SAN DIEGO — A computerized system that allows motorists speedier passage across the border with Mexico faces its most ambitious trial starting next month when U.S. officials open a pair of special lanes at the nation's busiest entrance.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Ysidro hopes to get as many as 12,000 regular border-crossers to submit to criminal background checks and pay a $129 annual fee in order to use the lanes, which generally require drivers to stop only long enough to swipe a magnetic card.
Border officials hope that enlisting that many drivers--more than a fourth of the 43,000 entering the United States at San Ysidro each day--will cut waiting times for remaining cross-border drivers.
More modest versions of the high-tech system have run smoothly at other ports of entry, officials said. The system debuted at Otay Mesa, six miles east of San Ysidro, in 1995 and in El Paso last year. Each of those locations has about 3,000 enrolled commuters, mostly managers and employees of border-area assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, and other binational businesses.
In more than 1 million crossings using the computerized system at Otay Mesa, officials have found no cases of drivers smuggling drugs or undocumented immigrants.
"We feel it's ready for prime time over here," said W.B. Ward, INS deputy director for the San Diego area.
The innovation underscores one of the border's most basic roles, lost amid the hubbub over smuggling and crime: For thousands of residents, it is how they get to work each day. For people such as Jorge Ibarra, a U.S. citizen who crosses five or six times a week to tend his patient-referral offices in San Diego and Tijuana, long waits represent lost time--and a grueling, exhaust-choked ritual.
"It's frustrating being in line for an hour--and the heat," Ibarra said, preparing to hand in his application for the commuter program.
Not everyone is thrilled about the new lanes. Word of the program's impending start-up has prompted fear among dozens of merchants on the Tijuana side who sell souvenirs to tourists crossing the border on foot.
The vendors say plans to steer pedestrians around the new lanes will dry up a key supply of potential customers by diverting them from a village of stalls that sport colorful blankets and plaster U.S. cartoon figures. In protest, some sellers briefly blocked border traffic last week. The unions that represent them have bombarded Tijuana leaders with petitions and pleas for help.
"It will leave us isolated," said Pedro Preciado, who has sold trinkets at the border since 1973. "The authorities have ignored us. They haven't taken us into account as citizens and taxpayers."
Tijuana officials said they are working with Mexican federal authorities who run the border crossing to craft a solution. Among proposed remedies is construction of a footbridge over the new lanes that would allow tourists to continue trooping past the souvenir stands.
Commuters living on both sides of the border can enroll in the computerized program. Participants must pass a criminal background check, prove where they live and work, and provide any needed immigration papers.
In the car is mounted a transponder, similar to those used by commuters on Southern California's toll roads, that signals a computer at the border. By the time the car pulls up to the immigration inspector's booth, a computer screen has flashed a photograph and key identifying information about the registered driver and enrolled passengers. The driver swipes a magnetic card and, if all checks out, takes off--generally in five to 10 seconds.
The background checks are meant to screen out potential smugglers. But participants also are required on a random basis to pull over for cursory searches of their cars. The checks mean that commuters using the special lanes get searched more often than ordinary motorists.
But the time saved can be huge. Backups in the special lanes at Otay Mesa are rare. Ward said the goal for the new San Ysidro lanes is a three-minute wait. That compares with average delays of 25 to 30 minutes and, during holiday weekends or other busy times, waits that easily exceed an hour.
INS officials plan to open just one of the San Ysidro commuter lanes until the number of participants warrants use of the second. The $1.5-million project was held up more than a year as U.S. and Mexican officials worked out details and made needed changes in Tijuana. INS officials plan to open more of the commuter lanes along the 2,000-mile border.
"It refocuses how we look at doing business down here to where we cater more to the trusted traveler, which is the majority of the people," said William Snyder, an INS supervisor.