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BORDER UPDATES - The Evolving Fence at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The Evolving Fence at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The line between two countries is hard enough to see on land, but throw in a sandy beach and the crashing waves of an ocean and the jurisdictional boundary is almost impossible to define. For most countries, this ambiguity isn't a huge problem. But in Imperial Beach, California, and neighboring Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, exactly where the line lies – on land and sea – has grown into a national priority, at least on one side of the border.

It almost seems quaint that 40 years ago, First Lady Pat Nixon stood along this border with the waves of the Pacific surging in the distance, and called for what was then a meek barbed-wire fence between the two countries to be cut down. There, at the dedication for what's known as Border Field State Park, Nixon reached over the fence to shake some hands and began a push for a new part of the park to include an area where people from both sides of the line could come and, through a slightly more secured fence, visit each other practically face to face. Through gaps in the fence, cross-country residents could literally reach out and touch.

"Things have changed over time," says Border Patrol Agent Michael Jimenez, putting it mildly.

Twenty years after that park was dedicated, the American government began to build a physically secured separation between the two towns. The rudimentary barbed-wire fence was replaced with corrugated steel walls rising eight to 10 feet from the ground and running along the borderline right into the ocean. And now, 40 years after Pat Nixon's cordial visit, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is busy building an 18-foot tall barrier of steel posts along the border, stretching 300 feet out into the ocean.

The department recently hired a contractor to drive six-inch diameter, concrete-filled, rust-resistant steel poles down into the ground, four inches apart. This new style of fencing will be implemented in a 1,300-foot stretch on the 60-mile section of border controlled by the San Diego sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The old corrugated fencing will be replaced with this bollard-style barrier, according to Jimenez. The work on this relatively small stretch should be done by March.

Jimenez says the new fence is designed to last 30 years, longer than the previous fence, which had been corroded and eaten through by the forces of the ocean. Its 300-foot length had been chewed away significantly, making it easier for people to wade around at low tide. Jimenez says the replacement fencing will be far enough out into the ocean that it should dissuade people from trying to make a dangerous attempt at crossing over the border. "Even if they were a strong swimmer, they'd still be risking their lives," Jimenez says.

But at a cost of $4.3 million, the fence replacement – and the entire 700-mile fencing project along much of the U.S.-Mexico border – is seen by some as wasteful. Especially the ocean fence.

"It's one of the most expensive projects there. During the last five years that section of the fence has been completely destroyed by the forces of nature," says Oscar Romo, Watershed Coordinator at the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Romo's also worried about the fencing farther inland, where the corrugated steel wall makes up much of the securitized border. He argues that this area has a rich biodiversity that doesn't much care what country it's in, and that the wall disrupts migration patterns and the habitat of animals like lizards and snakes.

"Some species are trapped on one side or the other," Romo says. "The U.S. government should at least have some method to preserve those resources."

Jimenez says that the new style of fencing, with its four-inch gaps between bollards, will allow some of those small animals to freely roam. But there are costs to replacing the steel wall – surplus Vietnam War-era landing mats obtained and installed cheaply. Jimenez says the old wall will be replaced gradually, mainly for safety and tactical reasons. The four-inch gaps are much easier to see through than solid steel, Jimenez says.

Whatever happens, it's likely that the border fence will be a feature of the landscape for the foreseeable future. The passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 cemented the fence as a key element in the government's efforts to stem illegal immigration and smuggling of drugs and weapons. But like the salty water of the Pacific Ocean eating away at the old fence and eventually the new onw, concerns over the fence's impacts – environmental, political, social, economic – may also gradually eat away at the justifications behind these structures.

Photo credit: Jorge Duenes / Reuters

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