TIJUANA — Lines of red taillights greet Jerry Jackson each morning as he launches his commute to downtown San Diego. For the 34-year-old Tijuana resident, getting to work means crossing an international border, and that often entails a two-hour wait.
As the U.S. presidential campaign draws a spotlight to the Mexican border, much of the discussion has focused on immigration reform and ways to stop illegal immigration. Overlooked are the vast numbers of legal crossers like Jackson who enter the country at 25 land ports along the southwest border. They enter for jobs, for school, to shop, for entertainment, to receive medical treatment, to visit friends and relatives.
A large portion of these crossers come through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land port in the Western Hemisphere, where on any given day 70,000 northbound vehicle passengers and 20,000 pedestrians are processed. The flow is nonstop, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It rises and falls with the time of day, day of the week and season of the year: school vacations, the Fourth of July, Black Friday, a Tijuana Xolos soccer game, a rainstorm, the rush to buy Christmas presents all can have an immediate effect on the volume of border traffic.
The 1,989-mile U.S.-Mexico border is a formidable barrier to many. To others it is far too porous: Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has proposed a wall the entire length of the border to prevent terrorists and illegal immigrants from coming into the United States, and have Mexico underwrite the cost. But to crossers like Jackson, the border is simply a part of the daily routine.
Born in Tijuana to a Puerto Rican father and Mexican mother, Jackson was raised on both sides of the border, and has been crossing all of his life. Though a U.S. citizen, he chooses to live in Tijuana and endure the border wait because Mexico is more affordable and feels more familiar.
One recent Monday morning, the sun was not yet up when he left his townhouse in a gated Tijuana community for his job on a maintenance team at a condominium complex in downtown San Diego. By 5 a.m., he was pulling into the line that stretched more than two miles down Tijuana’s Vía Rapida.
It was then simply a question of patience, moving forward inches at a time along the concrete channel of the Tijuana River, past the General Hospital, past the state government office building, Tijuana City Hall, the nightclubs at Pueblo Amigo.
There was time to buy Tijuana’s daily newspaper, Frontera, from the vendor who greets him every morning. And time for a cellphone conversation with a friend behind him heading to her job in Chula Vista. Drivers in other cars passed the time reading, applying makeup, clipping fingernails, eating a banana, checking the Facebook page, “Cómo Está La Linea Tijuana,” whose 95,000 members post live updates of their crossing experiences at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry.
“When you get to the officer, it’s only about 30 seconds, but you’ve waited two hours to get there,” said Jackson. Though over the past few weeks, since school let out, the wait time has been cut in about half, he said. And on Tuesday, mysteriously, there was no wait at all, he said: “I was stunned.”
Jackson is among one-third of San Ysidro’s users who cross in the Ready Lane, where those with radio frequency-enabled identification documents, such as a U.S. passport card, that can be read by a computer, allow speedier processing than documents that have to be entered manually.
Those who complain about the wait are often told they should apply for the U.S. government’s Sentri program, for low-risk crossers who have passed a security clearance. About a third of vehicle crossers are in the Sentri program, where the aim is to have participants cross in 15 minutes or less. But many crossers like Jackson don’t qualify. He said said he has been turned down twice, and believes the reason is a DUI conviction at age 20.
In the meantime, he is resigned to the status quo. While others honk, cut in line, yell at the other drivers, Jackson maintains a zen-like composure, biding his time and then moving quickly when he sees a chance to switch to a faster lane. He knows he’ll eventually get through: “I see it as traffic, and not as though I am going to another country.”
Staffing San Ysidro’s inspection booths are officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with operating U.S. ports of entry. Its mandate includes intercepting drugs, stopping unauthorized immigrants, checking for arrest warrants, stemming illicit cash and weapons flows, intercepting illegal animal trade, checking agricultural shipments for insects and disease, verifying medications and protecting intellectual property rights. When asylum seekers present themselves at the border, CBP officers are the first to verify their identity.
But since its creation in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s No. 1 task has been securing the U.S. border from potential terrorists.
“I don’t know any other law enforcement agency that has a more complex mission than what we have to do on the border every single day,” said Pete Flores, director of the agency’s San Diego field office, which oversees San Ysidro.
