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Border Tours, The American Side

I have written about Enrique Davalos’ Maquiladoras Tours that takes place along the Mexican side of the border. I have also been wandering along the Mexican side with my friend, photographer Maria Teresa Fernandez, to find our lost boundary monuments, including 255 and 258.

For the American side, Edgeline Productions Border Tours is hosted by Mike Harris, a retired Border Patrol who provides what some may call a renegade look at life at the fence.

He telephones Border Patrol HQ in advance and then you meet him at a Starbucks. Mike gets in your car’s driver seat and begins an odyssey you’ll never forget — which includes driving through unpaved canyons to find shepherd ruins, sewer holes and locked doors that lead into Mexico.

Retired Border Patrol, Mike Harris

Mike HarrisMike Harris was born in Phoenix, AZ. His father was in the Navy and they moved to Taiwan for a few years. His father was then stationed in San Diego.

Mike jokes about himself, “After getting my 2 year degree in a mere 4 1/2 years at Southwestern College,” he decided he wanted to be a Spanish teacher. He went to San Diego State University and was there for one year when he started to talk to other teachers who told him that they made about $15,000 per year after ten years in the profession. Mike thought to himself, “That won’t do. I’ve got bigger plans.”

He started to look around for other options. He enjoyed being outside and he enjoyed using his Spanish, so he came upon the idea of working for the Border Patrol. Back then the salary started out at $15,000. “It’s a heck of a lot more now.”

Only two stations existed on the border at the time: Brown Field and Chula Vista. Mike started working at Brown Field. When the Border Patrol stations split it up again, he went to Imperial Beach.

Mike spent 26 years in Border Patrol. He went from a NUG (New Ugly Guy) at Brown Field to Imperial Beach where he had more seniority. Next he was stationed in Montreal as an Immigration Inspector . He returned to IB, went to Border Patrol’s academy for a year and taught driving, then worked in the Intelligence Office for 9 years. After that, he went back into the field as a supervisor where he was on ATV’s and worked with the DEA for a while. The Border Patrol offered him numerous options, so he never got bored.

“A daily grind of someone who is not very motivated and just wants to hang around is basically a human scarecrow. He can sit up on an X, as they call them, and your mere presence keeps people out during the day.”

Throughout the tour, Mike described mostly his Border Patrol experiences that occurred in the early 1980’s to the 1990’s. “I’ve seen this place go from where we were catching 800 to 1,000 a shift with, like say, 25 to 30 guys working to where you catch nothing in a 24 hour period and it fluctuates depending upon how much manpower, what conditions are like down South… We only had enough manpower to go from San Ysidro, right at the highway there, to maybe here. So everything West of here was wide open and they would just stream up the beach. The chances of getting caught were so slim. They would bonseye us, they would run, they would go anywhere they wanted. They probably had a one in ten or one in fifteen chance of being caught. So we were just overrun, just overwhelmed. They knew it and that’s why they were all crossing here.”

In the 1990’s Operation Gatekeeper started. That’s when Border Patrol went from 100 agents to 360 in Imperial Beach. According to Mike, the increased manpower and the building of the fence broke the habit of migrants coming to the Tijuana River Valley to cross. Mike says, prior to the fence, he would see people a year later and he would ask, “Why are you crossing here?” And they would reply, “Well, this is where everybody crosses.”

The Canyons

WWII Military Bunkers

WWII Military Bunkers By The Tijuana River Valley

Mike’s tour went along the border fence starting at Friendship Park.

An asphalt road has been built along the secondary wall so that Border Patrol SUV’s can more easily drive along the area. The Tijuana River Valley has several unpaved canyons as well. Mike drove through most of them while Border Patrol stopped us all along the way. Apparently, different swaths of land are owned by the federal, state and local governments. Tourists are not allowed on the federal property, but they can visit state and local property — it’s just a matter of knowing which land belongs to whom.

