Javier Lopez glares at the steel border fence knifing eastward and wonders if it will split forever the unusual place he calls home--a pair of back-country towns that have existed nearly as one across an international divide.
"Jacumba and Jacume were united," Lopez said, clasping his hands as if in prayer. "There were never problems. Now we hope they don't cut off our freedom to cross."
For as long as anyone in this farming hamlet can remember, locals strolled freely through the old cow fence into Jacumba in eastern San Diego County to work, visit family members and stock up on goods that are not sold in their town.
But the era of low-key border enforcement in this boulder-strewn backwater is ending--the victim of increased immigrant-smuggling activity in the region attributed in great measure to successful crackdown efforts in more populous areas to the west.
The surest sign of this trend--and the hot topic in Jacume and Jacumba--is the 10-foot-high fence being built along a rugged border stretch where the two settlements touch in an otherwise desolate region of desert scrub.
Residents gather at the construction site to drink Budweisers and ponder what the fence will mean for the twin communities, which share numerous family links and a tradition of treating the border as little more than an abstraction.
People from Jacume with permits to work on the American side fret that they will have to relocate, or drive west to the crossing at Tecate--a route that would make a trip to Jacumba nearly 100 miles long.
The question on the lips of many locals is: Will the Border Patrol leave a gate so they can visit Jacumba?
"Absolutely not," answers Charles G. Dierkop, the Border Patrol agent in charge of the area.
Dierkop said Jacumba--population, about 600--is not a designated port of entry, so it is a violation of U.S. customs laws to cross there, despite the long tradition. U.S. immigration officials hope that the fence and an expected addition of more agents in the area will curb the flow of vehicles carrying illegal immigrants--and put a stop to the casual crossings by those with documents.
"We didn't make a fuss over it. Now it seems like it's being taken advantage of," Dierkop said. "How do I know a guy doesn't come across with a brick of drugs?"
Already the torrent of illegal immigrants through Jacume, which has about 300 people, has slowed, residents said. But the ordeal has left townspeople on both sides lamenting the loss of a more innocent time and feeling helpless before distant forces of politics, migration and out-of-town smugglers.
"It's because of the coyotes [the smugglers]," said Lopez, who has a green card and keeps a mobile home in Jacumba so his four children can attend American schools. "Because of their doing, we have the problems."
The geographic isolation that once bonded the two towns now may help yank them apart.
Crafty immigrant-smugglers in search of surer crossing routes have pushed east since the U.S. government launched Operation Gatekeeper to prevent illegal crossings around San Ysidro in 1994. During the past year, the Border Patrol and residents have reported heightened smuggling traffic in eastern San Diego County. The Clinton administration announced two weeks ago that it was adding 185 agents to clamp down along a rugged 16-mile stretch from Otay Mesa to Tecate.
As agents tightened the lid on the west, the towns of Jacumba and Jacume--outposts with sporadic drug smuggling in the past--watched a sudden avalanche of suspected smugglers pour through, residents said. A cluster of vacant buildings near the fence, including an abandoned Mexican customs house, became havens for people preparing to cross illegally.
Raul Gallego, 71, a Jacume resident who lives 100 feet from the border, said the vehicles snaking toward the crossing resembled a funeral procession.
"That's what it looked like--cars going to the United States," Gallego said. "Pickups. Vans. Cars."
The Border Patrol responded with construction of the mile-long fence and plans to add agents to patrol the area. The new barrier, made of steel panels welded to 10-foot posts, is welcomed by some U.S. residents weary of intruders trooping past. Last week, agents stopped a van loaded with 21 suspected illegal immigrants at a park in Jacumba less than a mile from the fence, Dierkop said.
"They're going to have to go farther east," said Jacumba resident Pete Severance. The retired oil distributor lives with his wife, Jeri, in a home that sits just 37 feet from the new fence. The couple said immigrants passing through their property have used their garden hose and trampled a bush but never caused serious trouble.
"[The fence] is a damn good thing to have," said another Jacumba resident who has reported smuggling activity to authorities. The man, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, blamed some Jacume residents, who he said helped smugglers for easy money. "There had to be something done," he said.
