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Border Folly

As an idea to reduce illegal immigration or drug traffic from Mexico into the United States, the proposed ditch at the Otay Mesa border crossing probably makes as about much sense as the notoriously ineffective “Tortilla Curtain” chain link fence erected 10 years ago.

The ditch would not hinder the overwhelming majority of aliens and smugglers who travel by foot. It is designed to make it harder for the approximately 3,000 vehicles that drive illegally across the border between Otay Mesa and San Ysidro each year and easier for U.S. Border Patrol agents to catch those who circumvent the ditch. That would reduce drug and alien traffic and help prevent accidents caused by reckless smugglers, Border Patrol officials say.

Whether the ditch would succeed in this goal is doubtful. But even if it did, the people in those 3,000 vehicles, up to eight or nine in a car or up to 25 in a van, are a tiny percentage of the estimated 1 million people who cross illegally each year in the San Diego area. And what’s to stop them from crossing on foot? As a tool against illegal immigration or drug trafficking, the ditch is just one more finger in the dike and not worth jeopardizing relations with Mexico.

But as an idea to channel Otay Mesa rain runoff, which threatens to flood areas on the Mexican side of the border--the original reason Mexico suggested the ditch--the ditch probably makes sense. At least, the engineers from the International Boundary and Water Commission thought so.

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Just how and why the ditch went from a being the solution to an international drainage problem to being a solution to a smuggling problem is a bit murky. That the Mexican government was blindsided by U.S. officials is fairly clear, however.

The controversy is just one more illustration of the uneasy relations between the two countries. It also telegraphs the reaction that the Mexican government is likely to have to even more radical proposals by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) for a sunken concrete wall topped by a fence running along 25 miles of the border and the idea by FAIR and Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) to charge a fee for legally crossing the border.

Ironically, the news of the ditch came the same week as an announcement by the San Diego Assn. of Governments that it would be exploring the idea of a binational airport with Mexico on Otay Mesa as part of its study of alternative locations for the overcrowded Lindbergh Field.

If the history of the ditch is any indication, something as complex as a binational airport--no matter how logical it might be--is unlikely to be achieved.

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With so many issues that need cooperation between the two governments, and the promise of better relations suggested by the new presidents of both countries, it’s a shame that a fairly simple plan to solve a fairly simple drainage problem was sidetracked into the diplomatically dangerous arena of immigration control.


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