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Baja beckons to U.S.


Register columnist


I just got back from a trip to Baja California. And despite all the concerns about illegal immigration into the U.S. from Mexico, it's clear to me that the trans-border traffic is actually going two ways.

For its part, Mexico is sending us millions of poor illegal aliens who are mostly decent and hard-working but who as a group also create a strain on our social services.

And in return, we're sending them wealthy illegal aliens who are turning Baja into Newport Beach.

I'll get back to that in a minute. But first a little background on my trip.

It was one of those things that probably would have been a lot more fun if I were a little younger – say, thirty years younger. My old pal Phil, a retired newspaper hack, was on a car-camping trip to Cabos San Lucas, at the extreme southern tip of Baja, and in a moment of alcohol-related poor judgment I had agreed to fly down to Cabo and drive back to California with him.

Unfortunately, Phil won't drive in Mexico in any vehicle that anyone would want to steal, even for parts. So I wound up riding a thousand tortuous miles on white-knuckle Baja roads in a mud-brown 1980 Toyota with no air-conditioning and a bad radiator and a power-steering pump that finally pounded itself to death two hundred miles shy of the border.

Even by Mexico standards, this thing was a beater. And by the end of the trip we were two of the dirtiest, sweatiest, most derelict-looking old gringos ever to stumble out of Mexico.

In any event, the thing I noticed about Baja California is how American much of it is has become – not just in a resort town like Cabo San Lucas, where truck convoys laden with Coronas and limes were streaming into the city in expectation of spring break, but all along the coasts. Hotels, resorts, golf courses, marinas, beachfront homes – like I said, it may be Mexico, but it looks increasingly like Newport Beach.

And they have prices to almost match. Even in a modest restaurant, a lobster dinner that once would have cost you a few pesos will now set you back twenty-six bucks. And while property is still cheaper than in the U.S., you can find 2,800-square-foot, three-bedroom houses on the Cabo del Sol being "offered" for $2.6 million each.

Of course, under Mexican law Americans technically can't own real estate within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of the coastline; instead we have to go through a 50-year renewable trust mechanism in which a Mexican bank actually owns the property. Although some U.S. title insurance companies now offer coverage for property in Baja California, experts warn that unwary Americans can sometimes still run afoul of contested property claims and squatters' rights.

We can also easily run afoul of the law. As far as street crime goes, I felt more secure in most of Baja than I would feel in many, perhaps even most parts of L.A. – but crime isn't necessarily limited to criminals. For example, Phil got tagged by a Mexican cop for driving 20 mph in an alleged 12 mph zone on the main road through Ciudad Constitucion – a speed-trap of breathtaking brazenness – which set him back thirty bucks on the spot. On the bright side, he won't get any points on his driving record.

But despite such occasional problems, tens of thousands of Americans live full- or part-time in Baja California. Just how many tens of thousands is open to conjecture, because like the U.S., Baja has an illegal immigration problem.

"I would say at least 40 to 50 percent of Americans living in Baja don't have legal (residency) documents," says San Ysidro-based attorney Rafael Solorzano, an expert in Mexican immigration and property law. "They often call themselves 'dry-backs.' But there's not much said about it because they help the economy."

And dry-backed or not, just about every expatriate American we encountered down there thought that living in Baja was great.

"What's not to like?" said Bob, a deeply-tanned, salt-and-pepper-haired former San Diego restaurateur who quit the rat-race after having problems with his "ticker" and moved to Loreto, by the Sea of Cortez. "The people are wonderful, it's pretty clean, and I go fishing every day."

True, once away from the coastal tourist and ex-pat areas, you'll be back in Old Mexico – for better or worse. Stop to buy a dust-cutting cold beer from the smiling proprietress of a thatched-roof loncheria outside Guerrero Negro and you'll find that the "bathroom" out back by the goat pen is a wooden seat over a fly-buzzing hole in the ground, only partially enclosed by walls made of sticks. And closer to the border, along the Tijuana-Tecate corridor, there are the usual depressing vistas of abject poverty and criminal government neglect of basic social services.

Nevertheless, while it may not be as interesting or as quaint as it used to be, much of Baja California is a lot cleaner and healthier – and more American – than it used to be.

So yes, we may be experiencing a potential "reconquista," with Mexico re-taking the American Southwest through illegal immigration. But we're conquista-ing a part of Mexico, too.

One wealthy dry-back and one over-priced ocean-view lot at a time.

Contact the writer: Contact Dillow at 714-796-7953 or GLDillow@aol.com

Published Thursday, March 15, 2007 6:23 PM by Kanoa Biondolillo


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