I was in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving with family, and they wanted to take a road trip. We settled on San Diego, and they asked what I wanted to see.
My answer: “The Border Wall. At least the samples.”
Actually, I soon learned, they’re called “prototypes.” You’ve likely seen the official photos. There’s eight of them, in a row near the real border fence. They’re the result of an early executive order from the current White House. They had their fifteen minutes in the spotlight almost a year ago.
There’s been no funding yet for the Real Thing, though a round of struggle for several billion worth is underway in the congressional lame duck session.
I’ll leave the blow-by-blow on that to others. For me the prototypes were a thing, a key symbol of where this country might yet be taken. I think of them as a portent; I dare to hope they’ll end up as no more than a monument.
I meant them no mischief; I wasn’t going to protest, splash them with paint, nothing like that. They were supposed to be impregnable and unclimbable anyway. I just wanted to go where they were, contemplate them up close, and with luck, walk over and touch one. Take some pictures of my own.
The others were game, so off we went. Finding them appeared to be easy: my GPS lit right up when I typed in “prototypes.”
They were, it said, near the Otay Mesa border crossing, about 25 miles southeast of downtown San Diego. Lines for roads went across my phone screen straight to the Prototype marker.
But my GPS was mistaken, or perhaps out of date. Otay Mesa was a complex of large low warehouses, blank white boxes in the middle of an arid-looking stretch of desert.
The crossing we saw was emitting a steady stream of huge tractor trailer trucks. Beyond it, East Tijuana sprawled out along the border fence, with maquiladoras in front and housing behind, crawling up the edges of foothills a few miles farther east.
But the roads on my screen were all blocked in fact. More than that, they didn’t really exist. Pavement ran past the warehouses, then abruptly disappeared; it looked to me like roads had been bulldozed.
When we came to the first one, we checked the GPS, drove a few blocks up, and tried the next street. Nope. And then a third one.
None went beyond the warehouse complex. The GPS lines hinted that they must have done so, not long ago; the barriers looked new.
We had not thought to bring binoculars, and following the fence running eastward with the naked eye at first didn’t show any sign of the prototypes. Had we been misled by our devices?
No. Sliding my phone camera into the gap between two locked metal gates, I finally spotted them, far in the distance, hazy but barely discernible spots.
That was the best we could do. Half an hour more of exploratory driving suggested that all access roads had either been closed or demolished. In the distance a cream-colored Border Patrol van raised a dust cloud, following a track near them; it was clearly not open to us, if we could even have found it.
We headed back toward San Diego and the motel. Puzzled, I started googling local news reports about this. Why was the location so remote in the first place? Why was it then closed off, essentially hidden?
Turns out the administration was expecting all hell to break loose around them. Homeland Security sent a memo to local officials, warning them to expect huge, militant protests.
In response, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department spent at east $50,000 on riot equipment, including lots of pepper spray and tear gas, then paid for 10,000 hours of overtime for deputies and staff to practice using it. Much more was spent on “securing the area” around the prototypes. (It certainly was fully secured against us tourists.)
But it turned out there weren’t any meaningful protests. When the president came to visit last March, about a hundred veterans were assembled to wave MAGA flags and applaud. Nearby, 15 doughty anti-wall protesters chanted and waved posters; there was no trouble.
Local radicals told the press they had decided to ignore the whole thing. (Once, though, a few art grad students parked behind the prototypes on the Mexican side, and when it got dark, projected some anti-wall images on them; but no damage was reported.)
[UPDATE: On December 10, several hundred protesters gathered on the American side to protest the treatment of asylum seekers penned up in tent cities on the Mexican side. The gathering was peaceful, though a few dozen were arrested.]
Besides the sparseness of protests, widespread skepticism, and even derision has been expressed about how useful the wall could be as a deterrent, coming from many who could hardly be classed as lefties. When a Fox News talking head claimed that a group of Navy SEALS proved unable to climb or breach the prototypes, a SEALS spokesman sniffed that no SEALS had wasted time going anywhere near them. And the military-oriented War Zone website also pointed out that drug and people smugglers are already adept at getting over, under or around existing wall-type barriers; it’s part of their skill set.
In fact, it seems the whole prototype project has been pretty much forgotten. A touring company has offered visits to them; but its site had none scheduled, and does not even list a ticket price; business must be less than brisk.
Besides, the White House has moved on to peddling hysteria about an “invasion” by caravans of terrorist asylum-seekers from Central America, armed with full diapers and empty stomachs. The day we went searching for the prototypes, several hundred tired, hungry refugees, mainly from Honduras, were crowding into tents and a Tijuana soccer stadium, before making efforts to file asylum claims. Soon enough, the border Patrol had a chance to use some of that stored up tear gas, several miles west of where the prototypes kept their ersatz vigil, on mothers and toddlers
I still wanted to visit the wall segments. I maintain the possibly vain hope they’ll end up as a monument to monumental folly.
But the next day, we visited my other favored site, the San Diego Mission, founded by Spanish priests before the radical gringo colonists in the east had won independence from some King named George.
There I had better luck: they let us in. I lit two candles: one for a friend facing surgery, and the other as a plea for forgiveness for all this crazy wickedness.
There was no damage at this small demonstration either.