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Marines Keep Their Distance From Migrants Coming Into Tijuana

Marines from Camp Pendleton deploy to the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Die...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Marines from Camp Pendleton deploy to the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, Nov. 8, 2018.

As a group of migrants continues to make its way to the U.S. border at Tijuana, the Marines are settling in for the holiday as they fortify the two Ports of Entry in San Diego.

At the Otay Mesa port-of-entry just east of San Diego, Marines work to top an existing border wall with two rows of concertina wire. Through slats in the steel fence, 2nd Lt. Dustin Pavlick can see rows of semi-trucks queuing up on the Mexican side of the border. This is the young Marine officer’s first deployment.

“We construct this wall,” he said. “Work on this wall and construct these obstacles and that’s pretty much it sir. That’s our job. That’s our mission and the mission has priority at this time.”

Even though most of the Marines are from bases just a few miles away, they will be in spots along the border, during Thanksgiving.

Army Sgt. Eric Ziegler, a military policeman, was working at the nearby San Ysidro port-of-entry. He’s been away from his wife before when he was deployed to Afghanistan.

“She’s prior military, so she understands if I’m gone somewhere else,” Ziegler said. “Pretty much wherever the country needs you.”

The Pentagon decided the Marines would not be armed. Instead, Ziegler and other Army MPs from Fort Bliss were guarding the Marines as they install concertina wire around a pedestrian walkway on the San Diego of the border.

The rules are that MPs are not supposed to engage anyone crossing the border unless they or the Marines are under threat.

“We call Border Patrol and they come get them ... We cannot legally handle them,” Ziegler said.

Instead, Marine engineers lay miles of concertina wire, as they did at the when the border patrol wanted to close three traffic lanes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Reducing the number of entry lanes is a way to harden the border, according to officials from Customs and Border Protection. It also slows down traffic. Rogelio Lirrios and his family were on a shopping trip to San Diego on Friday morning. They had been waiting to cross for more than two hours. He is not happy with the number of migrants arriving in Tijuana.

“It’s a different situation. I think it’s a lot of people with a different culture,” he said.

Col. Kyle Ellison, commanding officer of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 7, said when a few people climbed the border fences last week, he did not send Marines. Instead, the Border Patrol sent a civilian contractor to reinforce that section of fence.

“It is ensuring that we don’t put our marines, soldiers and sailors in a law enforcement type situation,” Ellison said. “It’s not their task. It’s not what they’re out here for. So, if we’re going to be in a position where that potential exists to put our young Marines and sailors in a bad situation, I don’t do it.”

Ellison’s headquarters unit is set up in tents inside a Customs and Border Protection maintenance facility. And that’s where the troops expect to spend Thanksgiving.

“I’m not concerned about morale,” Ellison said. “I’m not concerned Marines and soldiers will have their heads down on Thanksgiving. They’ll get a meal. They’ll get a meal with their brothers and sisters and get back out and do their mission the next day.”

So far, the operation is scheduled to run until Dec. 15.

Troops along the Mexican border take care to avoid confrontations with migrants

The roughly 1,300 troops at the U.S.-Mexico border are expected to stay in place during the Thanksgiving holiday, as they work to fortify the ports of entry around San Diego.


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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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