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Border & Immigration

Border Fencing That Honored The Dead Is Torn Down

Tractors tear down border fencing near the Tijuana airport, June 22, 2018.
Pedro Rios / American Friends Service Committee
Tractors tear down border fencing near the Tijuana airport, June 22, 2018.

Construction crews are tearing down a stretch of border fencing between San Diego and Tijuana that had become a symbol of the infrastructure's deadliness. They're replacing it with a taller barrier.

It's part of a 14-mile replacement project that the Trump administration initiated in June, starting near the Pacific Ocean.

Activists had placed about 2,000 white wooden crosses along the Mexican side of the fence near the Tijuana airport. The crosses commemorated people who died after the fence was first built in the late 1990s, forcing illegal immigration into the desert and other remote areas that were harsh and often deadly.

"The message was to deliver the premise that these were human lives that were being lost at the cost of failed border policies," said Pedro Rios, director of the U.S.-Mexico border program for the American Friends Service Committee.

Some of the crosses bear the names, countries of origin and ages of people whose remains were found and identified along the border. Others are anonymous, placed to remember the people whose bodies are still lost in the vast stretches of desert.

At the border with Tijuana, the pincers of a tractor clamped down on the rusty corrugated steel plates, helicopter steel landing mats from the Vietnam War, and tore them from the earth. The large white wooden crosses broke along with them. Some of the crosses lay splintered on the earth.

"There is absolutely no regard for the symbolism, the meaning, of what they represented as they’re being torn down," Rios said. "The replacement fencing that's going up does not take into consideration the impact it'll have to human life."

The eight-foot corrugated steel — erected under the Clinton administration as part of Operation Gatekeeper — is being destroyed to make way for 18-foot steel bollard fencing with an anti-climbing mat on top.

Construction crews replace fencing in Tijuana, June 30, 2018.
Jean Guerrero
Construction crews replace fencing in Tijuana, June 30, 2018.

Border Patrol's San Diego sector chief Rodney S. Scott said the new fence is going to help the agency keep the country safe.

"It’s gonna be very hard to get across," he said.

Scott said the reason Border Patrol asked the Trump administration to replace the fencing in San Diego rather than to build new fencing in areas where it doesn't already exist is because the landing mats were aging and easy to climb, with people disappearing into shopping centers, houses and trolleys before agents could apprehend them.

"In urban areas, where you have big population centers butted up against each other, Border Patrol doesn't get any warning about who's crossing that fence and we have to have a lot of personnel ready to deploy in seconds," he said.

He said that is why border barriers are "much more effective and much more important" in areas like San Diego rather than remote desert areas. He said he disagrees with the idea that the fencing shouldn't be replaced because it has pushed illegal immigration elsewhere.

"The same example would be at your house — that if somebody's potentially going to break into your house, and if you lock your door they may get hurt coming in or they may have to work harder to get in, then you should leave your door unlocked," he said. "I just think that's silly."

But activists like Rios, who played a part in placing the crosses on the fence as well as Coalicion Pro Defensa Del Migrante, believe it is the responsibility of both the U.S. and Mexican governments to come up with border security strategies that don't contribute to hundreds of deaths a year.

"If the only solution is to build greater walls knowing the consequence will be the loss of human life, then that's a failure," he said.

Border Fencing That Honored The Dead Is Torn Down