But residents on both sides of the fence say the barrier already has jarred their communities. It is difficult to find anyone who does not have a relative or close friend across the line. Many make regular walks across the border to visit or attend parties. Some Mexican residents receive mail at the tiny post office in Jacumba because their town has no post office. Beer sales at Jacumba's two stores are brisk, in large part because alcohol sales are barred in Jacume, part of a state-sponsored communal farm. And it is a common practice for Jacume residents to keep a car on each side of the border, which is blocked to most traffic, and tote across everything from donated bicycles to bags of cement.
In addition to Lopez, other Jacume residents with green cards have relocated to the U.S. side so their children can attend local schools. At least one has even joined the local Kiwanis, said Felix Bachmeier, owner of the Jacumba Hot Springs, a spa that is Jacumba's main tourist draw. Bachmeier employs three Jacume men with work permits who make the crossing daily.
"Most Jacumba people know the Jacume people," Bachmeier said. "They are here to support the local stores. A lot of work is done by them."
Mario Ramirez, 36, a handyman at the spa, grumbled that a sealed border would force him to quit his job or break the law. The laborious drive through Tecate is out of the question, he said.
Ramirez, whose family owns a small restaurant in Jacume, said border closure also could shut out the American customers who make up much of its business.
"It's all finished. My business is finished. My work is finished," Ramirez said. "What else can we do in Jacume? There is nothing."
The hubbub has shaken the towns from a sleepy obscurity. Although Hollywood movers once flocked to Jacumba for its hot springs, the town has been a forgotten country crossroad since Interstate 8 passed two miles to the north more than 20 years ago. Jacume--a sunbaked grid of family farms, with an industrial henhouse and a miniature rodeo--sits seven miles from the nearest highway, midway between Tecate and Mexicali.
Experts said the volatile immigration issue is sure to draw increased attention to towns that similarly have grown up as cross-border sisters. The 2,000-mile border with Mexico is dotted with rural twin communities bound closely by blood ties and business, particularly in Texas and New Mexico, said Larry Herzog, a professor at San Diego State University who has written a book on border life.
"We have to start thinking about all the twin settlements along the border . . . as part of not two individual places but single functional regions that are joined economically and joined functionally," Herzog said.
Another border scholar said Jacumba and Jacume are feeling the effects of a historical cycle of shifting border policies spurred by economic crises, political winds and U.S.-Mexico relations.
"These big macro events impact on these little communities and change people's worlds," said Anibal Yanez, who teaches geography at Cal State San Marcos.
The change already felt in Jacumba and Jacume will only become more acute. With a planned boost in the number of local agents, the patrol chief said he can enforce the ban on even casual crossings by Jacume residents once the fence is complete by the end of the year.
"Over the years, when they cross the lines they're in violation of customs laws. When we get our fence project done, we'll be better able to address these people," Dierkop said. "They know well it's against the law."
Until then, locals will debate the new fence's likely effects even as they continue to walk past the old dilapidated one.
Raul Gallego Jr. and his wife, Monica, who live on the U.S. side, were in Jacume one day last week to deliver tomatillo plants and burn trash on land owned by Monica's family. The husband downplayed the fence's importance, predicting that people who wanted to cross would find a way over or around it.
But, as the couple bumped along a rutted Jacume road in a aging Chevy pickup, Monica said the steel barrier was breeding bad vibes. "It's like they're separating Jacumba and Jacume. Before we were always free to go back and forth. But now it's like," she paused, "a prison."
As the couple drove on, reminiscing about the Jacume farm country of their childhoods, signs of the town's recent troubles were close at hand.
Raul Gallego Jr. turned down a tiny side road, startling a group of more than a dozen men jammed into the back of a stalled pickup with California license plates. The men were not from Jacume, he said, and probably planned to sneak across the border once it got dark.
A cheer erupted as the truck sputtered to life and headed deeper into the countryside, kicking up a cloud of dust.
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A fence to deter smuggling of illegal immigrants is being built between the east San Diego County town of Jacumba and its twin on the Mexican side, Jacume.