On Saturday afternoon, Julio Santiago stood up against the border fence on West International Street in Nogales, speaking to his extended family inches away in Nogales, Sonora through the gaps between the barrier’s steel tubes.

Santiago, a 27-year-old Phoenix-based construction worker originally from Nogales, Sonora, said he makes the trip to visit with his family through the fence every two or three weeks.

During past visits, Santiago and his family were separated by the fence’s “bollards” – interconnected metal tubes that extend up to 30 feet above a concrete footer – but they had an unobstructed view of each other and could hold hands through the four-inch gaps between the tubes.

But now, Santiago and anyone else who meets at this popular visiting spot is also separated by metal mesh that’s been attached to the fence. The U.S. Border Patrol, which had adopted a generally tolerant attitude toward gatherings at the fence after the barrier was installed in 2011, says it installed the mesh about two months ago to prevent people from exchanging contraband.

Intended or not, the change has also put a damper on the intimacy of the border fence meetings. Visibility has been diminished and hand-holding is out of the question.

“It gives you a chance to see your family if you behave well,” Santiago said of the bollard fence. “But now, you can’t even see (through it).”

Interruption

The meeting spot on West International Street, about 150 feet west of the intersection with West Street, is popular in large part due to its accessibility. The street runs right up against the fence there, offering a smooth, paved surface as opposed to the rock-strewn, 10-foot wide buffer zone just to the east that’s posted with signs reading: “U.S. property, no trespassing.” Just to the west, the street and fence rise up a hill on the U.S. side, separating the street levels in the U.S. and Mexico and making cross-border meetings impractical.

Especially on weekends, it’s not uncommon to see people camped out in plastic chairs on the U.S. side, while loved ones in Mexico set up tables and lay out a family meal on the other. For unlike the busy area of East International Street near the Morley Avenue pedestrian crossing, where eye-level, steel mesh-covered windows allow communication and limited visibility through a concrete border wall, the spot on West International has allowed unobstructed views and physical contact in a relatively quiet area of downtown – until now.

The approximately 75-foot-long segment of new mesh covers the entire meeting area, stretching from the “no trespassing” zone to a spot on the hill where the ground levels on either side of the fence are too far apart for face-to-face meetings.

The Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector headquarters did not respond specifically to a question about whether the passing of contraband had become a problem at the location. Instead, a statement from the sector’s public information office said: “Smuggling has always been an issue along the U.S.-Mexico border. As with any enforcement effort there are lessons learned and modifications made to address the ever-changing enforcement challenges.”

Emilio Gomez, a 54-year-old retiree who lives near the new mesh on West International Street, said he still sees families gather there.

Even so, he said: “It’s very bad because the people want to be talking with their family and many times they can’t. It interrupts.”

Priorities

While the Border Patrol has taken a hands-off approach to people talking and touching through the fence, it has made it clear that people cannot exchange items through the barrier.

“The Border Patrol is primarily concerned with individuals or contraband illegally crossing the international boundary,” spokeswoman Colleen Agle told the NI in June 2011 in response to questions about gatherings at the fence, though she added that “no items or people may pass over, under or through the fence.”

The Tucson Sector’s public information office reiterated that stance in an email last week, noting that passing items through the fence is prohibited. “Although individuals may have innocent intentions, the criminal element may take advantage of the innocence to smuggle or pass contraband across the border,” it said.

Technically, hand-holding is also prohibited, though it’s not an enforcement priority, the agency suggested in the email.

Santiago, the construction worker from Phoenix, acknowledged that his meetings with family have also included the exchange of food.

“Yes, they bring me food as well,” he said. “They say you can’t, but sometimes I eat, I don’t care.”

And while the meetings themselves have been tolerated, the Border Patrol said last week that the practice is only allowed with prior permission. That’s because all U.S. land within 60 feet of the border is federal property known as the Roosevelt Reservation, an off-limits area established in 1907 through a proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Back at the fence, Santiago, who did not specify why he doesn’t wish to cross into Mexico to visit loved ones, said the new mesh isn’t a big problem for him since he’s still pleased to be able to see his family. Even so, he said, it’s sad that the material prohibits them from touching during their reunions at the popular meeting spot.

Gomez, the neighbor, reiterated his assessment of the mesh as a “very bad” development.

“It’s not enough to put up a wall, they have to put up mesh as well,” he said.

SIDEBAR: Prior approval

Jesus Maldonado, a supervisor at the Nogales Border Patrol Station, said that if people want to submit a request to gather at the fence, they can contact Supervisor George Schmid at (520) 761-2400 or Steve Passement, the sector’s Border Community Liaison, at steven.passement@cbp.dhs.gov.

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