Mike drove through Yogurt canyon, so called because there was once a restaurant in Mexico called El Yogurt right next to the canyon. Spooner’s Mesa is where the Boy Scouts used to have a camp. Smuggler’s Gulch is so-called from the times when marijuana smugglers used to pass through the border in the 1960’s. At the top of one canyon, remnants of WWII military bunkers still exist that were built due to fears of a Japanese invasion.

Goat Canyon got its name because a goat herder used to live there. The house was already abandoned by the time Mike started working in the 1980’s. The canyon, as he remembers it, was a place where bandits and smugglers used to run away from the Tijuana Police. The Border Patrol wanted to keep a good relationship with the Tijuana Police, especially since the area was barely delineated, so they would allow the Tijuana police to chase after people along here.

Goat Herders House

Goat Herder’s House in the Tijuana River Valley

The Army Corps of engineers then were originally contracted to create the fence in the 1990’s using WWII military landing mat. One area, however, was so sheer that no fence could be built. There’s still no fence in that location today.

In other areas, three fences were built in 2008 to 2009, all exclusively on American soil. “We normally build our fences several feet within the U.S. just so there’s no contest about where it was properly built. We dug trenches out of Brown Field years ago and it turned out that the back-hoe operator was actually digging up a trench in Mexico, at Brown Field, way up at Brown Field along the border there. The Mexican government got all pissed off and the back-hoe operator got in trouble and we had to go back and fill them in.”

Settling Ponds

Settling ponds also exist in Goat Canyon. This is where the rain runoffs cross the border from Tijuana into the Tijuana River Valley. “You can’t really block it off, there’s just too much water, so they built these settling ponds to take out the debris and the trash and the silt. In the past, all the roads to Border Field State Park would be washed out. Now they can come out after the season, scrape all the debris — tires, trash & silt — and cart it away without re-doing the roads every year. They built this about 10 years ago.”

According to the treaties of the International Water and Boundary Commission, the United States must allow the free flow of water. It just so happens that the free flowing water contains sewage. The water runs from the border fence over to Monument Road, into the Tijuana River and then into the Estuary and eventually into the Pacific Ocean.

Settling Pond

Settling Pond in Goat Canyon in the Tijuana River Valley

Sewage Holes

In addition to the settling pond, four sewage holes exist along the border from San Ysidro to the Tijuana River Valley. These are the collection sites that the sewage treatment plant has in place.

“The water that flows out of Mexico during times that are not the rainy season is actually runoff from people’s homes, agriculture, sewage, laundry, whatever human sources of water are and it runs across the border. It used to just run down here and probably evaporate before it got very far. It would percolate into the soil and then when the rainy season came it would wash out into the ocean. These collection sites, and as you can tell it’s really low right now, when it’s high enough they’ll suck the run off and pump it to the sewage treatment plant in San Ysidro for cleaning before they dump it two miles out into the ocean.”

Sewer Hole in Tijuana River Valley

Sewer Hole in Tijuana River Valley

Sewer Hole in Tijuana River Valley

Sewer Hole in Tijuana River Valley

The Gorilla Cage

From the sewage holes, Mike drove over to Whiskey 9. (Whiskey meaning West.) Border Patrol has W’s and E’s, Whiskey and Echo. East and West of the Port of Entry. They have it broken up into 15 zones on the West side.

“This is where water run off from rains comes down as well. It runs to a spot where we call that the gorilla cage. Aliens would get inside that because you can go from there to different drainage ditch outlets and different places. So they would go through there and sneak in, so we had to keep putting barriers on there.”

Gorilla Cage

Gorilla Cage or Whiskey 9 at U.S. Mexico border in San Ysidro

Border Patrol and Migrants

Mike took a lot of time explaining the day-to-day job of Border Patrol. First of all, they use “drags” or tires linked together. These drags are then placed behind their SUV and dragged through the dirt.

“You basically brush out any sign, as it’s called, any footprints, any evidence that anybody has crossed, so that you have a fresh dust plate.” The Border Patrol can then examine the dirt road to see if anyone else has crossed.

Tire Drags

Tire Drags Used By Border Patrol To Detect Migrants Who Have Crossed The Border

The military landing mat fence has numbers on each panel that Border Patrol use to radio their colleagues about their precise location.

