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California’s Mexico Connection: From Global Market to Homeland Security?

U.S. national security is a priority. But at what cost to California’s economy?

June 17, 2002

U.S. national security is a priority. But at what cost to California's economy?

Before the World Trade Towers tragedy, southern California’s largest border city — San Diego — was about to launch a set of ambitious construction projects aimed at creating stronger cross-border ties to Baja California.

Trans-border highways, rail systems and even airports were the order of the day. State and local planning agencies were altering their master plans to support building infrastructure needed to assure the huge foreign trade revenues forecast for the region.

The border was a “win-win” proposition for business and government on both sides of the line. Mexico was celebrated as the key ingredient vital to the region’s success in the global market. San Diego-Tijuana alone has a 100 billion dollar annual market.

Back then, California had the support of Washington, D.C., too. The Bush Administration was courting Mexico’s new President Fox. There was talk of creating policies that would facilitate the flow of immigrant workers from Mexico to the United States.

September 11 stopped all of this optimism in its tracks. Instead of new highways and border gates, Californians watched a “wall” of heightened security wedge itself between them and Mexico. The region has traveled back in time to the late 19th century, when the sole purpose of boundaries was to offer military protection against foreign incursions.

Left to their own devices, federal border enforcement agencies such as the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the U.S. Customs Service — both of which may now fall under one umbrella, Homeland Security — will seek greater control over the border zone.

Eventually, the border could be converted into a federal security area. President Bush has ordered U.S. soldiers to help patrol the border. Now a cabinet level super-agency is on the agenda.

Meanwhile, the waiting times for crossing the border back into California have doubled, tripled and at times quadrupled from the average waits before September 11. Californians are wondering out loud: How much security do they need at the border — and at what cost to the local economy and quality of life?

Recent examples point to a conflict between the Fed’s management of the border and local needs in Southern California.

For example, this spring, the INS and U.S. Customs Service announced the closing of the bicycle lane at the San Ysidro, California crossing. The bicycle lane had been adopted as a healthy community response to the daily post-September 11 logjam of vehicles and pedestrians at the Port of Entry.

Believe it or not, the INS claimed the bicycle lane was dangerous. Critics argued that the federal agencies had done no studies to look for alternatives that would allow an autonomous bike lane to exist. Why close out the only option without an alternative?

A proposed INS/U.S. Border Patrol “Border Fence Project” planned for some five miles of the boundary in San Diego is perhaps more troubling. The Border Patrol is calling for the most draconian of several design options for the fence.

Their version would insert a militarized zone in a preserved ecological sanctuary, seriously threatening native natural habitat in the state and federal wildlife reserves located here.

The Border Patrol project calls for construction of a triple fence, heavily lit at night with a significant paved road running through the center. It would create a federal security corridor — patrolled by jeeps, vans and other heavy vehicles.

Both examples imply a significant shift in philosophy in Washington, D.C.: a partial return to the 19th century view of the border as a place for military facilities and fences that defend national sovereignty.

While some of these measures represent reasonable first attempts to find new ways to protect the United States from terrorism, they are unfolding in the absence of a larger vision, one that should be made by federal forces in concert with state and regional interests.

Washington needs to be reminded that the California border’s urban areas are not neutral or unpopulated buffer zones, no man’s lands between two nations. They are vital, throbbing life spaces.

The California/Baja California border houses hundreds of thousands of people who live, work and travel around and across it as part of their everyday existence. Regional business depends on the free flow of people across this space.

There are benign ways to merge security concerns with local needs. For example, the inspection systems used on border crossers need to be expanded, so that all low risk crossers can be identified and quickly moved across the border.

As former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner told southern Californians in a visit in December 2001, it is wasteful to create giant traffic jams at the border, when 90% of those being inspected are regular crossers who should not have to be kept waiting in line.

If high-risk “crossers” can be separated from low-risk ones, the overall flow of people and vehicles over the line would be immensely improved — and all would benefit. The existing SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network For Travelers Rapid Inspection) program needs to be substantially expanded, both for cars and for pedestrians.

The Bush administration should make a financial commitment to addressing the backlog of SENTRI applicants, and expanding the program to include pedestrian crossers. This would be an important symbolic action demonstrating that Washington understands that a secure border zone is also a living, thriving community space.

Not to mention the positive signals such action would send to neighboring Mexico, that it will not be cut off from the United States rudely and crudely.