Julien Pearce is a French journalist studying for his master’s degree at the Institut Français de Presse in Paris. He is doing a summer internship at KPBS.
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As of January 22, 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had completed roughly 643 miles of fencing (344 miles of primary pedestrian fence and 298 miles of vehicle fence) along the Southwest border. This is the most modern version of the fence in southern San Diego.
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In 2005, Congress approved the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence for an initial cost of $2 billion. Tijuana can be seen on the right just beyond the fence.
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This year, the U.S. will spend $3.6 billion patrolling the country’s borders - almost triple the amount spent 10 years ago.
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U.S. Border Patrol agents have seen a decrease in illegal crossing attempts in the past two years. This agent believes the decrease stems from the economic recession.
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Jose, 45, is an illegal worker coming from Puebla, Mexico. He first crossed the border three years ago but now plans to return home because of the economy.
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Agriculture and tourism are the main jobs that employ unauthorized workers in California.
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Andrés is one of the three million illegal immigrants who live in California. He first crossed the border in 1999 and used to be a coyote, human trafficker, for years. Now he works as a day laborer.
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On the Mexican side of the fence, crosses represent the migrants who died during crossing attempts. Some crosses bear names, ages and hometowns of the migrants, while some are unidentified. The Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists 2,554 Mexican migrants who have died during their attempts since 2004.
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Enrique Morones, founder of the Border Angels, drives through the desert toward Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville. Border Angels is a faith-based group that helps illegal immigrants to survive in the desert.
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A Border Angels volunteer places a cross at a grave in Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville (Imperial County).
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Undocumented migrants who died in Imperial Valley are buried in Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville. There are over 250 gravesites of unidentified people named John Does or Jane Does. Most of them are illegal immigrants.
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Border Angels drop bottles of water in the desert and near the fence where migrants pass. One of the main causes of migrant deaths is dehydration.
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Peering through a hole in the rusty fence, the new barbed wire fence can be seen. The increased fencing has pushed migrants to the desert or Arizona where it is still easier to cross.
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A tractor tire is pulled behind Border Patrols vehicles to erase tracks on the road. This makes it easier to identify fresh tracks left by migrants.
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These AK47 shell casings were collected at crime scenes in Tijuana. The shell and bullet on the left came from an incident where a policeman was murdered. Those on the right involved the death of a drug dealer.
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A cross stands where Border Patrol Agent Robert Wimer Rosas Jr. was killed while attempting to apprehend a group of people crossing the border on July 23, 2009. Christian Daniel Castro-Alvarez, 17 years old, confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 40 years to prison.
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A member of the Minuteman Project watches the fence on the top of his van. He goes nowhere without his loaded Beretta.
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Jim Gilchrist, 61, is a Vietnam War veteran who founded the Minuteman Project in 2004. The Minutemen watch the border to alert Border Patrol of illegal activity.
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Britt Craig, 61, is also a Vietnam War veteran. He lost an eye from a grenade explosion during his duty. Britt lives in his van four days a week to watch the border near Campo (East San Diego County).
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Britt Craig demonstrates how migrants climb the fence using its features as a ladder.
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At the San Ysidro border crossing, vehicles drive across these markers identifying the line between the U.S. and Mexico.
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San Ysidro port of entry is the busiest land border crossing in the world. It connects Tijuana to San Diego.
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Maria came legally to the United States after her illegally father crossed the border 36 years ago. He obtained legal residency through the Information Reform and Control Act of 1986.
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Maria’s one-year-old son was born in the U.S. According to Maria, the boy’s father, an illegal immigrant, is in jail for driving without a driving license. He is waiting to be deported to Mexico.
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A man walks along a rusty segment of the fence on the Mexican side. Many migrants travel north through Mexico with hopes of crossing the border, but settle in Tijuana because of the difficulty associated with the crossing.
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The border fence extends west across the hills toward the ocean. Tijuana’s urban development is dense near the border.
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The Mexican flag in Tijuana can be seen prominently from the U.S. side of the border. Tijuana is the sixth-largest metropolitan area in Mexico with a population of 1.5 million. By comparison, San Diego County has about 3 million people.
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Kids play soccer in the street in Tijuana. Mexicans around the world sent home $21 billion in 2009.
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The border between the U.S. and Mexico extends into the Pacific Ocean.
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A child plays in the sand while ignoring the fence that stands behind him.
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San Diego can be seen on horizon through the border fence at the ocean.
I was very young when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was the only barrier I had ever seen separating two countries until I arrived in San Diego and saw the triple-layer fence separating the U.S. from Mexico. Indeed, most European Union countries have agreed to abolish the check points at their common borders.
Before arriving in the United States, I was aware of the immigration problem. It is not unlike the debate in other industrialized countries. Same goals. Same fears.
The European Union encounters huge problems in regulating the flow of illegal immigrants coming from various places: mostly from Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia. Migrants leave their countries because of war (Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Palestine, Darfur, etc.) and poor living conditions. Coming to Europe is a big investment for them. They pay huge amounts of money to human traffickers for a dangerous trip that takes months.
A Ghanaian migrant travels more than 2,000 miles north from the country's capital, Accra, to reach Morocco’s coasts. That means crossing four countries and the Sahara Desert before assaulting the Mediterranean Sea on cheap boats headed toward Spain. A lot of these people die or are apprehended during this long trip.
Among European countries, the political debate over illegal immigration is one of the most passionate and sensitive topics. Economic depression, unemployment and insecurity fuel the fear of many people already distressed by government failure to deal with the problem. Through their populist rhetoric, extreme-right parties are the big winners. For example, in Switzerland, the Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC) – a party well known for its racist stance toward immigration – has in recent years become the strongest political force in that country. However, Europe’s tougher immigration policies haven’t stopped the flow of migrants.
When I first saw the fence along San Diego’s border with Mexico, I was impressed by the disproportion. Helicopters, border patrols, barbed wire and cameras gave me the impression of entering into a warzone. But on the Mexican side, this fence is part of everyday life. This is particularly obvious on the Tijuana beach I visited where children and teenagers enjoyed life while ignoring the fence that ends in the ocean.
“This is a war,” says Britt Craig, a Vietnam War veteran who patrols the border with a loaded handgun and shotgun. I met up with Craig as he drove his van along the border at Campo in east San Diego County. Craig is a member of Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project, a group of activists who want to stop the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the border.
But they aren’t the only activists involved in the immigration debate. Enrique Morones is the leader of Border Angels. It is a faith-based organization that helps illegal immigrants who are crossing the border by dropping bottles of water in the desert, where many die from the heat and the cold. Border Angels also gives food and clothing to migrant day laborers who wait hours for low-paying jobs at places like Home Depot.
Envision San Diego takes a closer look at illegal immigration, exploring why migrants take big risks to work in the U.S., what happens to the children of deported parents, and how this region benefits from -- and pays a price for -- its unauthorized migrant labor pool.
Abundant low-paying jobs are exactly where the entire problem lies. California’s economy is heavily based on tourism and agriculture. These industries rely heavily on illegal workers who provide a steady source of hard working, flexible, cheap labor. This is perfect for a globalized economic system focused only on gains of productivity.
Both the Border Angels and the Minuteman truly believe in their cause. But leaving water in the desert or patrolling the border with a gun isn’t going to solve the problem. Until industrialized countries stop relying on this cheap labor and help stimulate economies in developing countries, illegal immigrants will keep coming. A wall or a fence won’t stop them.