On the Border, Part I: The Door Swings Both Ways

New security measures and plans for a massive border station threaten the fragile border economy of San Diego-Tijuana. Those most affected by these changes will likely be cross-border workers, family-run businesses, and small communities—on both sides of the border.

May 19, 2008

“So far from God, so close to the United States.”

It is the quote attributed to former Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, and a phrase that many Mexicans repeat to foreigners in a futile effort to explain the source of their country’s problems. But in sprawling border cities like Tijuana, locals might say their woes come from living in a kind of no-man’s land: not exactly Mexico, yet not quite the United States either.

Near the San Ysidro border-crossing, one of the busiest in the world.

It is a problem facing communities on both sides of the border as residents seek opportunities in an area that remains economically, culturally, and linguistically intertwined. Together, the urban areas of San Diego and Tijuana total almost four million people, making up an inextricable symbiosis in which cultural barriers blur together.

Walk into any Gigante supermarket on Mexico’s northern border and you’ll see what I mean: two mothers chat in line, suddenly uttering four words in English mid-conversation, before resuming in rapid-fire Spanish as the cashier thrusts pesos and dollars into the cash register. The two currencies here are interchangeable.

Despite this eccentric cohesion, residents on both sides of the border could be in for hard times. The new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative’s requirement that U.S. citizens entering Mexico show a passport to “establish citizenship and identity” goes into effect this year. And Tijuana, a veteran city for U.S. revel seekers since prohibition, could lose significant revenue generated by casual tourists who enter Mexico only for afternoon shopping or a night of bar hopping. Traditionally, these transitory visitors have not owned passports, and if they stop visiting, cities in northern Mexico could suffer devastating losses.

And this relationship is reciprocal. Heightened U.S. security following 9/11 created long delays crossing the border resulting in $6 billion a year in lost profits for both countries, according to a study by the San Diego Association of Governments.

It’s 7:30 in the morning. Military personnel brandishing automatic weapons weave in and out of gridlocked traffic. Car horns blare, quesadillas fry at food stalls, a well-dressed man waves a discount bottle of tequila at passerby’s outside of a duty-free shop. Amid the deafening milieu, a line of people snakes its way alongside the traffic jam, up the sidewalk, and then curls back around practically to where it began next to a mariachi band.

This is the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana. More than 17 million vehicles and 50 million people pass through this in-land port every year to enter the United States. San Ysidro is the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, and many say, the world. Of the thousands who cross the border daily, the majority commutes to jobs in California and lives in Tijuana where rent remains cheaper.

Wait times vary, but pedestrians normally stand in line for at least an hour; drivers usually wait far longer. One study estimates vehicle traffic will increase 70% by 2030, as new security standards have made processing vehicles and commuters even slower, prompting plans to construct a new facility.

Just six blocks north from the port on the U.S. side and a world away from Tijuana, community planer David Flores raises deep concerns about the future. Flores works with Casa Familiar, a non-profit in San Ysidro, California that assists immigrants and people of need in the southern San Diego area.

Casa Familiar’s most recent challenge has been involving San Ysidro, the southernmost neighborhood of San Diego, in a dialogue with the U.S. government’s General Service Administration (GSA), which has so far dominated the planning of a new and larger port of entry with 29 inbound traffic lanes to be completed by 2014. The cost: approximately $577 million.

“The current problem is that nobody has asked how GSA’s design plan will benefit, or hurt San Ysidro,” Flores explains. “We’re going to spend half a billion dollars adding 10 lanes to the current port, but will that alone improve efficiency and reduce wait time for commuters who cross everyday? That conversation hasn’t been prominent.”

On a January morning earlier this year, Flores is racing toward downtown San Diego along Interstate 5 to one of GSA’s meetings hosted several times a year by their Design Excellence Program. At the meeting, Flores is a minority voice amid the Customs and Border Protection administrators, representatives of California Senators, Border Patrol, and city planners, gathered to discuss developments of the current Master Plan for the new port of entry into California.

An organization working for 35 years to improve quality of life in San Ysidro, Casa Familiar has many concerns with GSA’s current design, which in each of the four preliminary plans required taking up to 13 acres of commercially zoned properties next to the current Border Station to add vehicle lanes.

Pedestrians normally stand in line for at least an hour; drivers usually wait far longer.

“These properties generate a lot of tax revenue for the community of San Ysidro,” Flores interjects during the meeting. ”If you remove square footage from the community, it will suffer economically. Remember, the grocery store by the entrance into California, is the first grocery store on the busiest border crossing in the world. If you move that business, and the clientele changes, you’ll be looking at a tangible loss.”

Under the Relocation Assistance and Real Property Act, any business forced to move can choose between receiving compensation either for the property value, plus an additional $1,000-$20,000 as determined by the head of the agency to cover the cost of business relocation or a greater reimbursement based on paid receipts provided to the agency by the owner. The second option would compensate business owners fully for all moving expenses, but the money would initially come out of the owner's pocket.

“But unfortunately, the law does not provide for loss of business,” points out Gerri Barsotti, a Property Acquisition and Relocation Assistant Specialist. “We buy properties, not businesses. There’s a Greyhound station and a Payless shoe store by the border; those are businesses that would be affected.”

But those are branches of well-heeled national corporations. Besides Flores, nobody at the meeting is discussing the importance of small businesses on the U.S. side. One of these businesses is Mercado Internacional, a small supermarket that looks as if it had been lifted from Mexico by a cyclone and dropped 10 feet away from the Department of Homeland Security.

At the Mercado Internacional, prices are listed in kilos, not pounds, norteña music, not Bryan Adams blasts over the speakers, and speaking Spanish will likely facilitate your speed through check out.

“Of course we wouldn’t be happy if we had to move,” says Gerardo Herrera, Manager of Mercado Internacional, “this business has been in the family for over 20 years. But it would be a decision we’d have to make in the name of progress. If it reduced wait times for the pedestrians who wait hours everyday to cross, it would be worth it.”

Herrera admits his store by the border generates more profit than its three sister stores scattered around San Diego County, given that many Mexicans who work in the U.S. also do their shopping there because they believe the food is cheaper and of higher quality. “Even if they gave us $20,000 outright it wouldn’t cover the moving costs,” Herrera adds. “We have refrigeration units, a lot of equipment we can’t just throw away.”

“The bottom line is that we don’t have enough room for all of the parts of the facility we need to add,” says Steve Baker, Project Manager for GSA’s Southern California Region. “At some point, we’ll have to make some tough decisions,” he admits.

But organizers at Casa Familiar don’t believe tough decisions have to be made if GSA gets enough input in the construction design from the San Ysidro community and their Mexican counterparts. “This change was bound to happen,” says Flores, “not just here, but all over the world. We want to make sure that new infrastructures are built along borders everywhere in an intelligent and collaborative manner sensitive to movement, environmental, community and regional impacts.”

“It has been difficult to keep the community involved in the project,” admits Flores. “Just because it’s new, they assume it will be a good thing.”

Levi Bridges is a writer and freelance journalist based in Latin America. He is currently working in Colombia and Venezuela. All photos by author.

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