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A YEAR AFTER: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

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.

September 11, 2002|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now, construction workers and hotel workers begin lining up at the San Ysidro border at 5 a.m., and crossing can take 90 minutes if you pick the wrong lane or, as Migdalia said, "the cursed line."

Even the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing commonly has lines of 500 to 1,000 people.

"Some families I know have just given up and moved to Chula Vista or Bonita," an adjacent community, Migdalia said.

As difficult as the crossing remains at San Ysidro, where 125,000 U.S.-bound cars pass each day, it is a marked improvement from the months immediately after last Sept. 11. The average wait is 50 to 55 minutes during the 5 to 9 a.m. rush, still double the 25 minutes before 9/11, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Diego. But on Saturdays and Sundays, the 60-minute wait is back down to pre-9/11 levels. August marked the first month San Ysidro traffic returned to pre-9/11 levels, Mack said.

Earlier, the long delays had discouraged so many drivers that car traffic fell by 30% to 40%--a drop so severe that many merchants north of the border in San Ysidro said they might have to go out of business.

Carlos Vasquez, the president of the San Ysidro Business Assn., said he tried unsuccessfully to get a state of emergency declared. The city of San Diego held bilateral economic impact hearings, and helped businesses apply for Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster loans.

"It was like a ghost town," said Vasquez, owner of several small border hotels and a Mexican auto insurance business--which he said lost 70% of their revenue in the months after the attacks.

"Many business are still just hanging on," he said.

Commuters have adapted, pushing ingenuity to the limits. They check Internet sites that show the cars, creeping like ants across the border, to determine which lanes are least crowded. So many people began riding bikes through the lanes--weaving ahead of stalled cars--that the INS added a bike lane in the spring in San Ysidro.

Hector Venegas, border coordinator for the San Diego Assn. of Governments, is married to a Tijuana woman, and he crosses the border regularly for baptisms and other family events.

Even now, Venegas said, he sees people sleeping in their cars in the wee hours at the San Ysidro crossing. They park in lanes closed during low-volume hours, poised to wake up at the front of the line.

"If you have to be at work at 5:30 a.m. at an Escondido nursery, you have no choice," he said.

The economic fallout has underscored what some economists say is a shared economic destiny at the border: Mexican shoppers spend nearly $3 billion in San Diego every year, an amount not far behind the roughly $5.1 billion spent in 2001 by tourists there, city planners say.

Marney Cox, the chief economist of the San Diego Assn. of Governments, said Mexicans are still buying big-ticket items in San Diego but staying in Tijuana for many smaller purchases.

"You might wait an hour or two in line to buy a car in San Diego," Cox said, "but not to go grocery shopping or to a restaurant."

About 21,000 regular border crossers, such as the Escobedos, have been able to shortcut the border ordeal by passing a security clearance that allows them to get an electronic transponder. With the transponder, they can use a special lane that whips them past the typical customs and immigration scrutiny.

But the program, called SENTRI, authorizes individual families and their household cars--not the random daily assortment of children in school carpools like the Escobedos'.

That means Migdalia Escobedo must stop at the border so the other children in her carpool can walk through the pedestrian line--even if those kids are registered on their own family's SENTRI--and pick the children up on the other side.

U.S. officials frown on allowing children younger than 14 to walk through pedestrian lines without an adult--and no one wants to lose the prized electronic pass.

"Lots of people talk about Life Before SENTRI and Life After SENTRI," Migdalia said. "There's a lot of jealousy of people who have SENTRI."

"My son says: 'A bicycle costs $100. A car costs $10,000. SENTRI is priceless,' " she said.

San Diego Dialogue's Nathanson said much of the border snarl could be unknotted if the program simply were expanded.

"After eight years, they only have 21,000 people in SENTRI, and they ought to have 200,000," Nathanson said. "The people who cross every day are not terrorists, but they put everybody through the same protocol, like the little old lady at the airport who you make unpack her bags.... They should be spending their time inspecting people they don't know."

Mack, the INS spokeswoman, said a top priority for the agency is processing the backlog of about 8,000 SENTRI applications.

Fronterizos say that, without speedier crossings, more than commerce or convenience has been lost.

Jose Luis Rangel, a DJ at Radio Latina, a Tijuana soft rock station, lives in Tijuana, where rent and living costs are lower, and drives to work in Chula Vista, from which the station broadcasts. "Before, I'd pop over to San Diego for a movie, a concert, to see my friends and family," he said. "Now I think twice. My friends in San Diego are reluctant to come to Tijuana, too. It reduces the social spontaneity."

But when people get a taste of cross-border living, many are willing to put up with a lot to keep their international options open.

Carlos Arredondo, 37, a photographer in rumpled jeans and a mustache, was one of dozens of Tijuanans who sampled herbal drinks at a reception for Tijuana artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego on a recent night. Arredondo works in San Diego, lives in Tijuana and socializes everywhere.

"I've spent my whole life going from one side of the border to the other," he said. "I can't imagine being forced to choose between them."

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