“We used to call this the soccer field,” says Theron Francisco, a newly appointed public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
We’re gazing at the gravel road ahead of us and listening to the hum of a mariachi song being carried over the rusted fence where Southern California meets Colonia Libertad. Residents of the latter, an isolated community just east of Tijuana, use music to warn their neighbors that immigration officials are close by.
To our right is a steep canyon, devoid of vegetation and covered in dusty paths that slowly wind up and over the ridge. As I struggle to picture the barren hill being a playground for Mexico’s most popular sport, Francisco blames my age.
Back in the 1980s, dozens of Mexican immigrants would pause in the canyon to kick a ball around after they had illegally entered the United States. Few of them were more worried about border patrol than whether they could slip the ball past the goalie.
“We couldn’t even go on the border because the road was horrible and they would pelt us with rocks on our side,” Mario Villarreal, CBP’s chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector, told the Washington Examiner during a recent trip to California’s southern border.
“If there was any sign of enforcement, hundreds [of unauthorized immigrants] would pick up rocks and throw them at us,” recalled the 32-year veteran of federal immigration enforcement.
U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended about 4.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the San Diego sector between 1980 and 1989, more than two-and-a-half times the number of apprehensions that have occurred in the same region since the turn of the millennium, according to an analysis of data provided by the agency.
“This used to be the busiest place in the nation with people just freely walking across the border,” Francisco said, standing next to the soccer field – now a bleak stretch of land that sees little more than the sun’s glow.
Illegal immigration peaked in California in 1986, when border patrol officials apprehended nearly 630,000 migrants while attempting to cross into the United States illegally. Only 500 agents were tasked with patrolling the area at that time and virtually no tactical infrastructure existed.
Agents like Villarreal, who was previously stationed in McAllen, Texas and Yuma, Ariz., tend to describe the situation in California in strict before-and-after terms. They cite statistics and point to high-rise luxury condos in Tijuana as unequivocal evidence that barriers along the border work.
“We can show it with the decreased numbers of assaults that used to happen. Rapes, murders — it’s all gone down,” explained border agent Eduardo Olmos.
President Trump has rarely invoked the past when talking about his desire to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border. Two border patrol agents pointed this out when our conversation shifted to the politics of immigration.
“They (Trump and his staff) might convince some people if they talk about what has changed and how things would get even better if we upgraded what already works,” one border patrol agent, who requested anonymity, told the Washington Examiner.
Installing a wall along certain sections of the border would not represent a drastic change from the current infrastructure that exists.
“A border wall is nothing new as far as what we have used in the form of increasing border security for the people of this great nation for years,” Villarreal said.
When the Clinton administration authorized Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, the Department of Homeland Security began constructing a secondary 10-to-12-foot steel mesh fence to accompany an 8-foot barrier that had existed at the Southern California border since the late 80s. Stadium lights and cameras with day and night capabilities were installed, as was an all-weather road that quite literally paved the way for 24/7 patrol by agents on horses, humvees, and ATVs.
Still, Trump’s proposal to build an impenetrable wall – 30 feet in height and made of thick concrete or another aesthetically pleasing material – has almost always been cast as an ineffective or iniquitous solution by his bipartisan critics.
Tension over the project began escalating last month, as tangible signs of progress began appearing at a construction site in Otay Mesa, Calif. There, a half-dozen construction companies under federal contract built prototypes of what may end up becoming Trump’s wall if the administration secures congressional funding. In some cases, the towering structures are topped with coiled razor wire or sloped in such a way that would make climbing them nearly impossible.
“We want a better barrier. One that is hard to scale, hard to penetrate and hard to tunnel under,” said Villarreal. “At this point, it may not be one prototype [that becomes the base design for the final product] but characteristics of one or more.”
Immigration officials acknowledged that circumstances are different at each sector of the border, and communities in south Texas or Arizona may not be impacted the same way San Diego and Tijuana have been if a homogenous structure is built along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Doing all this stuff, building all this infrastructure is impressive, but it may be all for nothing in some places,” said CBP agent Cesar Sotelo. “We can always have newer and better, but it will never be perfect.”
Even the transformation of Tijuana — an area once unraveled by drug wars, violent crime and economic turmoil that over the years has become a Mexican metropolis with half-million dollar housing developments and high-end outlet malls — is still far from perfect.
“None of these stores would have been built if we hadn’t secured the border,” Sotelo said as we passed Las Americas, a discount shopping center in Tijuana with stores such as Brooks Brothers, Kate Spade, and Nike.
Segments of a cement bollard ball built in the early 2000s lay in pieces on the edge of Tijuana where unauthorized immigrants have used car jacks to spread the pillars apart and cross through. Agents said the barrier is “impossible to repair” because the entire section would need to be replaced and that is simply “too costly.” Sometimes, a rancid smell fills the air near the San Ysidro Port of Entry due to coastal sewage making its way into the Tijuana River basin. Under a binational accord reached during the Obama administration, Mexico was supposed to update its wastewater treatment plant in Tijuana but agents said it never did. And local law enforcement officials recorded about 700 homicides in Tijuana in 2016, marking a five-year high in the area that is likely linked to the presence of violent transnational drug cartels.
Opponents of Trump’s proposed will often cite persistent problems in border communities, like crime, to argue that a new wall between the United States and Mexico cannot reasonably be expected to solve what existing barriers have failed to prevent.
And though the fencing has contributed to economic growth and reduced crime across Baja California, some critics say a wall can still do harm — to families, nations, and business — or even encourage permanent unauthorized immigration due to the increased difficulty of crossing illegally into the United States without getting injured or caught.
“Before the [current] wall was built, the flow was easier. People just went back and forth. Afterward, people picked a side and stayed there, since it was harder to cross,” Alejandra Castaneda, an immigration policy expert based in Tijuana, told the San Diego Union-Tribune last May.
“Building a wall sends a toxic message to one of our two closest neighbors, a country on whose cooperation the United States’ national security and economic prosperity depends,” said the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based advocacy organization.
Asked whether U.S.-Mexico relations would be damaged beyond repair if Trump proceeds with his border wall plan, an agent at the site of the prototypes said “history is the greatest teacher” and noted that the relationship didn’t sour when previous barriers went up at the border.
But Sotelo said that even a 30-foot wall with concertina wire and other features that might prevent the structure from being compromised will never fully solve the problem that drove so many Americans to support the president’s campaign.
“It may block 70 people a day from coming over, but it’s the unknowns that you don’t catch that will always keep us up at night,” he said. “It will never be perfect.”
This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner