Opinion: Speeding up CaliBaja border crossings would help the economy and the environment

Wells is executive director of the San Ysidro Improvement Corp. — the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement District. He lives in the Vista Pacifica neighborhood of South San Diego.

Our region has been a uniting ground of people with shared culture throughout history — from our Kumeyaay land to our new Spain political roots to being split into two countries. Today, we are a binational metropolis — with economies that are interdependent and intertwined. Workers and production lines are shared on both sides of the border. Families live on both sides of it. And children play on one side and go to school in the other. As recently described by the University of San Diego Ahlers Center for International Business, CaliBaja is home to 7 million inhabitants, has a regional gross domestic product of nearly $250 billion and an estimated $70 billion in cross-border trade flows — creating the largest integrated economic zone along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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But none of the above is functional, much less sustainable, without the ability for us to cross the border in an efficient manner.

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Long border waits even affect the very air we breathe. According to Justin Worland of Time magazine, border delays result in 457 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions being released every day, equivalent to the annual emissions of 100 passenger vehicles. Air pollutants in San Ysidro are 10 times higher than communities just 10 miles north. Our border policies, including border enforcement, result in co-responsibility and demand principles of social equity be applied.

The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce estimates that with border crossing times of no more than 45 minutes any day — and any time — for general vehicles and 15 minutes for pedestrians, we could inject new life into our local economies, diminish our incidence of asthma-type ailments and live up to the CaliBaja potential. We are losing more than $3.3 billion in sales and over 80,000 jobs due to border wait times at California’s southern ports of entry. To help fulfill the U.S. government’s economic and environmental goals at our borders, we simply need tangible commitments at the border, around the border and in Washington, D.C.

At our ports, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must use true “risk evaluation.” Per the San Diego Association of Governments, 97 percent of crossers between California and Baja California cross three or more times a week. While “registering” 100 percent of crossers, scrutiny needs to be focused on the 3 percent we do not know. Also, modes matter. Pedestrians pose much less security risk than commercial trucks, yet pedestrian wait times are often some of the longest suffered by border crossers. Why do we not implement the same document readers used in vehicle lanes to pedestrians and offer preloaded information prior to pedestrian interviews? With no vehicle to inspect and X-ray machines to assist with luggage, pedestrian wait times should consistently be negligible.

Time goals for officer interaction at primary lanes are a must, as is the full use of facilities — including double-stacked booths, the reopening of the PedWest pedestrian border crossing, segmented lanes for elderly visitors and those with disabilities, and facilitation of bicyclists, specifically in San Ysidro. Additional crossing options — including a dedicated pedestrian bridge between the San Diego Trolley and a Baja California light-rail system, and a ferry crossing between Tijuana and Imperial Beach — are also needed.

Efficient “chain of custody” procedures for vehicles that are sent to secondary inspection must be made. How many times have we witnessed officers execute a lengthy primary inspection, then walk a vehicle to secondary inspection while cars pile up in a queue? With 50,000-plus vehicles crossing each day, this clumsy procedure adds blocks of minutes in a domino effect to following vehicles.

Around our ports, approaches to inspection booths must be made more welcoming. Sprawling concrete K-rail, barbed wire and piled-up combat gear do not represent a dignified image for our visitors or returning citizens. In the case of San Ysidro, we are the front door to San Diego, the eighth-largest city in the U.S., for visitors worldwide. We need to look and feel like it.

CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus must prioritize reducing border-wait times by making wait-time parameters and public engagement part of leadership performance evaluations. That prioritization is the only way time efficiency will become a concern for the actual officer in the booth. “Customer service” would also be implemented as standard operating procedure.

Travelers coming into the U.S. from England are greeted by CBP and Transportation Security Administration officers with, “Welcome home!” Frequent land crossers (whom we know and depend on) are greeted with, “Where are you going? What are you bringing?”

The presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama made a $741 million investment in the largest land border reconfiguration project in U.S. history. We now have a responsibility to ensure utilization and efficiency of this investment, lest the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry become the largest waste of taxpayer funds in U.S. history.

After 20 months of border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, federal investments in staffing, efficiency and surrounding infrastructure at our land ports of entry are a necessity to restore the economic and physical health of our community — and to ensure recent investments meet the needs of the future as planned.

This essay is in the print edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune on March 25, 2022, with the headline, U.S.-Mexico border needs these investments now

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