By Elisabeth Malkin
Esther Arias’s grandchildren playing outside her house in Tijuana. The United States border wall is in her backyard. (Mauricio Lima for The New York Times)
TIJUANA, Mexico — A neighbor of Esther Arias is building a new fence — a very high one — and the construction is taking a bit of a toll.
“Sorry about the mess,” she said, waving at scrap metal strewn over her back patio, remnants of the neighbor’s old fence.
Ms. Arias did not seem too bothered by the disruption, but even if she had been, there was little she could do. She lives right on the border in Tijuana, Mexico, and her neighbor has a lot of power: It’s the United States government.
Tijuana is wedged against the line drawn in 1848 to divide Mexico and California. The city’s sprawl now extends 24 kilometers east from the Pacific Ocean to where the last houses seem to scatter into the scrub land. There, the border wall stops as mountains rise.
Of the houses along the border, the one where Ms. Arias, 52, raised five children may be closest to the barricade. The United States fence does double duty as her patio fence.
For a long time, the barrier was more of an afterthought, at its most formidable points just some barbed wire strung between posts. Then in the early 1990s, the United States used old steel helicopter landing mats to build a wall. Over the years, a second fence was put up behind most of it, and between the two liecameras, sensors and floodlights.
This year the border agency began to replace the wall. The new sections, between five and nine meters high, are built of closely spaced steel posts topped with a steel plate.
But ask almost anyone in Tijuana about the wall, or “la línea,” and you are likely to be met with a shrug. Daily life is defined less by the wall than by the ebb and flow of movement across it. As many as 150,000 people travel north toward San Diego every day through two border crossings.
This is a daily ritual for many who are American citizens or have visas. “It’s normal for me,” said Asheila Ramírez, 40, who shuttles between her aunt’s house in Chula Vista, California, where she works cleaning houses and driving for Uber, and her mother’s house in Tijuana.
The dream of finding a way into the United States has for decades drawn people to Tijuana from all over Mexico and Central America. Some hope to be granted asylum or other legal entry; many will sneak in. The recent arrival of more than 6,000 Central Americans traveling in a caravan has drawn media attention. In November, hundreds tried to cross the border en masse. The Mexican federal police barricaded the crossing as United States border agents fired tear gas from behind the wall.
But crossing the border illegally is largely a matter of stealth. One recent day, smugglers were using homemade ladders to ferry migrants up and down both walls at dusk.
As a border patrol car approached, a smuggler who was between the walls darted up a ladder and climbed down back into Mexico. An officer removed the ladders left behind, but everyone knew they would soon be replaced.