Labeled Border Doors

Labeled Border Doors At The U.S. Mexico Border in San Ysidro

Interestingly, Mike explained that information about whether someone is here illegally is given voluntarily by that person. “So if we see someone walking down the street, he’s got bushes in his hair and he just crossed the border, but we didn’t actually see him. There’s two legal definitions ‘found in’ and, I’m not sure, but my point is we stop them and say, “Where are you from?” 99.9% of the time they say, “Mexico.” Then they ask, “Do you have any immigration documents?” “No.”

Mike took me to Area W2, an abandoned border patrol station that will soon be demolished to make way for the I-5 freeway going into the El Chaparral port of entry. The building still had the old kitchen, an office and the old holding cells.

1980s Border Patrol HQ

1980s Border Patrol HQ at the San Ysidro Port of Entry

Talking about the processing system, Mike explained, “Whatever name they give you the first time they apprehend, that’s their name forever in our system. We can give them another one, but everything else will be an alias. They can tell you a lie the first time and then every other time they come through they tell you the truth, their name is no longer that. In our system, their name is the lie.”

Mike next took me along the fence on the West side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. There, a badly corroded 1979 monument stood, erected by the International Boundary & Water Commission to commemorate the coordinated project of the U.S. and Mexico for control of floods in the Tijuana River. As we know, the channel spanning from Mexico to the U.S. and into the Pacific Ocean never happened. Instead, the channel on the Mexican side remains dry and has become known for the notorious crime that takes place.

Canal in Tijuana

Dry channel in Mexico. The yellow line demarcates the actual U.S.-Mexico boundary line.

It just so happens that this is also where Border Patrol brings migrants who have crossed illegally. The picture above and below is of the door used by Border Patrol to lead illegal immigrants back into Mexico. While Mike and I were there, a Border Patrol car stopped at the door and an officer got out. He rang the doorbell and then escorted two men out of the Border Patrol car and through the door.

Mike explained, “Each station has their own processing… We can keep them overnight at a station… At the end of your shift — so you don’t want to catch ’em twice in the same shift, so you at least hold them for your whole shift, then you have someone drive ’em and drop ’em off, then they can come back and the next shift can catch ’em again.”

San Diego-Tijuana Border

Migrants Get Sent Back To Mexico Through This Door.

The Death Of Roberto Duran

The last stop on Mike’s tour was “Echo” or the East side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry where the historic freight train still today runs from the U.S. into Mexico. The 1932 U.S. Customs House also stands next to the pedestrian border crossing.

A commemoration to Roberto Duran is at the border gate that leads into the Mexican train station. Agent Roberto Duran was killed when his patrol vehicle overturned while he was on patrol on Federal Route 15 in Arizona in 2002. He had been assigned to the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station in San Diego, California, but was temporarily working at the Casa Grande Station in Tucson, Arizona when the accident occurred.

Roberto Duran Commemoration

Roberto Duran Commemoration

Mike tells stories all along the way of people he encountered during his career. He said his job could often be dangerous with people shooting at him from the other side of the border.

He also remembered ” one time, we’re going along and we stopped and built a little fire for like 30 minutes just to get warm at night. Then we had some guy come up in a vehicle and say, ‘Hey look at this (unintelligible) across my window. What’s that from?’ He goes, ‘Somebody strung a piece of wire across where you guys ride. It was neck high, so that after we went up and started our fires, somebody came, some smugglers came in and strung a wire across, hoping to decapitate us.”

A tour you’ll never forget, Mike will tell you what he thinks about American policy toward immigration and you’ll meet quite a few Border Patrolmen along the way. Last, but not least, when you book your tour, Mike most likely end his emails with this quote:

George Orwell: People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

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One Response to Border Tours, The American Side

  1. Gil December 15, 2014 at 10:21 PM #

    Another brilliant piece of work. This story and others like int should be on our nightly news. Maybe, people would see first hand how hard it is to patrol our borders.

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