The tall concrete culvert at the bottom of Goat’s Canyon was built as part of a drastic makeover that environmentalists long opposed, until Congress cleared the way for earthen berms that let US Border Patrol agents drive straight across Tijuana River tributaries.
On Saturday, the Border Patrol allowed about 80 people to walk south through the tunnel to Mexican officials who greeted them with visas at the other end. Organizers of a conference that promotes “co-existence” on the US-Mexico border called it performance art, made possible with blessings from both governments.
“This is the first time ever that Mexico designates a drain as an official port of entry, and it’s probably not going to happen again,” said Oscar Romo, watershed coordinator for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve and an organizer of the Political Equator 3 conference.
Travelers clutching passports snapped photographs as they walked along the muddy culvert. One man switched on a head-mounted light as the group entered a dark 37m stretch that took them underground. Mexican officials at folding tables issued visas at the south end of the drain.
Goat’s Canyon occupies a highly sensitive environmental area that was overrun by illegal immigrants well into the 1990s, when the US government erected fences, installed bright lights and blanketed the area with Border Patrol agents. The crackdown, known as Operation Gatekeeper, forced migrants to look east and made Arizona the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.
In 2005, then-US president George W. Bush’s administration ended a long-running legal battle over new fences when Congress granted new powers to override environmental objections. A road for Border Patrol vehicles was built over new concrete drainage culverts in Goat’s Canyon. The neighboring “Smuggler’s Gulch” canyon was filled with 1 million cubic meters of dirt.
Shifting the dirt allowed for a straight road to run along the border, replacing one that dipped through the canyons with hair-raising, switchback turns. Romo said discussions for government approvals to open the drainage culvert lasted about a year.
“We’re just following the water backwards,” he said.