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Roundtable: A busy week for water quality, drought and immigration at the border

 August 12, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: Those hoping to become U.S. citizens might not have to wait in Mexico much longer. Drought conditions in the West are far from just the U.S. problem , and the future of Friendship Park is in question. We're talking about the headlines affecting our cross border region. I'm Matt Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable. Hello and welcome to KPBS Roundtable. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. And joining me this week are reporters who have been busy covering a range of stories affecting our cross border community. Kate Morrissey is an immigration reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Mackenzie Elmer is the environment reporter from Voice of San Diego. And we also have the border reporter from KPBS News. Gustavo Solis is here. I want to thank you all so much for being here and being returning guests here on roundtable. We want to start with the big headline this week out of Washington. The Biden administration is formally ending the remain in Mexico policy. Gustavo , going to you here first. Does this change anything ? And , you know , like the short term for those that are caught up in this red tape like a bit , I guess right like for recalibrate remain in Mexico is the Trump era policy that forces asylum seekers to live and wait in Mexico while their asylum cases are adjudicated. And it's controversial because thousands of them were beaten , raped , robbed and kidnapped while they were in Mexico. And very few of them actually won their cases. This was like a Trump put roughly like 65,000 some odd people in the program until Biden got rid of it. But then a federal judge forced Biden to bring it back. And since then , about 7000 people have been put in the program. So things will definitely change for those 7000 people. They'll be finally allowed to enter and live in the U.S. while their cases unfold. But I think it's important to note that Title 42 is still in place and that that's another Trump era policy that's keeping way more asylum seekers out of the country. And until that policy goes away , I don't think there'll be significant change in our asylum system. And Kate , another term that we've heard for this policy is Migrant Protection Protocol or MPP for short. You've talked with advocates who have criticized the Biden administration for what they describe as , you know , dragging their feet on this issue. Can you tell us more about what you've been hearing from those people ? Sure.

S2: So the Supreme Court actually issued its ruling back at the end of June , saying that the Biden administration did have the ability to end the program if it wanted to and ordered the the district court judge to vacate his order that was requiring the program to restart. But the Biden administration did not start having conversations even with the stakeholders who participated in the wind down of the program the last time that it was ended. So the U.N. refugee agency , known usually as UNHCR , was very instrumental in helping to bring those folks who had been waiting in the program under Trump into the United States. They were not contacted after the Supreme Court decision. The organizations here , for example , the organizations that run shelter space on the U.S. side to receive people after they've been released from immigration custody , they had no idea what was going on. And so for everyone who was sort of waiting and watching , it seemed like , okay , you're waiting for the judge to actually vacate the order. You should at least be having these conversations. And those conversations weren't happening. So there was a lot of frustration. A lot of people mean , even from the moment when the Biden administration restarted , remain in Mexico and defined who the population would be that could be returned. That was actually a broader set of nationalities that existed under the Trump administration. So even from the moment that the program began again , there was a lot of criticism that the Biden administration was doing a lot more than it needed to do to cooperate with the court order.

S1: And Gustavo , this policy and others , they've had quite an impact on Tijuana and those organizations that try to care for people trying to get to the U.S.. Do we know if this news this week could eventually maybe ease some of the burden on them ? Honestly , I doubt it , at least not right away. And just because of Title 42 advocates I've talked to were obviously stoked that Remain in Mexico is going away , but Title 42 has a significantly bigger impact on the border because it essentially creates this a revolving door where under Title 42 , border officials can turn away asylum seekers without due process , or they don't see a judge. They're rarely processed by , like CBP or ICE , which means that they just keep on trying to cross over and over again. Individuals crossing multiple times a day. This driving up border apprehension statistics that's keeping Tijuana migrant shelters full , even having a local impact here in San Diego , with a significant increase in the number of hospitalizations from people who try to climb and fall from the 30 foot tall border wall. I mean , it's so much so that you , UCSD , now at their hospital , they have a dedicated ward specifically for people who fell from the wall. And , Kate , we know that you've met with immigrants from around the world who end up in Tijuana. Earlier this year , we saw an influx of Ukrainian refugees during the war there. Those who don't follow this issue as closely might think that those from Mexico make up the bulk of this group. But as some of your report.

