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Across the Border

Published in SDTopic, January 2011


On a clear night in San Diego, from any tall hill, look south and you can see an entirely different country start up just where ours leaves off. It's a curious thing. There would be no differentiating between bright lights of the sister cities of San Diego and Tijuana if it weren't for a very thin strip of darkness that represents the space between two parallel fences. The border with Mexico is visible not directly, but instead by the shadow it leaves, much like the way that astronomers can spot planets outside of our solar systems by the way they blot out the light of their suns.


Aside from its nearness to us and its familiar appearance; aside from the fact that from above or from a map there's no way to know that this isn't one large metropolitan area; aside from the fact that our section of the border is the world's busiest border crossing with 300,000 people crossing back and forth each day; most Anglo San Diegans have no idea what life is really like on the other side of the concrete fence, aside from the daily panic-inspiring reports of drug cartel related murders.


The San Diego Maquiladora Workers' Solidarity Network helps to bridge that gap by raising awareness of Mexican workers' rights issues here in San Diego and by hosting monthly tours of Tijuana maquiladora areas.


A maquiladora is a foreign owned assembly plant operating in Latin America, often owned by companies originating in the United States. The product is manufactured in the maquiladora and is then shipped, often tariff or duty-free, either back across the border to the U.S. or to foreign markets. There are currently around 700 maquiladoras in Tijuana, and at least 3,000 in Mexico, activist and Solidarity Network member Enrique Davalos said, and at around half of those companies operate for clients from the United States.


According to (an organization that works with U.S. companies in expanding business into Mexico, calling themselves “your connection to Mexico’s Low-Cost Labor Force”), the history of maquiladoras goes back at to 1965 with the passage of the Border Industrialization Program by the Mexican government. This legislation was in response to unemployment following the end of the Bracero Program in 1964, which had allowed Mexican agricultural workers to work in the United States on a seasonal basis. This 1965 program set the precedent for the creation of maquiladoras, allowing raw materials to be imported into the country duty-free, so long as they were exported once assembled. Following the devaluation of the Mexican Peso relative to the dollar in the ‘70s, and the availability of cheap labor, the concept of maquiladora production became increasingly attractive to U.S. companies looking to cut costs. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, which loosened trade restrictions between Canada, Mexico and the U.S., caused another rapid expansion of maquiladoras operated by U.S. companies.


According to the Solidarity Network and other workers’ rights organizations operating on both sides of the border, the maquiladoras have been responsible for numerous human and workers’ rights violations, escalating with the passage of N.A.F.T.A. The Solidarity Network’s website,, cites poverty wages, pregnancy tests required of female workers, pollution and repression of labor unions. According to a Wikipedia article about maquiladoras, Mexican labor laws require extensive maternity benefits, and this has led to the demand that female employees use birth control, and women who do become pregnant are likely to be terminated. Workers work long hours in often unsafe conditions, and are paid a small fraction of U.S. workers in similar industries.

The tour conducted by the Solidarity Network throughout Tijuana deals with these issues. The first stop on the tour is the border fence, where a memorial has been erected to honor at least 4,500 immigrants who have died trying to cross the border. Along the fence, crosses bearing the names of migrants stretch seemingly as far as the eye can see. Border deaths increased rapidly with the passage of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, which established tighter surveillance by border patrol and increased militarization of the border. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act called for the construction of walls along the U.S. and Mexico border. The entire northern border of Tijuana is fenced in with double parallel walls, consisting of a corrugated steel wall on the Mexican side and a thick concrete wall on the U.S. side, separated by an access road for the Border Patrol, motion sensors, lights, and cameras. Would be immigrants have been forced to make the crossing in more remote and more dangerous terrain. Immigrants often find themselves crossing through the mountains or the deserts, in freezing temperatures in the winter or more than 100 degrees in the summer months. On the tour, Davalos said that immigrants also fall victim to vigilantes who steal their food and water, or worse.


Davalos made a connection between the increase in immigration and the rise of maquiladoras production in Mexico. He pointed out that in 1994, the year the N.A.F.T.A. was established, the government also passed two anti-immigration laws: Operation Gatekeeper and California Proposition 187, which denied government services, including education and medical care, to undocumented immigrants. He suggested that this was no coincidence.


“I really believe that the people who designed N.A.F.T.A., they were aware that the economic model that they were imposing in the Mexican society was going to really break many traditional systems of life,” Davalos said.


Between 1994 and 2004 Davalos said that the Mexican population in the U.S. doubled, fueled by migrants seeking work. And the population inside Tijuana has grown rapidly too, he said, at a rate that is faster than the infrastructure of the city can support. A large percentage of the city’s population is migrants from central or southern Mexico or from Central America, looking for work. Although the maquiladoras pay much lower than their U.S. counterparts, they still pay higher wages than many other employment options. One-third of the labor force works in the maquiladoras, Davalos said.


“You have a number of workers in the maquiladoras who are just waiting for the moment to cross the border,” he said. “You have people in the U.S. … they are from maquiladoras and now they are here in the U.S. And you have also people who, after being deported from the U.S., now they are working in the maquiladoras.”


After the border fence, the tour proceeds to the Otay Industrial Park, home to about 300 maquiladoras, including one owned by Sanyo. The tour group stops at the site of the Metales y Derivados plant, an abandoned lead-smelting factory operated by San Diego business owner José Kahn until 1994, when reports of pollution and health violations in the community of Colonia Chilpancingo, just downstream from the plants, finally forced the shutdown of the factory.


Operating before N.A.F.T.A, the company was obligated to return lead waste to the U.S. for disposal, but instead, the waste was merely deposited in holes in the ground and covered over, where it leeched into the groundwater. According to a report on the site by photographer Erin McCarley, “for several years, residents complained of frequent skin rashes, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, and birth defects such as stillbirths and miscarriages. In addition, the colonia reported occurrences of anencephaly, a rare condition in which babies are born without brains.”


Facing charges in Mexico, Kahn merely fled across the border to San Diego, where he never faced prosecution. The site of the abandoned plant continued to be a hazard to the community living beneath it, until 2008, when a binational group led by the Environmental Health Coalition and the community of Colonia Chilpancingo partnered with the Mexican government to have the site cleaned up for good.

The last stop on the tour is of the community of Colonia Chilpancingo itself, a short distance from the Otay Industrial Park, and the majority of adult inhabitants work in the maquiladoras just up the hill. The community is very poor. Families are not connected to the city’s power grid, aside from dangerous and illegal connections to power lines outside of their neighborhood, consisting of thousands of intersecting wires running throughout the makeshift community. There is no running water, no sewage or garbage service. Drinking water is bought from street vendors and for everyday water needs for washing, residents rely on the Alamar River, a heavily polluted river that runs through the settlement. Makeshift bridges span the river, connecting the two sides of the neighborhood and makeshift houses built from scrap materials.


It is reminiscent of the favelas in Brazil, or slums in third world countries that most U.S. citizens experience only through movies that depict them as a phenomenon that only exists far from the influence of the U.S. In fact, the level of poverty at Colonia Chilpancingo is far from being the exception in Tijuana or other border towns, and it is in fact right in our backyard.

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