TIJUANA — The last time it was this easy to drive legally through the world's busiest land border crossing, San Diego was a parochial Navy port and Tijuana was half its size.
Little more than a year ago, the San Ysidro crossing was a fume-bathed, bumper-to-bumper bottleneck where motorists sat for hours in gridlock that frayed nerves, inspired fistfights and defied the close cross-border cooperation promised under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Rush-hour traffic, holiday shoppers and the occasional rude U.S. inspector still rile commuters, but today, most drive north through San Ysidro in 20 minutes or less, on the average, INS officials say.
For policymakers who see the border as the heartbeat of a vibrant binational economy, this represents a not-so-small victory in the struggle to fine-tune the inspection stations that sift the vast U.S.-bound stream of humanity. Their vision is a border as fine-tuned as a perfectly synchronized Swiss watch.
But in an age when smugglers have concealed cocaine in canned chili peppers, exotic baby snakes in bra cups and ozone-eroding Freon in contraband canisters, law enforcement guardians are still concerned about making the border too easy to cross. To them, the car crossings are a final sieve to trap northbound drugs, southbound stolen cars and U.S. guns that officials fear will end up in the hands of drug cartels and criminals.
The debate over how to best balance the two concerns is not likely to go away in an era in which drug abuse is among the most pressing U.S. problems. But increasingly, a new generation of border architects is arguing that the U.S. crossings can act as a bulwark against contraband without being a clumsy obstacle to an increasingly integrated region.
"There has been a paradigm change in the way we see the border," said San Diego U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, President Clinton's Southwest border czar. "The traditional view was that enforcement was adverse to traffic and commerce.
"The old antithesis has been rejected," Bersin said.
"Now we have to unlock the treasures on this border at the macro level," he said, alluding to a growing economic boon that already nets San Diego billions of dollars in revenue a year, according to studies.
It is on the macro level that most people experience the carnival-esque San Ysidro border, a 24-hour international conga line of 40 million U.S.-bound people and 15 million cars a year. The wait times exercise a subtle but profound effect on cross-border social and economic life.
Arturo Martin, 22, a senior at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego, only went to Tijuana when he absolutely had to in the days when it took him more than an hour to make the return crossing. On a recent Tuesday, he popped over to Tijuana to attend to his new business setting up U.S.-direct collect phone booths, and made the midday return crossing in seven minutes.
"Before, it would keep you on a real tight leash," Martin said. "Before I would never, like, go down to Tijuana just for a drink or dinner, and if I did, I'd stay until midnight to avoid the line. Dating in Tijuana was not an option. How could you have a relationship across a border it took forever to cross? Now you can go down and spend time with her between school and work.
"Now I wish we could do something about the traffic in L.A. It's crazy," Martin said.
The strategy to speed up crossings employs a combination of law enforcement, technology and traffic management, and zeros in on the thousands of law-abiding commuters whose crossings are the rhythms of regional integration.
More than 40,000 people cross through the San Ysidro border every day to work in San Diego or Tijuana, returning to their home countries at supper time, studies say. Thousands of Tijuana parents drive their children to San Diego private schools or public schools, where they pay out-of-district tuition. There are more than a million Tijuana-to-San Diego family and social visits each month, according to studies.
To address the flow, INS staff has been doubled and the number of customs agents has been beefed up significantly. In July 1995, when border gridlock was severe, there were only 127 working immigration inspectors at San Ysidro, officials say. On a typical day, half the lanes were closed. Now there are 306 inspectors, allowing INS officials to open as many lanes as necessary during peak commuter hours. And there are more agents available to walk the car lines with dogs trained to sniff out the presence of hidden drugs and human cargo.
Sophisticated technologies are being tested as well.
More than 2,400 commuters have enrolled in an 18-month-old experimental commuter program that devotes an entire lane to drivers whose cars are equipped with a special electronic password, said Sally Carrillo, the INS supervisor of the lane program. Located in Otay Mesa, east of San Diego, the lane relieves San Ysidro of the burden of commuters who often cross several times a day.