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For regular crossers of the U.S.-Mexico border, waiting is part of the routine

Tijuana border crossing
Traffic jams the entry lanes into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico.
(David Maung / AP)

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 U.S.-Mexico border, much of the discussion has focused on immigration reform and ways to stop illegal immigration. Overlooked are the vast numbers of legal crossers such as Jackson, who enter the country at 25 land ports along the southwest border. They enter for jobs, for school, for shopping, for entertainment, for medical treatment and for visits to 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 can all have an immediate effect on the volume of border traffic.

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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 presidential nominee, has proposed a wall the entire length of the border to prevent terrorists and illegal immigrants from coming into the United States, and to have Mexico underwrite the cost. But to crossers such as 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 steering his car 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 General Hospital, past the state government office building, Tijuana City Hall, the nightclubs at Pueblo Amigo.

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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,” Jackson said. Over the last few weeks, since school let out, the wait time has been cut in half, he said. On a recent Tuesday, mysteriously, there was no wait at all, he said: “I was stunned.”

Jackson is among the one-third of San Ysidro’s users who cross in the Ready Lane, where their use of radio-frequency-enabled identification documents 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, which aims to have participants cross in 15 minutes or less. But many crossers, including Jackson, don’t qualify. He said he has been turned down twice, and believes that the reason is a DUI conviction at age 20.

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.
Pete Flores, director of the San Diego field office

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, the agency’s officers are the first to verify their identity.

But since its creation in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security, the agency’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 San Diego field office, which oversees San Ysidro.

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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 identity.

Sidney Aki, the port director, said the agency’s aim is balancing security and efficiency, and that the keys to doing that are through technology, infrastructure and staffing.

“It’s always a dance, it’s always moving,” Aki said of the heavy volume of traffic.

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.

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 Assn. of Governments showed that from 2013 to 2015, the number of vehicles crossing at San Ysidro rose by 27%.

Sandra.dibble@sduniontribune.com

Dibble writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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