In any 24-hour period, almost anything can happen on this 40-acre complex at 720 E. San Ysidro Blvd. According to records for that address provided by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, a day doesn’t go by without at least a half-dozen calls. On June 25, a Saturday, ambulances responded 10 times starting at 5:55 a.m. and ending at 11:08 p.m. Half of the calls involved the pedestrian area, with one report of fainting, an assault, someone with breathing problems and two reports of a “sick person.” The other five were in secondary inspection area, with one report of breathing problems, three “sick person” reports and one case involving poisoning.
With the continual crush of vehicles and pedestrians, keeping down wait times is a challenge. Border residents remember a time they could be waved through at San Ysidro just by saying “U.S. citizen.” But since June 2009, under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, all travelers entering the country, foreigners and U.S. citizens alike, must present a passport or other accepted document to prove their nationality and and identity.
Sidney Aki, the port director, said CBP’s aim is balancing security and efficiency, and the keys to doing that are through technology, infrastructure and staffing. The port’s operations center is a room that overlooks the traffic lanes, where supervisors monitor the flows around the clock, opening some lanes, closing others. It’s informally called the “Wow” room, because that’s what visitors typically exclaim when they walk in and see the huge volume of traffic.
“It’s always a dance, it’s always moving,” Aki said on a recent afternoon.
The efficiency of ports of entry is seen as key for the economies on both sides of the border, and the United States and Mexico have been putting resources into upgrades. San Ysidro is going through a multiyear $741 million expansion and upgrading that is scheduled for completion in 2019.
Paola Avila, vice president for international affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said significant strides have been made at San Ysidro, but more needs to be done. “I commend CBP for all the progress they’ve made with infrastructure, but it’s not the whole solution,” Avila said. “There’s a need for innovation and technology as part of the whole system.”
Hopes were raised in September 2014 as wait times dropped dramatically with the expansion of northbound capacity to 25 lanes and 46 booths. “For two or three weeks, it was like being in heaven,” said Sabrina Dallet, a U.S. citizen living in Tijuana who regularly crosses in the Ready Lane to her job teaching second grade at a public elementary school in Chula Vista. “But then they went back to normal. Why did they spend so much money, why did they promise us shorter wait times?”
One explanation is that vehicle traffic has surged since 2014: A recent report by the San Diego Association of Governments showed that from 2013 to 2015, the number of vehicles crossing at San Ysidro rose by 27 percent.
But weekday morning crossers like Dallet say CBP could be doing more by adding staff during the morning rush hour to operate the two booths built into most inspection lanes, and complain the port is rarely operating at full capacity.
“Most days, and most times, there are no double-stacked booths,” said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. “This is of great concern.”
Flores said it’s a question of balancing resources at the port. “We use them from time to time,” he said. “We typically use double-stacking when we hit that peak time frame…But that’s really based on what our capability at the time is, whether we have the resources officer-wise.”
At full buildout in 2019, San Ysidro will have 34 personal vehicle lanes and 63 inspection booths, but will the agency be able to hire enough officers to man them as needed?
The issue of staffing for ports of entry was the subject of a hearing this year before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. Members called into question CBP procedures that made it difficult hire new officers.
“We are losing far too many applicants who just throw up their hands and move on because they have given up on the process,” said chairwoman Martha McSally, R-Ariz.
Anthony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers, spoke of staffing shortages that led to low morale and high attrition rates.
In a statement last week to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Reardon said he recently visited the port and noted “a serious staffing crisis.” Officers “are overworked and forced to work long hours of overtime week after week,” he said, and this has led to temporary transfers of employees from other ports to fill the gaps.
Congress funded 2,000 additional CBP officers nationwide in fiscal 2014, but not all the positions have been filled. San Diego’s field office was allotted 320 of those positions, with 190 for the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Jackie Wasiluk, a CBP spokeswoman in San Diego, said the port is at 85.7 percent of its authorized staffing level for fiscal 2016.
South of the border, Tijuana police have stepped up their efforts to cope with the increased traffic on city streets caused by the long border waits. The department’s international liaison officer, Carlos Betancourt, said he has recently been asked to head up a force of 40 auxiliary officers whose task is to maintain order at the border crossings.
Fender-benders and disputes are common as tempers flare and some try to jump the line or try to charge for access to a shortcut. “It’s even come to blows,” Betancourt said. He is in regular communication with CBP supervisors, informing them of the length of lines, and helping steer traffic to open lanes. And they in turn inform him of any situations at the port that could affect traffic.
Not much surprises Betancourt, but one thing does: “People don’t stop crossing, even if the dollar is high and the lines are long. People keep going across.”