TIJUANA, Mexico — Rising from the Pacific surf and zig-zagging along the border for 14 miles, Tijuana’s border fence has done little but push illegal migrants into the Arizona desert and feed the smuggling industry since it went up in 1994.
Today, as the U.S. prepares to build a high-tech barrier with 700 miles of extra fencing, motion detectors and remote controlled devices, smugglers are already figuring out how to beat the new security.
Even before President Bush signed the $1.2 billion funding bill Wednesday to strengthen busy crossing points, border patrol figures indicated that smugglers have been hiding more migrants in vehicles, or diverting them across one of the most inhospitable sections of the border: a mountainous stretch of searing desert near Yuma, Ariz.
Some experts predict smugglers could turn to boats and tunnels, two methods popular with drug smugglers but seldom used by migrant traffickers.
“It doesn’t matter what they do. There isn’t a wall that can stop people because there will always be someone who finds a way to cross,” said 37-year-old Jose Lopez, a construction worker who said he had just been deported to Tijuana after being detained in San Francisco.
Because he has three children still in the U.S., Lopez is considering crossing again, even though he risks three years in jail because of prior arrests for carrying a fake ID.
While the interview process for visas has become tougher, it has failed to stop these so-called “overstays” from reaching for the American dream. If they cannot get a visa, there’s a smuggling business that moves millions of people from Mexican towns to employers throughout the United States.
The increased enforcement that began with Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, which produced the corrugated metal and chain-link fence, dramatically cut illegal border crossings in the Tijuana-San Diego area, but overall they kept their pace. Total arrests along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico has ebbed and flowed since then but changed little: 1.3 million in 1995, compared to 1.2 million in 2005.
Trafficking has flourished; the average price for being smuggled through a port of entry in the Tijuana-San Diego area, usually in the trunk of a car or using false or borrowed documents, shot up from $300 in 1994 to $2,500. Crossing through the Arizona desert can cost up to $1,800.
Jose Ramos, a professor and researcher at the Tijuana-based Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a think-tank focused on border affairs, expects smugglers to charge even more as they look for new ways to cross.
“These organizations will have to innovate, become more sophisticated, and for the migrant that will mean an even higher cost,” Ramos said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if smugglers began crossing migrants through underground tunnels or began using boats.”
In Altar, a Mexican farming town of 7,000 and a gathering point for those heading to Arizona, hundreds of men carrying backpacks and jugs of water mill around the town’s plaza. They are waiting for their smugglers to drive them to the final staging area, Sasabe, which borders on the sparsely populated Tohono O’odham Indian reservation on the U.S. side.
Some don’t survive after hiking for days through a snake-infested desert under a broiling sun. Still, the paths through the desert near Sasabe are less hostile than the terrain near Yuma, which is expected to become the next big crossing area.
From Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 15 of this year, 426 people died while illegally crossing the border, and the Colegio de la Frontera Norte says the death toll since 1994 is about 3,700.
“More walls will make it more difficult for migrants to cross, but they will keep trying, even if they risk dying,” said Luis Kendzierski, a priest who directs a Tijuana migrant shelter.