OTAY MESA, Calif. — President Donald Trump will to head to a scrubby, sun-baked patch of land here this week to view eight towering slabs surrounded by razor wire – prototypes of a wall which he insists is designed to stop immigrants or drugs from getting across the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
But Serge Dedina – like many who live in the shadow of the border – would like Trump to focus his attention elsewhere.
Dedina is the mayor of Imperial Beach, California’s southernmost city, which is separated from its booming Mexican neighbor Tijuana by a border fence that extends out along a beach right into the Pacific Ocean. As executive director of the environmental group Wildcoast, Dedina has led a years-long fight by his city to sue the federal government for failure to protect citizens on both sides of the border from what he calls a “tsunami” of raw sewage, toxic sludge and solid waste that spills through the border region via the Tijuana River Valley, threatening the health of millions.
“It’s billions of dollars for the wall, and zero for everything else,” Dedina says. “That’s the disconnect. The stuff you don’t read about is the everyday stuff to keep people safe.”
Trump’s first trip to California since winning the presidency will be brief, and it will be about making a point: the president is going to do what he wants on the border, whether the people who live along it like it or not.
His stay there will also be short. The White House says Air Force One will touch down Tuesday morning at Miramar Air Station, and the president is scheduled return to Miramar less than three hours later to deliver remarks to all five branches of the military.
Trump is then expected to head north to Beverly Hills for a campaign fundraiser, where tickets will top $250,000. So far, the White House has announced no meetings with any local or state officials on the stopover. And the office of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown – who last week charged Trump is “declaring war” on California – has been mum whether he’ll speak with the President on this trip.
The visit comes less than a week after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he’s suing the state over immigration enforcement.
The president has been unrelenting in his pursuit of the border wall he promised in his 2016 would be built—and paid for by Mexico. At a Saturday night campaign rally in Pennsylvania, Trump again whipped up the crowd to chants of “Build the wall,” and regaled listeners with his account of a phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in which, Trump claimed, he refused a request to issue a statement that Mexico would not pay. “Bye bye, there is no way I’m making that deal,” Trump said he told his counterpart.
Still, Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer says this week could mark a chance for regional officials on both sides of the border to highlight bi-national cooperation – and the need for local and federal officials to work together on border security and infrastructure which will benefit trade and residents alike.
“We see the border as a place of opportunity,’’ says Faulconer, whose protocol includes regular meetings with mayor of major Mexican cities on the border to address issues of crime, environment, bi-national manufacturing and job development and infrastructure.
“Our relationship and proximity to Mexico and Tijuana is a strength – and it’s a competitive advantage,” insists Faulconer, long a supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has fueled the region’s booming growth.
Trump’s abbreviated schedule is disappointing to many in the region, who note that – on his first official trip to California, the world’s sixth largest economy – Trump will bypass key monuments to the border region’s growth and vitality, among them, the San Ysidro Point of Entry, the busiest international land border crossing on the world, which hosts 20,000 pedestrians, 50,000 cars and 6,000 trucks a day.
Nor will he stop at what most political leaders in the region view as a major advancement in border development just a stone’s throw away – Otay’s Cross Border Express, a state-of-the-art international air hub connecting the San Diego and Tijuana airports, which in just two years since its opening, has attracted a booming 2 million travelers annually.
“This is what regional cooperation looks like,’’ says Denise Moreno Ducheny, a former Democratic California state senator, as she motions around the bustling transit center increasingly favored by international air travelers from around Southern California, who can cross from the U.S. to Mexico via a fast-track bridge to catch direct flights from Tijuana to China and to dozens of locations throughout Mexico and Latin America.
Ducheny, who serves as a senior policy adviser at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies’ Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, says that the expansion and growth that fueled the facilities were the direct outcome of NAFTA, and underscore the critical importance of the $60 billion in annual trade generated by the region – a topic that Trump will apparently skirt on his foray this week.
“Trade is the baseline here, which is why a lot of people think that the federal government is missing the boat,” she says. Leaders in Mexico and the San Diego see the region as inextricably linked by business, family, cultural and historic ties that go back centuries, she said, because “together, we create things.”
