U.S. Customs officials announced a program aimed at keeping open at least 75% of the inspection lanes at the busy Port of Entry in San Ysidro, declaring Monday that the open lanes should ease polluting, time-consuming, money-wasting backlogs at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Made possible by the addition of 135 new Customs inspectors in Southern California, the new program cut waiting time Monday morning on the Mexican side of the San Ysidro port, the busiest border crossing in the world, to 10 minutes. The wait to enter the United States had averaged 30 to 40 minutes in recent months, Customs officials said.
The plan, begun Monday in similar form at border crossings from California to Texas, follows an Oct. 14 U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service experiment that opened all San Ysidro inspection lanes to traffic around the clock. That day, waiting time at San Ysidro was cut to virtually nothing.
The two agencies share responsibility for the border ports, with INS and Customs inspectors working side by side in traffic. But the relationship nationwide between INS and better-funded Customs has long been strained, and Customs officials stressed Monday that their new plan had not been prompted by the INS experiment in San Ysidro.
Nationally, officials said, Customs has hired and trained 300 new inspectors over the past two years, the 135 in Southern California over the past 20 months. There are three border crossings in Southern California--at San Ysidro, a few miles east at Otay Mesa and at Calexico, in Imperial County.
The added inspectors mean Customs could put into play a long-held plan to open more lanes at all crossings, said Rudy M. Camacho, Customs' San Diego district director.
"This is something we've been working on for some time," Camacho said. "We've wanted to do it for some time. Now that we have the resources and personnel to do it, we're going to go ahead and do it."
An INS source scoffed at that assertion, saying Customs was goaded into the plan by favorable publicity generated by the Oct. 14 INS experiment.
"We understand Customs says they have been studying this for three months," the source said. "More like three days. They've had those 135 inspectors. It takes two years to train them? We're just amazed.
"But," the source said, "we're very pleased. Our whole goal is facilitating traffic."
The San Ysidro crossing typically sees 43,000 to 53,000 vehicles daily, Camacho said. In fiscal year 1992, which ended Sept. 30, 13,540,135 cars and trucks passed through San Ysidro's 24 lanes, he said.
In recent months, 12 of the 24 lanes have typically been open. Five of the remaining 12 have been closed for construction. The others have been closed for lack of staffing.
On Monday, 18 of the 19 lanes available were open, Camacho said. And, in mid-December, when officials anticipate that the lanes under construction will be reopened, Customs will have enough inspectors to staff up to 18 lanes by itself, he said.
As traffic dictates, Camacho said, the plan is to open more lanes before the morning rush, typically when commuters from Tijuana jam the crossing, attempting to get to jobs in this country.
Camacho said he did not have at hand figures for the overall cost of the Customs plan. He said $1 million in overtime had been authorized in fiscal 1993 to staff the San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Calexico crossings.