S2: And to piggyback off of what Gustavo was saying , Title 42 affects different nationalities differently. And so right now , I think with the repeat crossings of certain nationalities who are being expelled under Title 42 thinking , particularly people from Mexico , it's really hard to get sort of an exact sense of how many people from a particular place are trying to come. What I can tell you is Title 42 is largely affecting people from Mexico , Honduras , Guatemala and El Salvador , and they're all being returned generally to Mexico , although sometimes we do also see expulsion flights back to country of origin , and there are some expulsion flights to to further away places in the hemisphere. But when you look at who's been able to cross and get their asylum case processed into the United States , we're talking much more about people from Nicaragua , Colombia , Venezuela , Peru , Cuba as well. Places where there are not structures in place to facilitate expulsions to those countries. Those countries are not willing to accept people expelled under Title 42 , generally speaking. And then when you have people coming from like Ukraine or different parts of of Europe , those folks are generally getting in. But it's very complicated and I think really exacerbates some of the long term biases that we've seen in our systems based on nationality , based on race is very much tied to that as well.

S1: We'll get back to immigration in just a bit. But now we're going to turn to the environment and voice of San Diego's Mackenzie Elmer. Her latest piece focuses on the drought. And as you write , Mackenzie , the Baja City Events Pinata is last in line for water from the Colorado River.

S3: But what is new is the amount of time that people and Senado were experiencing their water being shut off by the government. We talked with a woman and then-Senator who had no water sent to her home for a period of three months. And so the latest bout of drought driven by climate change , coupled with a suite of other problems like poor maintenance on pipelines and problems with the desalination plant led to just a lack of water throughout the city , so much so that it eventually led to some protests in the streets and especially some of the wealthier areas of and sonata that usually have underground cisterns where they can keep extra water. They were running out as well. And so that led to some some pretty serious demands from the government to come in and try to solve this problem.

S1: There are ways to get extra water , right ? But it's not cheap.

S3: And it was interesting because the woman and a couple of people that I talked to , they said , yes , we would we would pay more for water. We would pay higher water rates to the government if we could get better service. But as as the story notes that we wrote with my collaborator , Vicente Calderon from Tijuana Press , Pentagon , that just really isn't , I think , a solution on the table right now. The Baja government , in response to this suite of problems , tried to repair a bunch of leaks to a pipeline that gets the Colorado River Water to and Sonata. I'm not sure what's going on with the desalination plant , but it's apparently been under delivering water and also and sonata relied heavily on groundwater in the past. But those aquifers are now tapped out by the growing population and the growing agricultural region there. There's a lot of vineyards that need water. And so the demand is really pressing upon the supply there in Ensenada.

S1: Let's now bring in Gustavo Solis for a bit of context on how Baja is growing and putting more demand on the water supply there. Gustavo , can you remind us in terms of what you've seen as Americans moving to Baja , maybe because of the cost of living in San Diego or elsewhere ? First , I just want to say , like , because he's totally right on this , it's not a new problem. And Tijuana and Baja California just have a horrible track record when it comes to infrastructure. Right. I mean , just last winter , there was a big rainstorm , like literally three people died , including one person who was swept up by a current and dragged into the sewer. That kind of tells you everything you need to know about how the city handles infrastructure there. Entire neighborhoods that are not connected to the city's power or sewer lines and new maquiladoras opening up like they supply their own power because they don't trust the city or state to provide for them. So , I mean , to your question , yes , there's been an influx of San Diegans who are priced out of here moving to Tijuana , but. California , a lot of them is a shift from the traditional kind of retiree population , and it's more of like a younger work from home type population. And that does have an impact on the infrastructure. But but that's not the sole issue , right ? This social issue is decades and decades of underinvestment in infrastructure. And I mean , Mackenzie said it right. Pipes that leak like great. They could have more water if it didn't leak out of pipes before it gets to sonata or the people event scenario would love to pay more and have the state deliver them more water , but the state doesn't have their act together enough to pull that off. Mackenzie We know that drought affects the entire region.

