new barrier might sever their roots, causing them to die and possibly fall, Scott said.

Respecting the shrine

Arias built his shrine about 15 years ago to celebrate his health and, later, to honor his wife and son, both deceased. Behind a locked glass case, there are family photos, a framed portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a ceramic angel, artificial flowers and a beer can and a bottle.

The Border Patrol decided the shrine could stay, although it needed a different base to avoid falling into new trenches. Officials say the shrine extends up to one foot into the U.S.

“A lot of times border security is seen as adversarial and it’s really not,” Scott said after chatting with Arias’ daughter through the new bollards. “Compassion and law and order can go together, and I think they do go together.”

Arias, now 84 with a shock of white hair, questions the wisdom of spending money on a barrier instead of schools and health care but acknowledges the U.S. has a sovereign right. He considers the wall neither a plus nor a minus for his own home.

“Why do you build a fence around your house?” he said. “To protect it. The (U.S.) government is building a wall to protect their country.”

Arias and his daughters are deeply grateful to the Border Patrol.

“They respected my shrine,” Arias said.

News
Nature Conservancy Ranch
The Nature Conservancy just bought the 900-acre 7J Ranch at the headwaters of the Amargosa River, north of Beatty. The property could become a research station, though ranching will continue.
Swift water rescue at Durango Wash in Las Vegas
On Thursday, February 14, 2019, at approximately 8:42 a.m., the Clark County Fire Department responded to a report of a swift water incident where people were trapped in the Durango wash which is located near 8771 Halcon Ave. Personnel found one person who was trapped in the flood channel. The individual was transported to the hospital in stable condition. Video by Clark County Fire & Rescue.
Flooding at E Cheyenne in N. Las Vegas Blvd.
Quick Weather Around the Strip
Rain hits Las Vegas, but that doesn't stop people from heading out to the Strip. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Aaron Semas, professional bull rider, talks about his traumatic brain injuries
Aaron Semas, professional bull rider, talks about his traumatic brain injuries. The Cleveland Clinic will begin researching the brains of retired bull riders to understand the impact traumatic brain injuries have on cognition. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Matt Stutzman shoots arrows with his feet
Matt Stutzman who was born without arms shoots arrows with his feet and hits the bullseye with remarkable accuracy. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Secretary of Air Force Emphasizes the Importance of Nellis AFB
US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson visited Nellis Air Force Base during Red Flag training and described how important the base is to the military.
Former Northwest Academy student speaks out
Tanner Reynolds, 13, with his mother Angela McDonald, speaks out on his experience as a former student of Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley, which includes abuse by staff member Caleb Michael Hill. Hill, 29, was arrested Jan. 29 by the Nye County Sheriff’s Office on suspicion of child abuse.
Former Northwest Academy students speak out
Tristan Groom, 15, and his brother Jade Gaastra, 23, speak out on their experiences as former students of Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley, which includes abuse by staff and excessive medication.
Disruption At Metro PD OIS Presser
A man claiming to be part of the press refused to leave a press conference at Metro police headquarters, Wednesday January 30, 2019. Officers were forced to physically remove the man. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Clients at Las Vegas’ Homeless Courtyard talk about their experience
Clients at Las Vegas’ Homeless Courtyard talk about their experience after the city began operating around the clock. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Las Vegas parts ways with operator of homeless courtyard
Jocelyn Bluitt-Fisher discusses the transition between operators of the homeless courtyard in Las Vegas, Thursday Jan. 24, 2019.(Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police and Raiders partner with SafeNest
Las Vegas police and the Raiders partner with SafeNest on Project Safe 417 (the police code for domestic violence is 417). The program partners trained SafeNest volunteer advocates with Metropolitan Police Department officers dispatched to domestic violence calls, allowing advocates to provide immediate crisis advocacy to victims at the scene of those calls. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
North Las Vegas police chief discusses officer-involved shooting
North Las Vegas police chief Pamela Ojeda held a press conference Thursday, Jan. 24, regarding an officer-involved shooting that took place on Jan. 21. The incident resulted in the killing of suspect Horacio Ruiz-Rodriguez. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Volunteers gather for annual Clark County homeless count
Volunteers gather for the annual Southern Nevada Homeless Census, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Who can understand hospital price lists?
Lists of costs for procedures, drugs and devices are now posted the websites of hospitals to comply with a new federal rule designed to provide additional consumer transparency. Good luck figuring out what they mean.
People in Mesquite deal with a massive power outage
People in Mesquite respond to a major power outage in the area on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Group helping stranded motorists during power outage
A group of Good Samaritans are offering free gas to people in need at the Glendale AM/PM, during a massive power outage near Mesquite on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen falls at Las Vegas parade
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada fell and injured her wrist at the Martin Luther King Day parade in Las Vegas on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Local astronomers host super blood wolf moon viewing
The Las Vegas Astronomical Society paired with the College of Southern Nevada to host a lunar eclipse viewing Sunday night. Known as the super blood wolf moon, the astronomical event won't occur for another 18 years. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Tate Elementary shows academic progress after categorical funding
Students at Tate Elementary in Las Vegas has benefited from a program to boost education funding in targeted student populations, known as categorical funding. One program called Zoom helps students who have fallen below grade level in reading. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
The third annual Women’s March in Las Vegas
The third annual Women’s March in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @btesfaye
First former felon to work for Nevada Department of Corrections
After his father died, Michael Russell struggled for years with drug addiction. When he finally decided to change for good, he got sober and worked for years to help others. Now he is the first former felon to be hired by the Nevada Department of Corrections. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Three Square helps TSA workers
Three Square Food Bank donated over 400 care bags to TSA workers affected by the government shutdown Wednesday, filled with food, personal hygiene products and water.
Las Vegas furniture store donates to Clark County firehouses
Walker Furniture donated new mattresses to all 30 Clark County firehouses in the Las Vegas Valley, starting today with Station 22. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mount Charleston Gets Heavy Snow, Fog
Mount Charleston saw heavy snow today, and fog in lower elevations as a cold front swept across the Las Vegas Valley. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Krystal Whipple arrested in Arizona
Krystal Whipple, charged in the killing of a Las Vegas nail salon manager over a $35 manicure, is expected to return to Nevada to face a murder charge.
Holocaust survivor on acceptance
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, talks about the most important message for people to understand from her life and experiences.
Holocaust survivor speaks about telling her story
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, tells of opening up about her experiences during Sunday’s event at Temple Sinai.
Jesus Jara State of the Schools address
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara delivers his State of the Schools address on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
ad-high_impact_4
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing