Mike Harris drives his blue Ford Ranger pickup south on Hollister Street, through the Tijuana River Valley, toward the border. He stops the truck on the shoulder and calls the Border Patrol to tell a supervisor that he is out on one of his tours and will be, as he calls it, “riding the line.”
Then he heads west on Monument Road. The pavement eventually turns to dirt. He makes a left at the gated entrance to Border Field State Park and continues on to Friendship Park, where weeds have overrun the concrete benches. He drives onto a sidewalk and comes to a halt at the ocean overlook. This is Harris’s first stop on the Riding the Line border tour.
Harris, 57, began giving tours after retiring from the Border Patrol in 2006. He spent much of his 26-year career as a field agent, the last 3 years as a supervisor.
But business has been slow. Since launching his tour company, Edgeline Productions, in 2007, he’s given only three or four tours per year.
“I first thought of the tour as a niche market that I would enjoy working in after retirement. The niche is not very big,” admits Harris.
The tour lasts four hours and costs $75 per person. It consists of Harris driving sightseers, usually in a rented van, to the park and then east along the border five and a half miles to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. When they reach the Tijuana River channel, passengers can pose for pictures while straddling the yellow painted line that marks the border.
Harris says the tour provides riders a glimpse of life for immigrants and agents.
“I hope people get a more in-depth understanding of just how the border operates, the obstacles the aliens must overcome and what the agents must endure. It is a drama involving real people, real smugglers, real issues.”
At Friendship Park, Harris talks as a construction crew on a makeshift pier replaces sections of the landing-mat fence in the water. On this rainy day, the only other activity comes from Border Patrol jeeps bouncing along the narrow dirt roads.
During Harris’s time as an agent, the San Diego Sector, a 66-mile stretch, was one of the busiest areas in the country for illegal immigration, accounting for more than 40 percent of apprehensions. The Imperial Beach Station, responsible for patrolling the area from the ocean to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, apprehended 11 percent of all detainees.
“I’ve probably caught more than 10,000 people during my years,” Harris says. “Some nights, especially back in the late ’80s, there would be 800 to 1000 people running across.”
These days the triple factors of the secondary fence, new Border Patrol strategies implemented with Operation Gatekeeper, and a flagging U.S. economy have caused the number of illegal border crossings to fall.
According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, the number of people caught crossing from Mexico into the United States without papers decreased from one million in 2006 to 404,000 in 2010. In San Diego’s sector, agents detained 142,101 undocumented immigrants in 2006. Last year, that number dropped to 68,565.
Today, agents detain approximately 115 people in the sector each day, says an agency spokesperson.
As Harris navigates the Tijuana River Watershed’s hills and craggy canyons, he gives their names: Yogurt Canyon, the site of a popular trail that begins at a yogurt shop in Playas de Tijuana; Smuggler’s Gulch, a trading ground for pot in the ’60s; Memo Road, a stretch where trucks would get pelted by rocks thrown from across the line, obliging agents to submit memos detailing the damage — rock-throwing still occurs but not as often as in previous years.
Harris relives his years in the patrol, telling stories of kids crossing the border only to return with bags of fast food.
“We used to joke that some were training for the Mexican Olympic team,” he says. “Some would scale the fence like it was nothing.”
He stops in Goat Valley, near an abandoned goat farm, and points to dozens of bullet holes in crumbling brick walls. He tells of being shot at here.
He passes a drainage tunnel leading to the International Wastewater Treatment Plant. Across the border, homeless people walk among trash and debris; their torn tarps and ripped blankets hang on the rusted primary fence. Harris says agents refer to these people as “trolls.”
Ten minutes later, Border Patrol agents stop Harris to ask what he is doing. He tells them he is a former “PA” — patrol agent — leading a tour and shows identification given to him following retirement.
After three hours, Harris pulls into the former Imperial Beach Station headquarters, located at the pedestrian entrance to Mexico. Nearby, a half dozen people exit a white van and stand by a gate, waiting to be deported. Harris chats with a former coworker. They talk about the job, about the increased smuggling of drugs and humans by sea.
We make our way to the east side of the port of entry, the Echoes, agents call it, using the military alphabet for e. The road runs parallel to a secondary fence, across the line from Tijuana’s Colonia Libertad neighborhood. Patches where holes were cut in the fence are visible. Small holes are repaired with zip ties. After a mile, we turn around. The tour is over.
Harris hopes more people will take the tour to witness what life is like along one of the busiest land crossings in the world. And as long as he doesn’t reveal information that would aid smugglers or illegal crossers, officials don’t seem to mind.
“Border Patrol agents are not permitted to divulge sensitive information to the public anytime after they depart from service. We do not want agents to reveal information which may aid smuggling organizations to avoid detection of narcotics or apprehension of smugglers,” writes a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection.
“There are federal laws and regulations that prohibit disclosure of nonpublic information, whether classified or not, even after a person separates from government service.”