By Beryl Flom
The League of Women Voters of San Diego recently took a tour with Customs and Border Patrol. The August 2 tour was arranged by the League’s Immigration and Deportation Committee as an opportunity to educate members about various border and immigration issues.
Those issues include the wait time crossing the border, regulations by the U.S. which can slow down a smooth transition between the two countries and the court backlog for people without documentation seeking asylum. Another issue that concerns us is the deportation of non-citizen veterans who have served our country and then commit some minor legal infraction and are deported without consideration of their readjustment back to civilian life.
Tour members met with Jerry Allen and Elizabeth Brown, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) which connects passengers in the U.S. with the Tijuana’s Rodriguez Airport by a bridge over the border. Passengers pay $16 to cross and $3 to return.
About 3,000 people per day are currently going each way and the Tijuana Airport is seeing a 35% increase in passenger use. Business people can use CBX and go round trip to Mexico City in one day. Passengers bring their luggage with them across the bridge and must go through customs at Rodriguez Airport and at CBX when they enter the U.S. Paid parking and 24-hour curb parking are available at CBX. Once passengers have bought their tickets to cross the border, they have 24 hours to use it on a flight which allows people to shop or go into either Tijuana or San Diego and surrounding areas.
CBX was built with private money provided by Otay Tijuana Venture. They have 55 acres and plan to add restaurant(s), more parking, a gasoline station and a hotel. Parking space is already an issue because people leave their cars for several days while they are in Mexico.
Rodriguez Airport is also expanding and has space for many more flights as well as runways good for overseas flights. Long distance buses service CBX including four going to Las Vegas per day! The building and bridge were constructed from both sides of the border and they met in the middle. The engineers were using the metric system on the Mexican side and the U.S. system of measurement on the American side and managed to have the two parts of the bridge meet perfectly.
The airport is a modern, airy, clean, new and attractive building with lots of security cameras and a duty free shop. Waiting rooms are on both sides – outgoing and incoming – for families and passengers to gather, but seating seemed rather limited to the Leaguers on the tour. It seemed like a project with a lot of possibilities for expanding air travel and eliminating the need to build a new airport in San Diego.
The tour continued onto the Otay Mesa Cargo Facility where we met with Lawrence Fanning and Rosa Hernandez, also with Customs and Border Patrol. All the trucks crossing the U.S./Mexico border are inspected at this huge facility.
Drivers bring loads to nearby warehouses and unload them so they can return and cross the border again with another load in the same day. The inspectors get to know the drivers and are good at identifying something suspicious. Dogs are used to identify drugs, insects and pests in agricultural products, firearms, hidden people and large amounts of money.
Most dogs are trained to find just one type of contraband. They have 58 dogs onsite and they come originally from Europe where they breed dogs for this kind of work. Their training is done in other parts of the U.S. and costs $8,000-10,000 each. They work for ten years before they are retired. Leaguers were able to watch a short demonstration by a dog searching for drugs.
The Cargo Facility inspects about 3,000 trucks per day each way. The trucks are largely carrying agricultural products, durable medical supplies and machinery. If an inspector is suspicious, the load can be put through a type of x-ray. Officers inspect the inside cabins of trucks looking for alterations where something might be hidden.
Drivers caught carrying contraband are either not allowed to continue across the border or are arrested. If insects or pests are found in a load, they either have to fumigate or destroy the load at the company’s expense or not cross the border. Agricultural products are prioritized into two groups, so inspectors concentrate on loads with items that are more likely to have pests in them.
After lunch provided by Erik’s Deli and Grill, we heard presentations by Cindy Gompper-Graves from the South County Economic Development Council, Nancy Gudino who heads up Mayor Faulconer’s Binational Affairs Office, Vivian Salazar who holds the same position for the Mayor of Tijuana, and Eddie Meyers from Congressman Juan Vargas’ office.
PedWest has just opened at the San Ysidro border crossing. Again, it was built by both countries but there have been some problems on the Mexican side so it is not ADA accessible yet and currently is only a temporary structure there, but it is supposed to be straightened out by September. Cindy said all the phases to improve border crossings here in San Diego have been funded by Congress now; Juan Vargas and the San Diego Congressional Delegation have worked to achieve that.
The Customs and Border Patrol still doesn’t have the ports fully staffed so the lines are still long; it was explained that it takes time to hire the right people and train them. Air pollution from standing vehicles, delays in moving goods, people late for school and work are all issues affected by these long lines. San Ysidro is the busiest land port in the world.
Gompers-Graves also talked about the bi-national railroad line that runs along the border; parts are in both countries, but it is largely in Mexico which still needs to repair tunnels, etc. to make it safe enough for heavy traffic. One train per night comes through now. They plan to connect Ensenada to the Imperial Valley.
A third port of entry called Otay East or Otay II is starting construction with the access road, Hwy. 11. There will be a small toll to cross there, but the waiting time will be short. They now have permits from both countries. SANDAG is obtaining a bond based on future tolls to fund it.
Gudino and Salazar work to provide education and collaboration by hosting bi-national events such as the Maker’s Faire. City directors (ie. the two head librarians) meet biannually. The goals of the Bi-national Affairs Offices and the MOU signed by both cities are to promote economic development, trade entrepreneurship, and investment. They are also improving signage, public safety, environment, and arts and cultural exchanges.
They respectively travel to Washington and Mexico City to find funding and they are building a bi-national website. Issues come up, sometimes with little time for resolution, such as permitting fire-fighting planes. They are looking at all the used tires in Tijuana which hold up hillsides and buildings but are washed down into the river in a heavy rain. Tires are being collected in Tijuana.
Salazar pointed out that companies are choosing to headquarter in Tijuana instead of going to Asia now. Tijuana has just announced a new bus that will go from the border to the eastern part of the city where many Americans like to eat and go to the museum and cultural center.
Beryl Flom is Chair of the Immigration and Deportation Committee of the League of Women Voters of San Diego