Albert Garcia drove his white Ford pickup truck to the border at 5 a.m., inspected the three-mile long fence and found that overnight, five holes had been cut through it from the Mexicali side.
Garcia, a welder who works out of the U.S. Border Patrol maintenance yard here, has been patching the fence since 1985.
“You ever come out here and not find a hole?” I asked.
“Nope,” said Garcia, who’s a year or so away from retirement. “Maybe once or twice, but I don’t remember when. I’d have to check the log.”
Five holes is a slow day, said Garcia. He’s found as many as 14 and never knows how many illegal immigrants might have pushed through each hole and quickly blended into downtown Calexico.
Smugglers cut, and he patches. They cut, he patches. The job is never-ending on both sides, and it’s hard to say who’s winning.
Garcia said he had to stop thinking about it that way, because several years ago, it really started to get to him. He was away on vacation, but still patching holes in his mind’s eye.
“You’re never going to catch up,” he told himself. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, a job that has to be done all over again by the time it’s completed.
As Garcia told his partner, who was on vacation the day I visited: “You’re here to do a job. You’ve got to learn to leave it here when you go home. If you start thinking about all the illegals coming through, it gets frustrating.”
But where else could you find job security like this?
Besides, he said, a lot of people are turned back because of his patches. With two sons in law enforcement, he feels good about helping Border Patrol agents do their job.
The fence used to be the chain-link variety, but a 15-foot tall replacement made of vertical steel rails came in five or six years ago. Each rail weighs a solid 150 pounds. But smugglers aren’t impressed; they hacksaw through in under 10 minutes. A little after 6 a.m., Garcia parked his pickup at a fresh cut.
The rails are three inches wide and three inches apart, so from either side, you can look through to the other downtown and see people walking around or driving. By cutting one rail and bending it back, smugglers create a passage nine inches wide.
“Sometimes they have to cut two rails to get a fatter person or a pregnant woman across,” said Garcia, who occasionally passes a dollar through to a hungry beggar. “I’ve seen them pushing people through.”
Many times, he said, immigrants have continued climbing through a hole even as he prepares his welding torch.
“My job is not to stop them, it’s to repair the fence,” said Garcia, who was born and raised in nearby El Centro. “But if I’m working in an area where I can tell they’ll be coming through, I let the Border Patrol know I’ve got customers, and they back me up.”
To fix a hole, Garcia slides a steel sleeve over the cut, lines up the severed rail, and fires a weld. He wears a helmet, heavy gloves and long leather sleeves to protect against flying sparks. He starts before dawn, he says, because the job is hot enough before the desert temperature hits three digits.
I noticed that this particular rail, like hundreds of others, had been cut and patched many times. Garcia counted 10 sleeves.
This time, the smuggler had cut through an earlier patch, meaning he had sliced a double thickness of steel.
Why would the coyote do that, I asked, when the next rail over was unpatched and could have been cut in half the time?
Garcia smiled, as if waiting for me to answer my own question.
“Was it just to mess with your head?” I asked.
Garcia nodded. The coyote was taunting him, sending a message that no steel is thick enough to stop the smuggling.
I could see why he nearly went batty several years ago, and why he tries not to think about the politics.
While Garcia fixes the fence, illegal immigrants are legally attending U.S. public schools and going to county hospitals. He’s forever patching holes to keep people out, but the feds never go after employers who hire those who make it through.
A U.S. Senate bill that would grant temporary visas to 500,000 undocumented farmworkers is all but dead despite bipartisan support, thanks to the usual hypocrisy and duplicity, along with typical election-year paralysis.
One day it may become clear that the solution is to legalize those who’ve already been in the United States for years, provide work permits for those whose labor is needed and to help develop the economy of Mexico in return for the reform of its corrupt and inept government.
But that day is many fence patches away.
When Garcia finished fixing this one rail for the 11th time, he drove north along the border a quarter of a mile to another cut. Peering through the hole and into an oleander bush on the Mexican side, he found the stashed hacksaw used to do the job, and hooked it through to the United States.
“I’ve got two big buckets full of these,” he said. “There must be 50 or 100 of them in there.”
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.