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SAN YSIDRO, CALIFORNIA — When retired Lieutenant Sean Murphy patrolled the dry brush California hills outside San Ysidro, on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border, there was no towering wall. The “barrier” that existed barely cast a shadow.
“It was a wooden post here, and a wooden post there, and some barbed wire,” Murphy said.
That was the 1980s.
In a span of three decades, as successive U.S. presidents presented their blueprints to secure the border, the barrier expanded, sometimes parallel to previous fences – two or three layers thick. Today, it stretches no more than 1,000 kilometers in total, along 3,000 kilometers of border that is mostly desert.
‘The greatest wall’
Before he became president, Donald Trump made no secret of his plans to build a wall – “the greatest wall that you’ve ever seen” – made of concrete, steel and rebar. His motive: to prevent crime and drugs from crossing north and migrants from taking U.S. jobs, charges he made repeatedly in 2016.
“Who’s going to pay for the wall?” he would ask at his campaign rallies, ear flexed toward his supporters.
“Mexico!” they yelled.
President Trump vows to deliver on this promise, despite Mexico’s insistence that it will not pay – an endeavor that could cost as much as $25 billion, according to research compiled by the Washington Post, more than double Trump’s 2016 estimates for a 10-12-meter, 1,600-kilometer structure.
Murphy of the San Diego Police Department says he has seen migrants change course as a result of the barriers in place today, the first under the president Clinton-led “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, and again under president George W. Bush’s “Secure Fence Act” of 2006.
“Back in the day … you would run into people with large duffel bags, and guess what’s in the duffel bag?” Murphy asked, answering his own question – drugs.
But while border-related crime is down in southern California, where large sections of the Bush-era fence are in place, Murphy says migration has only moved eastward into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. And he doesn’t foresee any wall stopping criminals from entering.
“They’re getting a little bit more creative. Now they’re using boats to get up the coast. They are trying to bring it in through 18-wheelers and tractor trailers,” Murphy said.
‘Wall of shame’
In the vast desert outside Jacumba, California, Enrique Morones – founder and director of Border Angels – drops gallon jugs of water beside bushes for migrants who might otherwise die from dehydration.
He calls the barrier there “the wall of death and a wall of shame.”
“This wall of Operation Gatekeeper, from 1994, has led to the death of more than 11,000 people,” Morones said, using a figure that he says accounts for both sides of the border.
Morones laments that many of those who perished remain unidentified and unknown to the world.
“You’ll recognize the image of the little boy with the red T-shirt on, face down in the Mediterranean Sea … but nobody has ever seen the picture of Marco Antonio Villasenor, a boy almost the same age,” he said. “He was five years old, and he died crossing the desert into Texas with 18 men.”