A person's hand reaches through a fenced section of the U.S.-Mexico border in southern California. (R. Taylor/VOA)
A person's hand reaches through a fenced section of the U.S.-Mexico border in southern California. (R. Taylor/VOA)

SAN YSIDRO, CALIFORNIA - When retired Lieutenant Sean Murphy patrolled the dry brush California hills outside San Ysidro, on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border, there was no towering wall. The “barrier” that existed barely cast a shadow.

“It was a wooden post here, and a wooden post there, and some barbed wire,” Murphy said.

That was the 1980s.

In a span of three decades, as successive U.S. presidents presented their blueprints to secure the border, the barrier expanded, sometimes parallel to previous fences - two or three layers thick. Today, it stretches no more than 1,000 kilometers in total, along 3,000 kilometers of border that is mostly desert.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Saul Rocha monitors the w
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Saul Rocha monitors the wall at California’s Border Field State Park. (R. Taylor/VOA)

‘The greatest wall’

Before he became president, Donald Trump made no secret of his plans to build a wall - “the greatest wall that you’ve ever seen” - made of concrete, steel and rebar. His motive: to prevent crime and drugs from crossing north and migrants from taking U.S. jobs, charges he made repeatedly in 2016.

“Who’s going to pay for the wall?” he would ask at his campaign rallies, ear flexed toward his supporters.

“Mexico!” they yelled.

President Trump vows to deliver on this promise, despite Mexico’s insistence that it will not pay - an endeavor that could cost as much as $25 billion, according to research compiled by the Washington Post, more than double Trump’s 2016 estimates for a 10-12-meter, 1,600-kilometer structure.

WATCH: U.S.-Mexico border wall

Eastward migration

Murphy of the San Diego Police Department says he has seen migrants change course as a result of the barriers in place today, the first under the president Clinton-led “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, and again under president George W. Bush’s “Secure Fence Act” of 2006.

“Back in the day … you would run into people with large duffel bags, and guess what’s in the duffel bag?” Murphy asked, answering his own question - drugs.  

But while border-related crime is down in southern California, where large sections of the Bush-era fence are in place, Murphy says migration has only moved eastward into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. And he doesn’t foresee any wall stopping criminals from entering.

“They’re getting a little bit more creative. Now they’re using boats to get up the coast. They are trying to bring it in through 18-wheelers and tractor trailers,” Murphy said.

US-Mexico Border Fence

‘Wall of shame’

In the vast desert outside Jacumba, California, Enrique Morones - founder and director of Border Angels - drops gallon jugs of water beside bushes for migrants who might otherwise die from dehydration.

He calls the barrier there “the wall of death and a wall of shame.”

“This wall of Operation Gatekeeper, from 1994, has led to the death of more than 11,000 people,” Morones said, using a figure that he says accounts for both sides of the border.

Morones laments that many of those who perished remain unidentified and unknown to the world.

Enrique Morones, founder and director of the human
Enrique Morones, founder and director of the human rights organization Border Angels, leaves a bottle of water for dehydrated migrants in the Southern California desert. (R. Taylor/VOA)

“You’ll recognize the image of the little boy with the red T-shirt on, face down in the Mediterranean Sea … but nobody has ever seen the picture of Marco Antonio Villasenor, a boy almost the same age,” he said. “He was five years old, and he died crossing the desert into Texas with 18 men.”

Ev Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, says many are under the false impression that the border is “open,” due to the lack of a physical wall along 2,000 kilometers of land.

In addition to aerial technology, Meade says the treacherous mountain ranges along the Sonoran Desert with Arizona already serve as deadly natural barriers.

“It’s a searing desert with mountain ranges that aren’t precisely parallel, meaning that it is very difficult to know where you are.”

Waves break on the U.S.-Mexico border barrier at t
Waves break on the U.S.-Mexico border barrier at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. (R. Taylor/VOA)

Seaborne crisis

Where the land ends in southern California, the Pacific Ocean begins.

While the majority of migrant deaths in the United States are due to lack of water, officials are increasingly concerned about those resulting from seaborne excursions.

As Morones notes, “coyotes” or smugglers who send migrants north provide no necessary precautions before pushing them out to sea.

“They cross in little fishing boats called ‘pangas,’ - they don’t cross [by the shore] and just show up over here. They go a couple hundred miles north, and they show up in San Clemente,” he said. “The smugglers don’t provide life vests, the boats are made for two people and they put 15 people on them. They flip over and the people die.”

Border Angels' Enrique Morones displays the rema
Border Angels’ Enrique Morones displays the remains of a cloth used by a migrant to wipe away tracks along the desert. (R. Taylor/VOA)

A place to reunite

As waves break on the rusting border structure, there is one place on the far west coast where immigrants can “see” their relatives. Friendship Park is run by the U.S. Border Patrol on weekends.

Through holes one centimeter in diameter, families separated for years attempt to touch by the fingertips.

One family, from Michoacan, Mexico, traveled four hours by plane so that they could see their son, Alejandro Moreno, a resident of California, who lacks the legal documents to travel home and return to his studies.

It was the second such reunion for the family in 14 years. Moreno’s sister burst into tears.

“My heart breaks,” she said. “But there’s no other way. We have to persevere.”

But Moreno, once resigned to the possibility of never seeing his mother again, now takes a different outlook.

“I know some people don’t ever see their parents,” he said. “But this gives me hope that maybe one day I can hug her.”

Arturo Martinez contributed to this report.

Watch: Legal, Logistical Hurdles Confront a US-Mexico Border Wall