Capitol Hill Briefing No. 2:

SERGE DEDINA, MAYOR OF THE BUSIEST BORDER CROSSING IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE, ON APPROACHING THE BORDER AS A ‘MULTIVERSE’

August 3, 2021 – By DW Gibson

The following is a transcript of the video interview above with Mayor Serge Dedina, lightly edited for clarity and presented here to enable users to search his comments. 

DW Gibson: My name is DW Gibson, and I’m part of the team at Ideaspace. We are a 501(c)(4) that strives for a fresh and even-handed portrayal of thought leaders and their ideas and for bipartisan legislative action in support of the most promising of those ideas. We want to tackle some of the most intractable issues of our times and so we’ve begun with immigration. You can check out all of our interviews and research analysis at Ideaspace.com, where you’ll find, among other things, Opportunities for Bipartisan Action, where we present a systemic approach to immigration reform, highlighting 10 fundamental objectives and how each relates to the others. Today’s presentation works within the contours of that document, in that we drill down on the fundamental objective of border security. It’s a familiar phrase, but what do we actually mean when we say border security? How do we define it and what does modern border security look like?

We have just the right guest to help us tackle these questions. Since 2014, Serge Dedina has been mayor of Imperial Beach, California, a border town just north of Tijuana. Not only is the town of 27,000 next to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, but it also sits on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. With multiple border barriers three layers deep in some places, gulches, bluffs, a river estuary, a river valley, and the Pacific, Imperial Beach just might present the most comprehensive picture of complex border security. 

Before becoming mayor of his hometown, Serge Dedina served as executive director of WILDCOAST, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2000 with a goal of preserving coastal and marine ecosystems. An avid surfer and swimmer, Dedina earned his PhD in geography from the University of Texas at Austin. He’s the author of several books, including Surfing the Border and Wild Sea: Eco Wars and Surf Stories From the Coasts of the Californias. Thanks for joining us today, Mayor.

Serge Dedina: DW, thanks for having me and thanks for everybody being here. Great discussion, and you set it up perfectly, I love that description of where I live. Awesome, great job.

DW Gibson: Fantastic. Well, let’s start with where you live. You’re an expert on geography, so let’s capitalize on that. Maybe you could start with giving everyone the dynamics of the Tijuana River Valley and how that affects Imperial Beach and your community.

Serge Dedina: Yeah, sure. Imperial Beach is the only blue-collar beach town left in Southern California that happens to be on the U.S.-Mexico border. We’re at the south end of San Diego, but we have a beautiful beach that we share. We share the beach and a border and the ocean with Mexico, as well as a little bit inland as well, in the Tijuana River Valley and the Tijuana Estuary. This picture behind me is actually the border fence with a wave breaking on it. We actually go surfing there when the water is clear, and I’ll talk about that in a second. Absolutely beautiful spot. I think this is the important thing. I was skiing somewhere inland this year in a red state area and with a bunch of guys in a parking lot that were freaking out about the border. I’m like, “Guys, we’ve got it, it’s fine. There’s no crisis.” I want to make sure we’re all clear on it right now. There is no border crisis.

There’s always a border crisis, there’s always a crisis somewhere, but in terms of the imagery that many folks in the United States are getting with thousands of people streaming across the border, literally the border apocalypse, somehow there’s some sort of earth-shattering thing going on, that’s not happening. I want to make sure we’re clear on that because I think the border security issue becomes sort of a one-dimensional, 19th century image of the border. It’s a line. And then it’s a societal collapse, right? It’s a mob of people or it’s a line and a wall. And what we see on the border is actually a really beautiful place. So we have a San Diego-Tijuana metropolis, millions of people that generally when the border’s open and when things are moving quickly is one of the most dynamic, economically active areas in all of North America where billions of dollars of produce cross the border.

And then right where the border crossing is, it opens up into the Tijuana River Valley, which I’m west of, on the beach. But our part of the border is actually a U.S. wildlife refuge. That’s a national estuarine research reserve, one of the few in the United States, a really important place filled with endangered species. Off this beach you can see gray whales, leopard sharks, bottlenose dolphins, there’s even white sharks. A few years ago, a guy got a picture of orcas attacking a Pacific white dolphin. It’s actually a really cool place in addition to the thousands of birds that are there and sand dunes and it’s actually pretty empty and thanks to the Border Patrol, pretty safe.You can walk and ride your bike and ride horses on the beach here. So if you have a cowboy hat and you have a horse, you can ride on the beach and hang out with a bunch of surfers.

