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The Washington Post

Family Gatherings at Border to Become Casualty of US Crackdown

Ashley Surdin

Wendy Castro of Tijuana, Mexico, showed her 9-month-old son, Aaron, to family members at Border Field State Park in California. Such meetings will soon be halted by a fortified barrier. (Ashley Surdin/ Washington Post)

BORDER FIELD STATE PARK, Calif. - Each face would be overlaid with
the rusted chain links of the US-Mexico border fence, but Jorge Ibarra
snapped the photos anyway.

There was his cousin, holding up her baby boy for the family to see.
There was his aunt, wiping her eyes under the shade of her parasol. And
there was his grandmother, her face filled with joy as she touched her
daughter's fingertips through the fence.

Ibarra, 17, of National City, Calif., shot the family photos on a
recent Sunday afternoon here, where the 2,000-mile line separating the
United States and Mexico reaches the Pacific Ocean. For years, Mexican
American families have flocked to this beachside park to meet and feed
loved ones through the modest openings of the fence.

But the days of such reunions are numbered. Starting this month,
construction of a more fortified barrier along the southern edge of the
park and the three miles to the east will begin as part of the federal
government's crackdown on drug and document smuggling, illegal
crossings, and violence in the surrounding area.

Two 15-foot-high fences will flank the current one, creating a
90-foot-wide tract for a paved border patrol road and stadium lights,
according to Angela de Rocha, a US Customs and Border Patrol
spokeswoman. The gap will transform the gatherings here, preventing
touching and close conversation. With only distant glimpses to offer,
it may mark an end to many, if not all, such visits.

"We don't know when they're going to do it," said Ibarra, standing
with his sister, mother, and nephews. "So we've been trying to come
every weekend."

The $60 million construction project makes up the western portion of
the San Diego Border Infrastructure System, a 14-mile, federally
mandated barrier that dates to 1996. Representative Duncan Hunter,
Republican of California, secured funding for the fence and thousands
more Border Patrol Officers to combat rampant smuggling of illegal
immigrants and border gangs who raped, robbed, and murdered along
portions of this border north of Tijuana.

Some construction was completed, cutting the numbers of illegal
immigrants, bandits, and drug smugglers who traversed the border,
Hunter said.


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But until this year, litigation has delayed construction of these
three miles. Environmental groups opposed flattening terrain by lopping
the tops off two mesas and pouring 5.5 million cubic feet of dirt into
a canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch, an area prone to narcotics

In 2005, when Congress gave Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff the power to waive all regulations that govern border
construction, the project was cleared to proceed.

A newly erected mesh enclosure in the 418-acre park has squeezed
visitors into a smaller space, sending them down to the beach or a
small strip on a bluff. Most prefer the bluff near the 1851 border
monument, the Italian marble obelisk that marks the end of the
Mexican-American War and Mexico's ceding of the land that now forms the
southwestern United States.

This is where visitors come now, against the backdrop of Tijuana's
Bull Ring, with umbrellas or folding chairs slung under their arms.
They bring photo albums. They share updates.

But the scene is not as harmless as it looks, said Lloyd Easterling,
assistant chief with the Border Patrol. Drugs and false documents are
passed through the fence's holes - holes that are repeatedly repaired
and sliced open - while thieves cross illegally to burglarize nearby

Easterling said agents are compassionate toward visitors and
families. Many have relatives of their own living in Mexico, he said.
But with smuggling and assaults increasing, he said, securing the
border is necessary.


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