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Cross-Border Lifestyle Requires Patience

Impact: For thousands of commuters, added security since Sept. 11 means longer waits to get to the U.S. side.


TIJUANA — Migdalia Escobedo refuses to let an international border stand in the way of her sons' education, even in a post-9/11 world.

Escobedo is among the Tijuana parents who cajole their children awake at 4 and 5 a.m. to get them to San Diego private schools, a generations-old tradition that has become a notorious ordeal.

U.S. security measures imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have turned the border--the heartbeat for countless lives and livelihoods--into an unpredictable bottleneck.

The morning rush-hour crossing into the U.S., once a 25-minute wait, can now tie up motorists for an hour or more.

Some private school students from Tijuana scramble out of carpools on the Mexican side of the border, ride bikes to the crossing and board new carpools on the U.S. side. Other parents move to San Diego to spare their children the commute, and now endure long rides home from jobs in Mexico.

The border logjam ripples through societies on both sides of the international line in other ways: Cross-border dating has reportedly cooled, Tijuana trinket shops stand empty and San Diego entrepreneurs--who rely on Mexican shoppers almost as much as tourists--have lost regular customers and even businesses.

But the impact of life after 9/11 is suffered most routinely by the estimated 50,000 commuters who join the daily international conga line to get to jobs and schools on the other side of the border.

"When I was a little girl, my mother used to send me across the border to get a gallon of milk; it was that easy," said Escobedo, 54. "Now it's stressful. You give yourself lots of time to get across, and you're either very early or very late."

Others, who cross for recreation, have cut back.

U.S. partyers tend to walk across the border to Avenida Revolucion, if they come at all: Tourism in downtown Tijuana plummeted 40% last September and remains 25% off, officials say.

Tourism elsewhere in Baja is recovering, officials say, as Americans who fear flying drive to beach vacations south of the border, especially since their hour-average wait at the border has returned closer to pre-9/11 levels.

Hugo Torres, owner of the Rosarito Beach Hotel--a popular destination for Californians since it was a haunt for Lana Turner and Vincent Price--said he lost 40% of his business for three months after Sept. 11. But by this August, occupancy had surpassed that of August 2001.

"We'd get even more tourists if the crossing was quicker," Torres said.

The border traffic jam is a big U-turn from the mid-'90s, when crossing commonly took 20 minutes. Then young fronterizos, or borderlanders, dropped across the border a few times a week to see friends or paramours.

"Now we ask ourselves, 'What's the wait?' I get tired just thinking about it," said Marco Cortez, 32, a consultant for those seeking U.S. government contracts.

For some, an international singles lifestyle is on hold.

"I was dating a girl in Tijuana, and after the third time of coming back at 4 in the morning, I said, 'This is way too hard,' " said Michael Inzunza, 30, the San Diego editor of a magazine for high school students. His two brothers married Tijuana women after cross-border dating forays. "You have to ask yourself: Is it worth it?"

For most people who cross the border all the time, the answer is still a resounding yes.

It is the fronterizos--bilingual Latino transnationals who spend time on both sides of the border--who bear the brunt of "el crisis."

"There are some people who just have to make it across, because their families or jobs or schools depend upon it," said Chuck Nathanson, executive director of San Diego Dialogue, a think tank that advocates greater cross-border integration.

The cross-border traffic is not all U.S.-bound.

Some students from San Diego commute to schools such as Tijuana's private Colegio La Paz. So many business owners drive from San Diego to work in Tijuana that one U.S. border suburb, Chula Vista, is nicknamed "Chulajuana."

It's easy for these commuters to drive into Mexico, where border screening is inconsequential. The problem is the U.S-bound leg.

"The daily stuff is hard," Nathanson said. "People adjust, and where they can cut down, they've cut down. But for some people, it's a major economic liability. They go bankrupt."

For private school students' parents, such as Mariano and Migdalia Escobedo, the border is a family affair. Mariano, the chairman of the Tijuana Tourism Board, and general director of Tijuana Jai-Alai, pays close attention to how the border affects business.

Two weeks ago, the Escobedos mingled with other Tijuana parents at Mariano's old San Diego alma mater, St. Augustine High School, for freshman orientation for Mariano Jr., 15. Their youngest, Marco, 12, attends seventh grade at another private institute, St. John School.

The Escobedos have driven their kids across the border for 11 years.

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