S3: And that would essentially give the federal government more power to kind of redistribute water as it sees fit , just like in the United States. Agricultural takes up a really large portion of the water in Mexico. And so there's conversations right now about shifting water from farmers once again towards urban areas. This has happened in the past , but it's often just a much more politically tough issue to do to take water from AG and give it to urban areas. But in terms of this extended drought , climate change is a huge issue that's affecting this entire problem. Right. I mean , we're now talking about it's called a red ification or just desertification or just drying of areas for an extended period of time. For years and years , we say this is like the worst drought in thousands of years. So I guess weather patterns are affected by climate change and to the extent that we'll see more extremes , so we'll see more extremes in terms of drought , we'll see more extremes in terms of rain. We'll have rain faster and harder than we did before. So we won't be able to like capture it all as we as we once did , or we can't rely on the kinds of snowpack that once supplied rivers as they used to. So I guess that's kind of the extent of what our future holds. And so the Baja governor actually has been talking more and more about water recycling , which is also a trend in Southern California. As you know , the city of San Diego is pursuing a big water recycling project. So that's maybe on the table. But as Gustavo said , you know , it's really rare that Baja can get its act together to actually pursue and execute some of these big infrastructure projects that they desperately need.

S1: You're listening to KPBS roundtable. I'm Matt Hoffman. And our guests this week are McKenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego , Kate Morrissey from the San Diego Union-Tribune , and Gustavo Solis from KPBS News. I want to shift now to another water story. KPBS Midday Edition talked with Imperial Beach Mayor Surge to Deena about sewage problems this summer. Here's how he described the current situation.

S4: The problem is already two over ten and 75 million gallons of sewage have been discharged into the Tijuana River , 30 million gallons a day. Last night , our environmental director , Chris Homer , reported to me that the water coming out of the Tijuana River was , quote , black. That's raw sewage straight from the bowels , literally , of Tijuana , and that's polluting our beaches. They've issued a warning for silver strand , but we've had a week of south swell already. South swell. Here , increasing. South swell. South went on the weekend. So while Coronado is open and the silver strand as a warning and Ibis closed , it doesn't really bode well for anything to have that water. 3 to 5 miles of sewage in that river from the border crossing to the Tijuana River mouth , sitting there for months at a time.

S1: You can hear more of that interview on Wednesday's Midday Edition podcast. McKenzie , we want to go to you here. The D.A. says that Baja authorities have tentatively agreed to emergency cleanup operations. He says he thinks that officials there are realizing that it's more cost effective and cleaning the water could help Mexico , too , as you sort of just pointed out. But we know that sewage spills , they've happened for years here.

S3: I haven't personally been able to confirm that on either side from Dino or Baja. So , I mean , there might be a deal in the works. I guess what he was talking about was some kind of a fix at this broken wastewater plant south of the border called Punto Bandera. I guess he got some assurance from Baja authorities that they were going to maybe chlorinated water , which would somehow clean it up and then add , you know , aerators to the actual wastewater plant. And I've been to that plant and there are aerators which are supposed to help with the wastewater treatment. And they're broken. They've been broken forever. So usually the way that we really see progress in terms of infrastructure on wastewater and is through these large agreements under a treaty between the federal governments or the state governments as well. And so I'm not sure if this is actually going to bode anything for the short term , but that is something that Imperial Beach really wants , is some kind of short term solution , because this this big federal plan that the EPA has to try to help solve the sewage problem at the US-Mexico border between Taiwan and San Diego is years off. So , you know , Imperial Beach , their beaches close right now. It's close to Coronado in terms of entering the water because of the latest sewage spills. So I'm sure that they really want some kind of a short term solution , right ? Yeah.

