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Meeting on Border Ditch Fails to Attract Federal Officials

Times Staff Writer

Criticism of the federal government’s controversial plan to build a ditch along the U. S.-Mexico border intensified Wednesday, as opponents assailed the decision of U. S. officials not to appear personally at the first full-scale public hearing on the proposal.

Representatives of the two agencies seeking to construct the 4.2-mile trench--the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the International Boundary and Water Commission--declined to attend the forum, which was held in San Diego and called by a California legislative committee. The session, which attracted more than a dozen witnesses, many of them harshly critical of the plan, was for informational purposes only.

The decision by federal authorities not to appear was viewed by the project’s detractors as further proof of the Washington’s secretiveness about the project and the government’s lack of concern for the opinions of area residents.

“I don’t think they want to be held up to public scrutiny,” said Raquel Beltran, who spoke on behalf of the Coalition for Law & Justice, a rights group based in San Diego.

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Absence Explained

Added Robert Martinez, another rights activist opposed to the ditch, “I don’t think they can defend it adequately.”

Explaining the absence of the INS, James A. Kennedy, an assistant INS commissioner in Washington, submitted a written statement explaining that a “personal appearance” would have been “inopportune” at the moment. He added that comments and opinions will be “more informed and useful” after release, expected within a month, of an environmental report on the project. The INS and boundary commission are now preparing the study.

Narendra Gunaji , U. S. commissioner of the boundary commission--an independent, 100-year-old body that includes both U.S. and Mexican representatives--said in a telephone interview that he only received the invitation to the hearing last week and couldn’t clear his schedule, or that of any other knowledgeable commission personnel.

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“It (the invitation) came at such a short notice that we could not get prepared for it,” Gunaji said from El Paso, where the commission is based.

But Marilyn Riley, counsel to the California Senate Select Committee on Border Issues, Drug Trafficking and Contraband, which conducted the hearing, said that both the commission and the INS had been invited six weeks ago. “They made the decision at a very high level not to come,” Riley said.

In his written statement on the status of the ditch, Kennedy of the INS said the agency is in touch with Mexican government officials and “interested parties” in the United States about concerns that should be addressed in the environmental report.

At the San Diego hearing, conservationists expressed alarm about potential environmental damage, noting that the Otay Mesa area is host to a number of vernal pools--rainwater collection pools that attract considerable flora and fauna--and that several wilderness areas are proposed for the nearby Otay mountains. Endangered and threatened bird species also inhabit the Tijuana River estuary area, a few miles to the west of the ditch, noted the conservationists, who called for a complete environmental review.

Origins of Project

The results of the ecological study will be circulated and reviewed for at least 30 days, said Verne Jervis, an INS spokesman in Washington, who added that “only then will a decision be made” on how to proceed. INS officials have said they expect to complete construction of the channel by late summer. It is still not clear if the federal government will hold a public hearing on the proposal, although several area legislators have requested such a session, which is common for a range of development proposals, even many non-controversial ones.

In his written statement, Kennedy provided the agency’s most extensive explanation to date of the ditch project’s murky origins, tracing its genesis from a means to facilitate drainage in the rapidly developing Otay Mesa area to its current dual proposed role: for drainage and to thwart smugglers in vehicles, who routinely cross the border along the mesa that straddles both Tijuana and San Diego.

Critics have maintained that the ditch is unlikely to serve either purpose, but they say it will stand as a symbol of the failure of U.S. and Mexican authorities to work out their problems together.

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According to Kennedy’s chronology, the ditch plan began in 1984, when an area developer proposed construction of a rainwater retention pond, including a concrete wall, just east of the port of entry at Otay Mesa. In 1986, Kennedy said, Mexico objected to the wall, contending that it was ineffective. In response, the commission’s U.S. section suggested construction of a channel that would convey storm water to natural drainage courses that flow into Mexico.

Vehicle Barrier

At this point, Kennedy said, the commission became familiar with a concurrent INS plan for an above-ground concrete vehicle barrier that would extend to the east and west of the port of entry. Because the barrier would have exacerbated the drainage problem, Kennedy said, the boundary commission suggested the channel as an alternative. The INS agreed and the two agencies embarked upon a “joint venture,” according to Kennedy.

The plan became public earlier this year, unleashing a storm of criticism.

Mexican officials, who have publicly denounced the project, have said that they felt they were misled about the channel’s initial intent and believed it was designed solely for drainage.

Gunaji, the U.S. representative of the boundary commission, who was in touch with Mexican officials, declined to comment on the question.

At the San Diego hearing, critics continued to assail the project as an unsavory symbol, likening it to the Berlin Wall. The channel was characterized as “a potential death trap for innocent people unaware of its presence” by Roberto Martinez, representing the American Friends Service Committee, social action arm of the Quaker Church.

Among the few expressing even qualified support for the project was Peter Nunez, the former U.S. attorney in San Diego who spoke on behalf of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based lobbying group that has proposed an even larger barrier along the border. Nunez said barriers such as the ditch are necessary to deter illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

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At the Mexican Embassy in Washington, Fernando Solana, minister of foreign affairs, repeated Mexico’s opposition to the ditch, saying that “from Mexico’s point of view, what interests us is building bridges and not ditches, and we are supporting construction of five new bridges on the border.” On Feb. 20, the Mexican government formally protested the project, calling on U. S. officials to abandon the plan.

Mexican authorities were heartened by the U. S. response to their protest, which was dispatched on March 16. According to a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy, the State Department said “new options are being considered” for drainage problems in the Otay Mesa area.

However, a U. S. official cautioned that the response does not mean the ditch will be abandoned. “No decision has been made either way,” the official said.

Times staff writers Lee May and Don Shannon contributed to this story from Washington.


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