Over the past month, construction of the border wall prototypes provided political theater for the rest of the country. But even though the wall’s opening act played out on San Diegans’ doorstep, it had very little to do with San Diego.
Neither supporters nor activists found much use for demonstrations. Protests that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department planned for never materialized. The actual construction took place 20 miles from downtown and was shielded from eyes of passersby. In fact, it was entirely possible for San Diegans to miss the construction completely if it weren’t for the worldwide press coverage.
This represents a fundamental disconnect for many locals. That is, it’s possible to live in San Diego, walk its neighborhoods, swim off its beaches – without really thinking of the border at all.
This dynamic makes up one of the running themes of “Facing North,” a documentary by Andrew Bracken. For the project, Bracken interviewed Border Patrol agents, immigration experts, local historians and recent deportees. What results is a series of interviews that don’t so much as weave together as create a complicated mosaic – a prism through which to view pieces of a conversation now playing out on the national stage.
The documentary is certainly timely. The border wall prototypes now complete, it’s worth considering how much San Diego’s section of the border has evolved. But the documentary isn’t pegged to current events or President Donald Trump’s plans for the wall.
Today you see agents patrolling a highly militarized border zone, with two sets of fencing running parallel, surveillance cameras and razor wire. Just 30 years ago, however, there was nothing. Any Friday night you might see migrants crossing by the hundreds – far too many for the skeleton border agent crews of those days to apprehend.
Bracken explores how the border has hardened over the 30 years, and how that’s altered, perhaps permanently, longstanding migration patterns. Until recently, SDSU economics professor James Gerber tells Bracken, migration was circular.
Historically, Mexican laborers traveled north to pick crops, then returned to Mexico for Christmas. Things changed after Sept. 11. Additional fencing and security measures made crossing the border riskier and more difficult. For that, more Mexican families simply remained in the United States. In other words, the strategy to keep immigrants out may have backfired.
Those in Tijuana have historically seen the city’s economic future tied to San Diego, historian Josue Beltran Cortez tells Bracken in an interview. But that too, is starting to change. Foreign investment from China, Japan and European countries is flowing in. And Tijuana is looking to nearby cities in the region to create partnerships that make the region more sustainable, and less reliant on the United States.
Below are excerpts from a recent conversation I had with Bracken about his documentary. Answers have been edited lightly for style and clarity.
When and why did you decide start working on the project?
About five years ago, ICE raided a bakery in Pacific Beach. Agents arrested all these workers and they prosecuted the owner. That was the spark of it. That’s also when I realized I was sort of oblivious to many aspects of the border, even though it plays such a big role in the region. So I started exploring and researching.
How did you get those radical aerial shots of San Diego?
We did a helicopter trip and took a few passes. It was an open helicopter that kind of freaked the hell out of me. But the point was to see the city from a different perspective.
You started working on this project before Trump entered the White House. Did that change the project at all as you were working on it?
Not really, no. I still look at the border in terms of what it means to our community. The border stuff will come on the scene for a couple of years, but then it will fade. National headlines come and go. But for those of us living here, the border is always there. To me, the Trump side of it is more of an outside issue that didn’t really affect the film.
Which interviews or aspects of this project were most emotional for you?
Definitely talking to the deportees was the hardest. It took me weeks to recover from those interviews, honestly.
It looks like you spent a lot of time filming near the actual border for this project. What about the border did you learn that you hadn’t known?
We’ve had this border fence for the past 30 years. But before that, there was nothing there.
Digging into how the wall evolved really put it into context for me. Today, there’s razor wire and armed agents. It’s militarized. When I see lots of military, it signals danger. And that’s what the border has become in a lot of ways. It just feels heavy and militaristic to cross. And crossing isn’t seamless.
One place I shot was Friendship Park, which is this just beautiful spot. But to get there is really difficult. There are all these signs that suggest it’s not accessible. It’s beautiful, but it’s also the emptiest beach in Southern California. It sort of feels off limits, like: Am I supposed to be here?
We don’t have things happening on the U.S. side of the border. There’s this huge empty space. But on the south side of the beach, there’s a huge party going on.
How does the way people in the San Diego see the border compare to how people in Tijuana see the border?
For people living here, the border is something you don’t have to necessarily think about on an everyday basis. We might think about wait times, how long it will take to cross the border. But it’s a much different story for them.
For a lot of people there, it’s an ever-present thing. First of all, physically, it’s just much more visible in Tijuana. Unlike the U.S. side of the border, where we have this buffer zone of empty space close to the border, development in Tijuana goes right up to the border itself.
It’s also a point of trauma for many people in Mexico. It represents a separation. And it’s also very unequal. A lot of people down there simply can’t cross, whereas for us, that’s not even something we have to consider. We get our passports and plan the trip. But that’s not even a question for them.
What makes you most hopeful about our region?
We are this single region, but in many ways it doesn’t feel like it. The national discourse right now is extremely divided, and keeps people in their little boxes. So much of this is invisible.
Maybe it’s just my perception, but I think it’s gotten better just in the past few years. It just seems like more people are starting to understand and get past their ideological divides. We have a Republican mayor who talks about the importance of binational regional ties. As a whole, our community is just much better off in many ways if we’re joining forces.