S1: If they can't stop the spills , they at least want to try to mitigate some of the impacts because as you mentioned , there's beaches closed in Imperial Beach and warnings elsewhere. And as you mentioned earlier , you've made some trips out there to Imperial Beach , talked with visitors , even some people from other parts of the country. Are they taking these warnings seriously when there are signs up there that say beaches are closed ? And I ask that because we know in recent weeks there's been some questioning from local mayors about the county's new water quality tests and if they're really , truly accurate.

S3: It's essentially the beaches still open. It's not totally closed. You know , I talk to beachgoers from all over the country and it's not still not totally clear like whether they can enter the water or not , even though it says keep out of the water , sewage contamination. You still saw , you know , people stutter stepping , trying to look at the sign more closely. You know , I talked to a guy who was dripping wet from just coming out of the water. He was from Nebraska and he was like , you know what , I'm not going to listen to these signs anyway. You know , I came all the way out here from Nebraska with my kids and I want to go in the water. So we're going to go in the water anyway. I guess it's more than it comes down to enforcement. And I talked with the lifeguard fire chief and he said , you know , we don't maybe have enough staff to be consistently telling people to get out of the water. They're going to make up their own minds. But we do try to contact everybody who tries to go in and let them know that there's a sewage contamination.

S1: And Gustavo or Kate , any thoughts on how this situation has played out over the summer ? And Gustavo , I know you live in Imperial Beach , so you maybe have seen people either swimming or maybe not swimming. Yeah , well , not swimming , I think. Well , just me personally , right ? I live in IBM , an avid surfer. I can walk to the beach. So , like , on paper , I should be in a pretty awesome situation. But the beaches close so often that I've only been able to go in the water a handful of times. Now keep in mind that I.B. is the go to beach for most people who live in the South Bay , like San Ysidro , Chula Vista and even National City. It impacts the region way beyond just Imperial Beach. Let's wrap up with another story on the coast , the potential for a new border wall at Friendship Park. Before 2019 , it was where friends and families on both sides of the border could go and meet up. Gustavo , what were or are federal officials hoping to construct there ? Well , I don't think we actually know and can answer a lot of these better than I can. Her coverage on this has been great. But but I don't think we really know because CBP , to my knowledge , has never really made their plans public. We know what we know from advocacy groups who do have meetings with CBP , and we assume those groups are telling us the truth because CBP has not refuted anything in our reporting. But my understanding is that essentially they were planning to replace the existing fence and kind of visitor area with the same 30 foot tall fence that we've seen throughout the rest of the border.

S2: I think Gustavo's explanation is pretty spot on. We know that initially when the Biden administration came into office , they paused these border wall construction projects that were going on under the Trump administration. Friendship Park was one of those projects. And they've since decided to restart several of them , including the one at Friendship Park. So Friendship Park , there's two layers of fence , not just one. And the park itself is actually situated in between those fences. So that means that , you know , there's this pedestrian gate there at the park that Border Patrol controls. And so they can allow access or not allow access into the park itself. Advocates have been very concerned that in putting in these taller barriers , that gate would go away. They were initially told by Border Patrol officials that there would be no pedestrian gate. And since then , Border Patrol has sort of walked that back a little bit and said , well , we're still figuring out the gates and we'll let you know. And there's going to be a gate in the area. It's still very vague. The park closed down during the pandemic , but even before the pandemic , there were a lot of restrictions on the hours about when people could be in that space , in between the fences , how long a particular person or particular family could spend in there , how many people could be in at a time ? And so I think right now , advocates are really trying to use this moment to get some public momentum around changing the conversation about what the park could be and what it could look like. But it remains to be seen how far that's going to go at this point. All we know is that the administration has agreed to pause the project again , to give time for there to be more conversation. But the outcome is still really unclear.

