BORDERLOGO

ON THE BORDER w/KUNG LI

For the next three weeks, Kung Li will be driving along the entire length of the US-Mexico border, from Friendship Park in San Diego, Calif. to Brownsville, Texas. A lifelong southerner, this is Kung Li’s first trip through the border region. 

Border Patrol Overkill

by Kung Li

SAN DIEGO — San Diego is a town surrounded by military might. To the north is Camp Pendleton and its 37,000 active duty Marines. To the west, Naval Base Coronado is the command center for the Navy SEALS. To the east, the military trains its elite special forces in the Mountain Warfare Training Facility.

And then to the south, there’s the border and Tijuana.

Given the geographic proximity to all these Marines and Special Forces machos, it’s no wonder Border Patrol agents stationed in San Diego in the early 1990’s felt a bit chagrined at their inability to stop national security threats like dog whisperer Cesar Milan from unauthorized entry into the United States.

At that time, the most popular spot for crossing the border without papers was the west side of Tijuana. Once across, people were funneled between the Pacific Ocean and the interstate freeways into a one mile wide corridor that started out as bucolic parkland, then quickly opened into residential neighborhoods. By all accounts, it was a free for all. Some Border Patrol agents liked to track people through the shrubbery, while others preferred to wait until they appeared in the residential streets to chase them down. The Office of Inspector General reported to Congress that “the chase and apprehension of illegal immigrants was considered exciting and fun.”

For the agents, that is. For the migrants and residents, not so much. Residents put up a fuss, and after a particularly embarrassing visit from Attorney General Janet Reno, the San Diego Sector drew up a strategy designed to push people eastward, away from the city’s residential areas and out of the San Diego Sector’s jurisdiction.

This became Operation Gatekeeper. Its strategy, in a nutshell: out of Sector, out of mind.

For being able to articulate a strategy, the San Diego Sector was awarded a slew of new agents. Then a few years later, as the number of Border Patrol nationwide doubled, even more agents flooded into San Diego.

With more agents, though, have come more problems.

Some of the problems are trivial. Working alone with not much to do, agents have been caught sleeping on the job.  Others have had to answer for lewd behavior at a Cirque du Soleil show.

Other problems are much more serious. Like jumping onto San Diego’s trolleys to detain and then deport high school students on their way to school.

Or, while acting as the agency’s lantern-jawed spokesman, using Border Patrol vehicles to smuggle hundreds of people from Tijuana into San Diego, collecting $700,000 in profits before getting caught.

Or ganging up to beat Anastacio Hernandez Rojas to death, and then continuing to insist the father of five was “resisting arrest,” even after a video surfaced showing Rojas was indeed handcuffed, hogtied, and face down on the pavement begging for help as up to twenty agents circled him as they beat and shot Rojas repeatedly with a taser.

These problems are not confined to San Diego. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that corruption cases under active investigation quadrupled from 2006 to 2010, and the Government Accountability Office earlier this year reported that 150 agents have been indicted on corruption charges directly related to their jobs.

The culprit, according to the GAO’s analysts: the mad rush to hire new agents.

So what’s the thought process behind the proposal to add 21,000 new Border Patrol agents, doubling the size of an agency already too bloated to conduct proper screening, training, and oversight of its officers?  Some argue that more agents will result in better overall performance. But trying to solve Border Patrol’s problems by hiring more agents seems a bit like trying to cure Paula Deens’ diabetes by insisting she stuff more toffee gooey butter cakes down her maw.

In San Diego, at least, it seems the better move is in exactly the opposite direction, to dramatically reduce the number of Border Patrol agents stationed inside the city limits.

On the day I trekked into Friendship Park to start this trip at the westernmost point of the US-Mexico border, the only people in the park were me and three Border Patrol agents:  one inside a green and white truck stationed alongside the fence, and another two straddling ATVs on the beach. In conjunction with the twenty-five foot high double fence made of slick steel – approximately 5000% less scalable than the old chain link fence – these three agents make it abundantly clear to anyone contemplating a climb, jump & run, that doing so would be completely hopeless.

Given the impressive deterrent effect created by three agents, I had to wonder: what, exactly, are the 2,664 or so other agents stationed in the San Diego Sector doing on the day to day?

To the extent their job is to apprehend people, not much. Apprehensions have plummeted from 530,000 in 1993 (immediately before the start of Operation Gatekeeper) to 28,500 in 2012. With so few people now trying to cross through San Diego, that’s an astounding 95% plunge. The number of agents, meanwhile, has more than doubled.

“In San Diego,” says Adriana Jasso of the American Friends Service Committee, “they’ve become known as the Bored Patrol.”

Christian Ramirez agrees. The director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition points out that one of the great dangers of enlarging law enforcement agencies is that they tend to grow, but never shrink. “Even after the need is long gone,” he warns, “their footprint remains.”

Operation Gatekeeper has had its intended effect of pushing people into more remote crossing points, with deadly consequences. I expect I’ll learn more about those in the next few days as I head east into the desert.

As for San Diego’s Friendship Park, Operation Gatekeeper has also had its intended effect. Other than those three agents and me, the park where families used to meet up to picnic and talk to family members across the fence was now completely empty. It was getting dark when I turned around for the 1.5 mile walk back to the parking lot. I considered yelling up to the agent by the fence to ask for a ride back to my car, but thought better of it. I didn’t want to disturb him if he was sleeping.