It’s actually a pretty, pretty cool place. The county of San Diego even built a campground at the edge of the river valley next to the estuary, a few hundred yards from the border. So it’s a really, really interesting place. Does that mean there are not problems? No, but it just means that what we’ve developed here on the border is a very different view of border security. The 19th century version is build a wall and then the border is safe; what we’ve articulated with a whole diverse group of stakeholders is is a vision of the border as a multiverse, a place that functions as an economic, political, cultural, and social system that encourages interaction and exchange in a safe way that’s visibly monitored and engaged with officials at various levels on all sides and with civic engagement. We want to have governmental engagement at the federal, state and local level.

And then you’ve got the economic engagement and the civil society engagement. And I’m talking about both sides of the border, where there are basically institutions to help mediate that security. That, to us here on the border, that’s border security. That’s when you see the least amount of crime, you see the least amount of crises with people crossing the border, illegally jumping the fences that we saw a few years ago during the Trump administration, people climbing the wall. You see the most economic engagement and you see probably the most interaction and innovation. For example, we have a bridge where people cross to go to the airport in Tijuana that is getting millions of people crossing a year. So it’s a real dynamic multi-verse that people can cross legally. But also because of this dynamic ecosystem that includes the Tijuana River Valley, the Tijuana River, and parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, we’ve also defined security in its environmental terms.

So it’s clean air, clean water, making sure that we have access to open space, but what happens because of the focus on just the 19th century sort of version of border security with a fence, the Border Patrol, is that a lot of times our institutions at the federal level and local levels forget that border security becomes this issue of clean air and clean water. And so we’ve been dealing because of the sort of lack of attention to this issue and not because our congressional delegation or others haven’t tried to focus on this, but a deluge, a tsunami of toxic waste, sewage, and solid waste across the border every time it rains or there’s infrastructure breakdown on the border. And it’s also subsurface because you have people digging tunnels. And in Border Field State Park, it’s actually a state park, people are coming across in boats, right? So it just expands this holistic sort of comprehensive view of what we deal with and why the focus on the 19th century sort of building the wall version really does hurt us.

DW Gibson: And something that’s baked into what you just said that I think is really interesting and helps us sort of find these areas of consensus that we’re looking for is I think on the Republican side of the aisle, you often see a focus on the idea of a crisis, but on the Democratic side of the aisle, you see sort of a reluctance to even talk about border security, a want to talk about other immigration issues. But I think what’s great about your perspective here is it really is you’re a Democratic mayor. You come from that party, but you’re talking about a more expansive way of thinking about border security. And I think that one thing that really made that click for me when I first met you was learning about what the Border Patrol agents go through in the estuary. Right? I think a lot of people sort of look at it and categorize it as an environmental issue, but talk a little bit about what Border Patrol agents go through patrolling the estuary.

Serge Dedina: So what’s been actually really moving to me and actually a really dynamic and productive relationship that really did help a lot during the Trump administration … we had very good relationships with, at a very high level, with the EPA during the Trump administration and with DHS and CBP as well, was that what really came out was the guys most impacted by border security issues, environmental issues, water, and the exposure to toxic pollution and toxic waste, especially toxic chemicals, were Border Patrol agents. And because those agents really did a good job articulating the impact, they commissioned scientific studies documenting the impacts of chemicals, the chemicals that we’re finding in the water that was coming across the border, that their agents are exposed to the illnesses that they were exposed to, the chemical burns that they were documenting, even some of them, the adverse impacts of their equipment.

Literally the acid in this water was impacting their trucks, the mud they had to wash off that was filthy and polluted with toxic chemicals that had a really significant impact on during the whole USMCA negotiation. And thanks to our congressional delegation, a bipartisan effort across the border to get funding within that USMCA negotiation, to address this issue. Then there was a Navy SEAL, a $1 billion Navy SEAL base, just north of our town, the south end of what’s called Coronado. There are the world’s greatest warriors, 3,000 of them are training, and the water is just up from this beach and they also get sick from pollution.

Don’t underestimate the importance of their advocacy, or environmental diplomacy or advocacy in a really good way, positive way, and partnering with us, including being on 60 Minutes with former SEAL team guys and CPB, we had that come out last year, had a huge impact on making this a bipartisan issue. Right? And I think it was really important to us. Last year, I was at the White House with Kevin Faulkner, who’s now running for governor, in the recall effort, but he was mayor of San Diego, and our county supervisor, who’s a Republican, and a former Navy SEAL admiral, right, the head of the Navy SEALs. I walked into the White House with a Republican administration, I walked in with a former SEAL commander talking about the environment, it almost made me cry like, “This is awesome. This is exactly how our government’s supposed to work.” And a congressional delegation of senators, Feinstein, who did an absolutely great job in working with our colleagues across the aisle to identify these issues, not just in California, but in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. Right? So making sure the North American Development Bank got some funding to put infrastructure on both sides of the border. And I have to give credit to our congressional delegation and others. You won’t hear the anti-wall talk about, “We don’t need the wall.” I think pretty much anybody who’s involved with border stuff would argue we probably need a wall in a few places. And there was a wall that the Bush administration had built. We need some walls. I don’t want the narco guys crossing, jumping, just walking through the border like it was when I was a kid. We need some walls.

And if you talk to the Coast Guard, they’re going to tell you that we need a lot more boats out in the water monitoring stuff that’s happened. I think the consensus before a lot of the hyperbole had happened was that border security is multi-dimensional, it’s a multiverse and that you have to implement technology. You need all these different tools to use to keep the border safe and secure. And I think the hyperbole and the partisanship gets in the way of that. But I think at the end of the day, when it’s being driven, especially by congressional delegation and delegations across the border, the guys who are on the ground, men and women on the ground, really know those areas. People who’ve visited, I think they see that there’s a lot of ways to work on solving these issues and working together. That includes immigration reform and other things to help make it easier to make the border safer and more secure.

DW Gibson: And I remember meeting agents who patrol in the estuary and one of them told me a story about taking off his boots after being out on patrol, took a shower. By the time he got out of the shower, the soles of the boots had been partially eaten away already by the acid and the chemicals that he had encountered on his patrol. So very real issue for Border Patrol agents, and I’m glad you sort of addressed the issue of barriers sort of head on, because I feel like, in sort of a post-Trump administration, it’s a zero sum game. Either you’re for 2,000 miles or you’re not. Right? And it requires a lot more nuance than that, doesn’t it? I mean, and we can see this more than anywhere in your neck of the woods, because in the ’80s and ’90s, that was where the vast majority of crossings were happening, almost all of them. And so maybe talk about sort of like urban areas versus desert areas and sort of how we can have a targeted approach in that way with barriers specifically.

Serge Dedina: So I’ve lived here since 1971 and I’ve actually crossed the border. When I was a kid, we used to ride our bikes in this area where the fence is and just ride our bikes around Tijuana and just ride our bikes back. Right? There was really no one there, but I think the issue really is, is how do we come up with an approach that understands and recognizes the sort of comprehensive nature of this? And so that really has to do with, for example, working with the Coast Guard, to make sure that they have the resources they need to deal with these boats, because what happened is we built the fence. People started going across the border, and then that takes a lot more resources because the Border Patrol is tracking these folks who are dying in the border, right?

And then the minute that started happening, the minute you saw the Bush administration invested in more border security, and then with the Trump administration, the movement starts going into the ocean and you start seeing what are called pangas, these skiffs, fiberglass skiffs, and we know where they come out of. There’s a little fish camp, about 30 miles south of the border, and they’re going out to the island, this is an island and the picture behind me, the Coronado Islands. And then they’re staging that. And they’re going up to Santa Barbara, you see these pangas arriving at night in Malibu, La Jolla, Coronado, and our beach. They’re getting on jet skis and being dropped off. So the narcos and the cartels control this trade. And so they’re defeating the Coast Guard because it’s literally under the radar. We have radar dishes on the coast, but they’re coming at night.

And so that becomes problematic, right? That’s a big issue right now. And I remember talking to a Coast Guard commander telling me this, this will be a problem. Right? But also you have guys going out offshore. You have the tunnel builders that have these boring machines that can put Tesla’s founder to shame. And then you have the hooks. So I actually drove my wife crazy because I was down on the border during the Bush administration, when they first started building this mega fortification and the cartel guys, they’re really innovative, right? Unfortunately they’re not building a legal merchandise, but they started putting these hooks together, like you see in the Middle Ages, with rebar. And so they were just hooking and had duct tape at the end with little pegs on them. And they were just hooking those up to the fence and then people were climbing on them and then jumping off from the border patrol.

There are all kinds of people with broken legs, but you’re finding tons of these sort of like 15th century style, sort of rampart sort of ladders, right, that you would have seen in the Middle Ages, crazy stuff. And so that’s the problem is if you’re just focused on a wall and not looking at the whole way that people cross and anticipating in advance and looking at technology. Then you’re bound, it’s always like a sort of a cat and mouse situation instead of being a lot more proactive. And I always find it fascinating. I think most people that are working on the border professionally understand the need for the comprehensive approach to address this and that putting your elements in just one thing probably isn’t an effective strategy.

DW Gibson: I think that one of the most important things I learned from border patrol leadership there in Southern California is that walls never stop traffic. They only divert it. Right? They only divert it. You’ve just given us two or three really good illustrations of that. So I think that’s why that comprehensive approach is so vital. I mentioned the port of entry, too, and I know that’s just to the east of Imperial Beach there, but maybe even just talk about that, because we know that when you talk about serious crime, narco crime, the majority of it comes through  ports of entry. And I know you have a lot of city workers in Imperial Beach that cross on a regular basis, live in Tijuana and work in California. So ports of entry are an important part of the border, right? We get caught up in thinking about Border Patrol all the time, but we forget about customs officers and ports of entry. So talk about maybe what you see there that we could do to help sort of expand our definition of border security and improve border security.

Serge Dedina: So what you’ve seen over the last 10 to 15 years is a significant investment in border crossing, port of entry investment, right? New port of entry areas, new technology that people are using, FastPasses for example, to make it more efficient, safer, and more secure, and be able to sort of like get the people through that are traveling with things that are legal and good, get them through quicker, but then to be able to detain and spend more time effectively focusing on people who may not, but using technology and smarter ways to do this and expanding the efficiency of border crossings. And we had that just happen. Again, I’m going to thank our congressional delegation and bipartisan way people working together across administrations to get, I think it was over $600 million invested in our San Ysidro Port of Entry. We have a new what’s called Otay II Border Crossing we’re planning right now with Mexico. It will be a public private partnership where people are paid across the border. We think that’ll be a huge investment. And the important thing about that is the more you do that, the more that those trucks get through and can deliver their products to market. We commissioned a study with the San Diego Association of Governments and showed that the billions in losses from having long borderlines, it’s just killing our economy, right, and actually causing job losses, and the most efficient thing we can do is increase these border crossings and ports of entry and use technology to do that and put people to work doing that. So that’s one thing that makes it safer and secure right away. The second thing is one of the biggest issues of security on the border is air quality. And when you have these big diesel trucks, just in line for hours, belching fumes, kids are getting sick, CPB agents and DHS agents are getting sick because they’re on the lines all the time.

So really, really important stuff. And I’ve been really buoyed by, again, the bipartisan sort of emphasis on that and people understanding that, and I see that in San Diego. People get it right. Let’s just make it easier to cross the border. It’s safer, more secure. You’re putting more eyes on the ground. I think that’s the thing that I find really fascinating. The more infrastructure we create, it’s not like it makes it harder. It actually makes it easier to monitor and make the border more secure. The more that we create these alliances, and again, I’m always really impressed by the bipartisan and civic engagement process. It’s the business level, it’s the environmental level. And I had business guys in the Chamber of Commerce just advocating for more sewage infrastructure, which is awesome. That’s exactly what you want. You don’t want a bunch of hippie environmentalists just advocating for the environment. You want everybody doing that.

So I think that’s what we’re seeing, and that’s the way to move this forward. I was just at a ribbon cutting for a new border crossing, this Otay II project and it was clear the Mexican government has made this commitment to doing this, sort of like we’re doing a restart. And I thought that was a wonderful thing. And then plus, you’ve got to have the buy-in from the president of Mexico and the president of the U.S., that engagement with Mexico, that cooperation, that friendly, productive, but challenging relationship is the most important thing. It’s the most important thing. That’s our neighbor, that’s our friend. It’s not supposed to be easy to work with Mexico, but it’s important. And when it’s done right, we get so much more done and the border’s so much safer and more secure.

DW Gibson: I will always remember that when you really opened my eyes to the idea that we tend to think of the border as a divider, quite literally a divider, but you very aptly, I think, and skillfully, look at it as a tool for collaboration. And I think that turns the idea of border security on its head. Just to dial down on one thing about ports of entry and sort of tie it back to something you had said before, in terms of what the traffic you see in the ocean in the image behind you there with sort of acknowledging that so much of the traffic, illicit traffic across the border is driven by the narcos, and you see that at the port of entry, too. What are some tools that you see there that might be baked into what you already said in terms of what can be done to target that kind of activity at ports of entry? You mentioned some technologies, X-ray machines? Are we seeing that kind of stuff?

Serge Dedina: So, I mean, in terms of, you mean the guys in the ocean?

DW Gibson: Yes. And also at the port of entry, too, because I know some of that traffic has moved to the ports of entry with, let’s say the fentanyl shipments in floorboards, right, of cars and that kind of stuff.

Serge Dedina: Yes, I’m not totally dialed into all the technology that’s being used, but I’m assuming that there’s x-ray machines. In fact, sometimes you have to drive through one doing that. I think a lot of it has to do with FastPass technology which they’re using to sort of pre-approve people. But I think also when you increase the number of lanes and the number of agents, what you’re doing is giving them more time to actually process people. I think that’s the thing. That had become a thing where the lines are five hours long, so they felt pressured to rush people through. I think that helps and more options to have more, more gates. And then number two, I think on the ocean, we’re using a lot more radar, but a lot of that has to do also with cooperation and intelligence agents working together. That’s why this issue of diplomacy, working more with Central America, is so important,, and then focus on investing in their economies and helping civil society and the rise of democracy.

Because right now, it’s really clear the focus has been on Central America and that migration crisis, well, that means we’re not spending the time doing what we have to do to have those civil and cooperative relationships here on the border that take the Coast Guard, working with partners and Mexico to determine where are those boats coming from. How can we stop those before they get across the border? And the same thing with all the illicit shipments and the tunnel building, et cetera, that’s the kind of cooperative infrastructure based on our countries working together that prevents this stuff from happening. And I’ll just throw something out right now. Obviously COVID is our international security crisis. The most brilliant, simple thing that this administration has done and we’ve done with Mexico in this time is the vaccine diplomacy, sending over a million Johnson and Johnson vaccines to Mexico and most of those have been assigned to Northern Baja, California.

People who cross the border and work in factories, et cetera, it’s absolutely brilliant at helping illustrate to Mexico, we’re committed to this relationship. It’s gone a long way. I was talking to the consul of Mexico in San Diego. Has a lot of influence in Mexico City, just absolutely brilliant. All those small, small things make a big difference in bringing our countries together and when things are working between the United States and Mexico, and you see the border working more efficiently and smoothly, that’s what those web of relationships, and at the end of the day, diplomacy is all about at all different types of levels.

DW Gibson: I think that that’s where sort of commerce and capitalism comes into play, too. Right? You mentioned the Xpress, the footbridge where one can get on a flight at the Tijuana airport from San Diego. I think that’s a good example of sort of international cooperation and finding ways to find legal ways for people to cross. And I was out in your neck of the woods when they were building prototypes of the border walls out in the Otay Mesa Desert. And it always struck me as somehow instructive or informative that when they tore down those prototypes, in that exact spot, what they’re building now, as we speak, I think still is a port of entry, a new crossing, right? So I think that kind of captures this sort of irony of the border and border security. You’ve touched on it, but maybe just a word or two more about the importance, how much border security is tethered to our economy and our economic system and how you see that play out on the ground there.

Serge Dedina: Yeah, the reality is since the advent of NAFTA and then now the USMCA, the commitment to our countries on sort of bringing our economies closer and creating this infrastructure that allows goods and services to essentially cross the border physically, right, in trucks has just blown up in a good way, the economy of the border region. Right? And it’s hard to estimate how dynamic and big it is, right, this North American economy. But the more that we’ve done, and as someone who grew up on the border, the more we’ve seen investment in smart security, smart technology, making the border safer, the better off we are. I’m just going to shout out to my town. We have one of the lowest crime rates of any coastal city in Southern California. We have actually, we may be one of the safest beach towns in San Diego County, and we have one of the lowest incomes, right.

And we’re next to the border. We don’t really have any border related crime. And so that’s just a testament to the fact that this multiverse of border security systems actually does work. We have to continue to make them function better and work together. It requires a binational way of doing that, but the more we invest in that infrastructure that’s tied to our economy because we have more resources to address it, the better off we are, the more secure we are, the more safe we are. And it works.

DW Gibson: Well, I want to respect everyone’s time and make sure we get out of here in a half hour, and we’ve arrived at that point already. It’s hard to believe it, but I’m so grateful for your perspective, Mayor, and I hope we have another opportunity to further this conversation in the future. Thanks for being with us today.

Serge Dedina: Yeah. Everybody, Hey, thanks. Come have a fish taco on the beach in Imperial Beach, and I’ll come down on my bike and we can hang out and talk about surfing and the border. So great to be here and thanks, DW, for all your great work on the border as well. Been a pleasure.

DW Gibson: Heck of an invitation. Everybody should take you up on it. Be well.

Serge Dedina: Great. Thank you.