S1: And we are hearing from federal immigration officials that they do want to commit to keeping that park open at least a little bit once it gets open. And Kate , you've reported in recent weeks on the hope and symbolism of Friendship Park and how families are still showing up there hoping to connect for Border Patrol.

S2: Perhaps they are undocumented. Perhaps they are in the process of getting their documents together. A lot of the families that I met were in process of of eventually having a green card. Part of the reason why they felt safe coming there to where there is a Border Patrol agent sitting and monitoring the area was because they are already in process. There are also a lot of people who have these sort of limbo statuses where they have permission to be here , but they don't have permission to come back if they leave. Our immigration system is very complicated and more often than you would think , it actually creates situations like that. And so for people who are in that situation , coming to this park is a way that they can see and hear and touch , at least by fingertips , through the fence. Family members who they haven't seen in sometimes more than a decade. One of the families that I met recently had the woman who is now , I think , around 23. She's in college. She hadn't seen her grandmother since she was in elementary school. And so her grandmother flew from another part of Mexico to Tijuana so that they could see each other through the fences. And because the gate was closed , because they don't have access currently to Friendship Park , the grandmother was standing on the side of the fence that's closest to the border line in Tijuana and Playas. And then this young woman and her mother were standing on the on the side of the second fence , and they still had to be on the phone to hear each other. So they still had to use technology to interact , even though they were so close to being able to be with each other. But there's still there's still this sort of. Amount of separation that prevents that from happening. That , I think , is it's really powerful when you see it in person to really to to feel how like there's this almost reconnection happening , but there's still sort of cut short. And I think maybe readers or listeners who , you know , haven't experienced something like this firsthand with a family member being in another country for an extended period of time. I think we can all relate to it a little bit from early on in the pandemic , when we were all at home , I remember seeing so many news reports about grandparents and grandkids staring at each other through windows , or even someone creating like a plastic sheet in their doorway so they could hug their grandkid. I don't know if you all remember those stories , but I think that really shows and reminds us all how important it is to be able to hold our loved ones at some point and how much it hurts when we can't.

S1: And Gustavo , final question. We'll go to you here. Do we have any idea when we could get some closure on this friendship park thing or. No idea ? No. The federal government isn't particularly transparent when it comes to this issue or a timeline of it. I mean , they said they're going to pass the project and review , but no timeline. I know the advocates are asking for for a few months to kind of plan it out and come up with another design. But we really have no idea. And I think Kate brought up a really good point about just President Biden and campaign promises. Right. I mean , one of the campaign promises and one of the reasons he was elected was I think he said he wouldn't build another inch of border wall or another foot. I forget what measuring he used , but that's obviously not happening. He's gone back on that one and it kind of happens over and over again when it comes to border and immigration issues that it was very easy. And you heard a lot of people criticize President Trump from a partisan lens and President Biden is doing similar things but isn't getting the same amount of heat. Here he is as his predecessor was , which I think just for me as a border immigration report , it always kind of rubs me the wrong way when one year an advocacy organization will be really blasting an administration , and then there's a party change , but not really a policy change and the criticism goes away. I think it's very important for people to kind of keep keep that in mind and just keep our elected officials , officials honest and on their toes about about what's happening. So much more to get into , but we're going to have to end it there. I want to thank our guests this week , Gustavo Solis from KPBS News , McKenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego and Kate Morrissey from the San Diego Union-Tribune. You can subscribe to the KPBS Roundtable podcast and listen to this or past episodes any time I met Hoffman. Thanks so much for being here with us. We'll be back with you all next week.

County of San Diego Dept. of Environmental Health 'Keep Out' sign.jpg
Melissa Mae
County of San Diego's Department of Environmental Health beach closure sign posted in Imperial Beach on August 4.

KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on stories in the news this week affecting the cross-border region with San Diego Union-Tribune immigration reporter Kate Morrissey, Voice of San Diego environment reporter MacKenzie Elmer and KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis.