SAN DIEGO — Before there was a fence, all that marked the border between Mexico and the United States were stone and steel monuments, 276 of them dotting the southwestern landscape. They were installed by Mexican and American surveyors starting in 1850, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and the two countries agreed to define their shared border.
But as the U.S. Border Patrol has reinforced the boundary with a new fence, many of these bi-national monuments have been left entirely on the Mexican side of the barriers.
On the scenic stretch of coast where San Diego meets Tijuana, Mexico, the Border Patrol is making the border fence taller and thicker – impenetrable, it hopes, to drug smugglers and illegal crossers.
But peering through the new vertical bars and double mesh on a recent day, you could still make out a marble, pyramid-shaped monument on the other side.
It marks the precise point where Mexico and the U.S. meet, and visitors on opposite sides of the border were once able to approach the monument from both sides and talk through the fence.
But late last year, the Border Patrol moved its fence three feet to the north, fencing the monument out.
This has been happening at monument sites across the Southwest. It began when border fencing started going up in the early 1990s and has continued since 2006, when Congress approved the construction of 700 miles of new fence.
In 2008, the Border Patrol signed an accord with the agency responsible for maintaining the monuments – the International Boundary and Water Commission – agreeing not to disturb the monuments during fence construction.
So, in many places along the border, like San Diego, the Border Patrol built the fence a few feet north of the actual international boundary.
“The fence itself is constructed inside the United States,” said Jerry Conlin, a Border Patrol spokesman. The agreement between the two agencies, he said: “is that any type of construction around a monument would be set back three feet.”
Sally Spener is a spokeswoman for the boundary and water commission, which reviews the Border Patrol’s plans to ensure the fence is not inadvertently built on Mexican territory. She said commission officials had been willing to work with the Border Patrol to maintain access to the monument in San Diego.
She would not say whether the agency responded, but in any case, bi-national access was eliminated.
Now San Diego activists are hoping to convince the Border Patrol to change its fence design to restore access to the monument from both sides.
“A border monument needs to be on the border, not just on one side or the other. It’s a shared marker between two nations,” said Jim Brown, a local architect and activist. “To have the fence jog around and have it be almost ownership by Mexico doesn’t make any emotional sense, it makes no physical sense, it makes no common sense.”
Brown is a member of the Friends of Friendship Park, a group of activists that takes its name after the area where loved ones used to chat through the border fence until access was blocked.
Brown said he’s come up with a relatively simple design change that would make the monument accessible from both sides again.
Conlin said the Border Patrol was willing to listen, but stressed that border security was the agency’s mandate and priority.
David Taylor, an art professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, has been photographing all 276 monuments since he realized the new fencing was going to make many of them inaccessible from the U.S.
He believes the monuments, once a symbol of bi-national cooperation, have become casualties of the push for greater border enforcement.
“It’s one of those very unfortunate situations where this thing that’s part of our shared heritage with Mexico isn’t easily accessible.”
On the other side, visitors have expressed their thoughts too.
An engraving on the monument warns vandals that defacing it is a crime punishable by Mexico or the United States. But someone recently used purple ink to cross out the words, United States.
January 28, 2012
By Adrian Florido