“There’s a joint manufacturing culture here...the idea that a plant shouldn’t be built in Mexico is ridiculous – because we get the half the benefit of that factory,” she said, pointing to a booming outlet shopping located steps from the Mexican border, where Mexican tourists visit daily to do their shopping in the U.S.
Ducheny isn’t alone among regional leaders who express frustration with the emphasis by both the media, pundits and politicians who limit their discussions of the border to issues of immigration and crime. While both are matter of deep concern to the region, she notes that San Diego, and Chula Vista – along with the Texas border city of El Paso – represent “three of the safest cities in the United States.”
Instead of a $22 billion invested in a border wall, they argue, more border security – in the form of border crossings, and infrastructure to support them – would be the cost-efficient way to support the booming growth and business needs of the region while creating more security for its residents.
“We don’t believe in walls – we believe in a smart border,” says Gustavo de la Fuente, executive director of the Smart Border Coalition, a binational group of business, academic and political leaders charged with finding ways “to make border crossings between California and Baja California not only secure, but efficient and welcoming” for both people and the $60 billion in trade that crosses the border annually.
Attorney Jose Larroque, the coalition’s Tijuana-based co-chair, says the organization – which includes mayors of San Diego and Tijuana, as well as consuls general from both countries and key business leaders – “benefit very much from our cross-cultural mix. We have advantages that make us competitive as a region in a global economy – and we work at it.”
The president’s calls to end NAFTA – an agreement which he and other leaders say has fueled growth, jobs and the economy in the region – have rankled nerves, as have Trump’s snap decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum, even though the White House suggested that Mexico and Canada, two of California’s largest trading partners, are to be exempted “for now.”
With the border serving as a hub to scores of major electronics, auto manufacturing, and biomedical firms, “everybody is nervous, because there’s no real clarity on where we are headed,” Larroque said.
Political strategists say Trump’s trip to the West Coast – and his continued emphasis on the border wall – will have consequences for the 2020 election, particularly on the all-important Hispanic vote, especially in the nation’s most populous state.
“California is the frontline of Trump and the Republican Party’s war against minorities in this country,” says Kurt Bardella, the former spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa and Breitbart News, and now an independent.
“Instead of evolving with the changing demographics, Republicans in California have continued to embrace the policies and rhetoric of the most extreme fringes of the GOP,” Bardella said this week. “Republicans are shut-out of every statewide political office. They are a permanent minority in the state legislature. Some of the most prominent and established Congressional Republicans like Darrell Issa and Ed Royce are retiring because they know they can’t win in this environment.”
The trip sends a message that in California – a state where at least seven GOP House seats are endangered – Bardella argues, Hispanics are “under siege from Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” a situation that could cost the party dearly because “there is no viable path to political relevancy for Republicans in California without support from the Latino community.”
Already, Trump’s plan to examine the 30-foot-high border wall prototypes, icons to a key 2016 campaign vow, has fired up the passions of partisan loyalists on both sides.
Over the weekend, Democratic San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher posted on Facebook that Brown “asked me if my district would give Trump a “California welcome” with “big protests” for the President’s arrival on Tuesday. She challenged progressives: “Who is ready to shut it down?”
Conservative activists like former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a co-founder of the California Minutemen and a House candidate challenging incumbent GOP Rep. Paul Cook, say patriot groups consider that to be “a threat,” and said more than 1,000 are expected respond to show up at Otay Mesa – about 20 miles from downtown San Diego and just across the border from Tijuana – to cheer on Trump’s visit.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked Friday, insisted that “we’re going for what we hope to be an incredibly positive trip.”
Imperial Beach Mayor Dedina, pointing to a Tijuana River basin overloaded with plastic bottles, tires and toxic trash that’s clogging the state park at the border, says Trump’s visit should be serving to dramatize how serious border problems that affect residents on both sides need immediate attention.
“He’s not coming here to help us solve our problems,” he said. “It’s not in our interests to create an enemy with Mexico,” Dedina said. “That’s what he seems to be doing.”