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Hearings Planned on Border Ditch : Backers Fear That Growing Opposition Could Derail Project

Times Staff Writer

Growing opposition to a ditch to be constructed along the U.S.-Mexican border in San Diego has led to plans for congressional hearings on the project and prompted concerns among supporters that it may be derailed.

Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) has written letters to Secretary of State James A. Baker III and to a key House subcommittee chairman, noting that the Mexican government has registered opposition to the planned project. “In the interest of positive U.S.-Mexican relations,” Bates wrote, the State Department should “intervene in this matter immediately.”

In his letter to Rep. George W. Crockett Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, Bates requested hearings “on U.S.-Mexico relations as soon as possible,” urging that the hearings be broadened to include the idea of a free-trade zone near the border, security matters and other bilateral issues.

In response, Crockett said he has instructed his staff to schedule hearings this spring.

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“I’m trying to elevate the whole question of border issues to a higher level,” Bates said in an interview, asserting that discussion of such issues usually degenerates into hostile accusations, leaving participants in “a quagmire.”

The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s plan to build the five-foot-deep, four-mile-long concrete and earthen ditch has been the center of controversy since it was revealed in January. The agency has commissioned an environmental impact study for the ditch, which would cost the United States $2 million.

INS officials assert that the ditch would assist drainage in the Otay Mesa area and help stop the frequent passage of vehicles carrying smuggled immigrants and drugs across the border. But many immigrant rights activists charge that the ditch would be as symbolically offensive as the Berlin Wall in Germany.

On Feb. 20, the Mexican government formally protested the project, declaring: “In the spirit of cooperation and friendship that characterizes the relations between the two nations, that option (the ditch) must be discarded.”

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At the State Department an official said the agency is still coordinating a response to the Mexican government.

Despite the avalanche of criticism, INS officials Thursday continued to defend the plan and stood firm on it. “It makes sense,” said INS spokesman Duke Austin, “because it addresses border drainage concerns and protects Mexican nationals from injury by high-speed entrance to the United States. It makes sense on both sides.”

However, there is a rising concern among advocates of the ditch that because of the mounting criticism, it may never be built.

This concern centers on the possibility that the State Department, thinking of the international image of the United States, will order the project halted. “I do see the State Department coming down real hard, because opponents are screaming,” said one Bush Administration official.

Asked when the department will reply to Mexican complaints, one State Department official said, “It’ll happen; there’s still time. Not a single shovel has been turned on the project.”

The INS environmental impact study is expected to be completed by April. Officials have said they hope the ditch can be built this summer.

But an official at the Justice Department, parent agency of the INS, said that if the environmental assessment is overwhelmingly favorable but contains “just one negative sentence,” the project might be killed. “If you’re looking for a reason not to do something, you can always find it,” the official said.

The planned congressional hearings may only complicate its fate.

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“I agree that such a hearing is necessary,” Crockett said in a letter replying to Bates’ request.

At the Mexican Embassy here, a spokesman hailed the planned hearings as “fantastic.” He said they will be “extremely positive” if they lead to increased attention to bilateral issues.

Similarly, Martha Jimenez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, while assailing the ditch as an example of “isolation mentality,” said the hearings “should go beyond the ditch and get at core problems like fear and intolerance and see how we as a nation have been sensitive to immigrants. They should deal with reasons that people are trying to come here.”


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