U.S. Border Patrol Agents Justin Castregon and Jarrett Decker were atop a bluff on Monday morning that overlooks Imperial Beach and a border wall that juts into the Pacific Ocean, when a tourist came up and asked if he had permission to talk to them and apologized for being in a restricted area.
The gentleman was with his 84-year-old father-in-law and mother-in-law who he said were visiting from Albania. The father-in-law had trouble walking and used a cane, and although there were signs posted indicating this area is closed to the public on weekdays — except for those who hike up a half-mile hill — Castregon smiled and kindly looked the other way as the family's car was parked in the lot.
The tourist, Paul, who didn’t give his last name, was so grateful that he asked to take a photo of the agents with his in-laws.
“God bless you all. And thank you for all that you do to keep us safe,” Paul said as he shook their hands after taking a photo.
As they drove away, Castregon, who is a public affairs officer for the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector and was leading Border Report on a four-hour tour of the region, explained that agents always have the discretion to assess every situation and to act accordingly. In this case, he said, the elderly couple clearly were not a threat “and maybe they just wanted to see the beach from up here,” he said.
Assessing every situation individually is key for them to be able to carry out their mission, which he said is ensuring the security of the United States borders. But he admitted that not everyone understands that or sees it that way.
Issues that are as politically divisive as immigration, the building of a border wall and enforcement of the border often draw negative impressions from the public about what these agents do in the field.
Even the terms "wall" vs. "fence" draw criticism, Castregon said.
“Whatever the kind of nomenclature is used, it’s important to remember that it is going to help us do our job much better and much safer. It’s not the one and only element that will help us to complete our mission but it's a very big part of that,” Castregon said.
“As we saw in this sector in the early 90s – before we had anything in the perimeter – the illegal entries were just rampant. It was sort of chaotic at times. Since we did put up the primary (wall) in the early 90s and we are making improvements on it, we are seeing much less illegal entries. It’s much more difficult for people to make that illegal attempt to enter the United States,” he said.
Building a second border wall
The San Diego Border Patrol sector covers 60 linear land miles and 930 coastal miles. The sector has 1,900 agents and in the 1990s was the sector with the most apprehensions in the nation by far.
Agents here used to apprehend about 1,000 people trying to cross into the United States illegally per day. Now, that number is 160 per day.
In fiscal year 2019 thus far, there have been 56,000 arrests in the San Diego Sector, Castregon said. That is up from the 36,000 total apprehensions in fiscal 2018. The fiscal year ends at the end of this month, but as the numbers currently stand, arrests already are up 43 percent from last year.
Still, these apprehension rates are way down from the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1986, this sector made 629,000 arrests.
Castregon credits this decrease in migrant apprehensions to the building of a primary border wall as well as upgraded equipment and an aggressive strategy that was adopted here on Oct. 1,1994, called Operation Gatekeeper.
Operation Gatekeeper shifted the operational emphasis from apprehension to deterrence and prevention. Many agents were transferred to “high visibility” fixed positions along the border, and a three-tiered system of agent deployment was instituted. The sector also received new equipment, including four-wheel drive vehicles, infrared night scopes, and electronic sensors.
Now Congress has approved funding to build new wall here, including a second higher wall to be built that is parallel to the first.Fourteen new miles of border wall are going up in the Otay Mesa area. The primary fence was finished three months ago.
“And that goes all the way to the Pacific Ocean,” Decker said.
The second wall is 30 feet tall – 12 feet higher than the first wall – and parallel to the first, shorter wall. The space in between the two walls ranges from wide enough to drive a truck through to 150 feet or more, depending on the terrain.
This mountainous land is full of rocks, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats and thistles. Tires on vehicles can pop easily, so in between the two walls an all-weather road has been laid down that agents can drive up and down easily.
On the road are flood lights on poles, underground sensors and radar and infrared cameras spaced throughout this fortified enforcement zone.
The new walls have a 5-foot anti-climb shield at the top – a solid sheet of metal designed to prevent migrants who may be able to scale the metal bollards from actually going over the top. The bollards are spaced 4 inches apart and the slats are see-through. This allows agents to be able to see what’s going on the other side of the border, Castregon said.
Human traffickers, also called “coyotes,” and drug smugglers are very intelligent, he said.
"So we, Border patrol, U.S. government work to be just that much better than they are,” Castegon said.
The border wall in many places is just feet from Mexican highways and roads in Tijuana, which is densely populated with two-story homes where barking dogs and roosters crowing can be heard.
The U.S. side is void of any homes, businesses or roads.
Agents refer to the border wall as the Border Infrastructure System, and they say it is just one tool in their arsenal to stop illegal entries into the United States.
These are “manpower multipliers,” Decker said. “Because with these cameras we don’t have to daisy-chain agents every 20 to 30 feet.”
- They also partner with other law enforcement agencies to share information, which they say is key to deterring illegal crossings.
- They utilize underground sensors to detect ground movement. This year agents in this sector uncovered three underground tunnels in the Otay Mesa area.
- They drag tires behind vehicles on dirt roads to help mark fresh footprints made by migrants crossing.
- They implore maritime surveillance, because here in San Diego one of the biggest threats comes from the ocean, Decker said. That is especially difficult for agents when early morning fog rolls in daily, usually from the hours of 3 a.m. until the sun burns it off midmorning. And that is a time when migrants and coyotes will make a run for the border, he said.
So the visible placement of agents in key positions — such as atop a canyon where the border wall ends and on the bluff above Imperial Beach where the elderly tourists stumbled into the restricted area – is necessary to show coyotes their force and presence.
On Imperial Beach occasionally migrants will try to swim around the wall, which juts 30 feet into the Pacific Ocean. Agent Decker said that Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel several times have had to rescue drowning migrants there.
“Sometimes they try to float by on a raft, or using a kickboard or on a little boat,” Decker said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com. She is part of a 10-day Border Tour, which launched from San Diego and is driving to Brownsville, Texas, to report on the communities and people who make up the Southwest border.