Here are just a few of the many first-hand accounts of border mischief that you’ll hear on Edgeline Productions’ Border Tour.
For decades preceding Operation Gatekeeper (when the U.S. government massively beefed up the Border Patrol), the U.S.—Mexico border in Imperial Beach was seriously under-protected. Several hundred to more than a thousand people streamed illegally across the border each day between the Pacific Ocean and Highway 5: a five-mile stretch.
Mexicans being excellent entrepreneurs, several popped up to serve the needs of this human traffic. Just east of the Tijuana River, near an area we call The Gravel Pit, a couple of street-food vendors set up camp. Starting about noon “The Soup Kitchen” hawked tacos, burritos, and cold sodas under a big blue tarp strapped to the international fence...on the U.S. side! Rarely bothered by Border Patrol Agents, they were more cautious of the bandits who preyed upon the immigrants. But being brave as well as clever, they risked it because, well, demand was high and competition low.
The Ostrich Effect
The air was quiet on this warm Sunday morning. Unlike my last shift---the busy night shift---I could take a breather, positioning myself on a high point of land in a small eucalyptus grove. With binoculars on the seat of my marked BP vehicle, I opened the Sunday paper. Not only could I see all that approached this area of the border from this position, but those who would dare to cross in broad daylight could as easily see me…or so I presumed.
With sparrows chirping in the branches above, I had barely begun the Latest Atrocities section of the paper when I glimpsed movement about 500 yards to the south. I picked up my binoculars….
“No…..No!” I said to myself as I tossed the newspaper to the floorboard. Two playful youths, probably in their late teens or early twenties, bounded joyfully towards “el Norte.” Laughing and playfully poking at each other, they were probably trading stories about what they would do once they made it north.
I started my vehicle and rolled slowly forward. They were still close enough to return to Mexico…which is what I would’ve preferred. Yet they were oblivious of my presence.
When they finally saw or heard my vehicle, the two young men dove into a pile of old tires dumped along the roadway. In the two minutes it took me to reach them, they did their best to wiggle into the pile of tires. Stopping adjacent to their hideout, I saw legs sticking out and one kid’s face staring back at me from a small hill of rubber.
“Oye, compa… ¿has visto algunos mojados por acá?” (“Hey partner…have you seen any wetbacks around here?”) Silence. “Oye…tú…tú, allí por las llantas…te hablo…” (“Hey you…you there in the tires…I’m speaking to you…”)
The youth slowly, sheepishly raised his head, looked me in the eye, and with a humoristic smile, shook his head no.
“OK, gracias! Que te vaya bien…” (“OK, thanks, see you later…”)
I turned my vehicle around and headed back to my vantage point. Two bewildered kids exited the pile of tires, looked towards my position, scratched their heads, smiled and pointed towards me, and continuing their playful banter, turned back south toward Mexico ...
Sorry…it’s illegal to cross here…
It’s almost 4PM…the end of my shift…and it is the mid 1980s, during one of many mass exoduses from El Salvador. We were so hard hit with folks from El Salvador that the standing joke was that if you catch an El Sal, he’ll be on the bus to L.A. before you can finish your paperwork.
There was some truth to that. Processing OTM's (“Other Than Mexicans,” an official designation) took anywhere from a few hours to half your shift. At the end of a shift, that meant extensive overtime. The government’s answer was to give them all “210 Letters”… a government form releasing the individual from custody if he or she promised to show up in court somewhere down the line. Yeah, right…
So at almost 4PM here comes a gentleman, suitcase in hand, fresh from crossing at the broken border fence near the Tijuana River. He’s walking right towards me, smiling, and waving something that looks about the size of a passport…and it’s green…Eeh gads! It could be an El Sal!!! No! Not at the end of shift!
I sink into the seat of my Ram Charger as he approaches my window with a smile on his face, El Salvador passport in hand. In Spanish he says “Hi officer! I’m from El Salvador, and I’m here to turn myself in!!”
“You’re from El Salvador?” I say, feigning ignorance.
Assured that the rumors of the open arms of America are true, he shouts, “Yes, I am!”
“I’m sorry, sir” I tell him. “El Salvadorans are not allowed to cross here. It is illegal. If you want to enter the US, you’ll have to go back to Mexico, turn east, and cross on the other side of the Port of Entry.”
“OK, thank you, Officer.”
And away he went, back into Mexico, and presumably to the other side of the Port, where it was the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station’s area of responsibility, not ours. I didn’t want my peers frowning at me for bringing in an El Sal at the end of shift.