In the News
By Sandra Dibble
As the Trump administration continues to fortify the fencing between Tijuana and San Diego, U.S. and Mexican authorities on Wednesday celebrated a different kind of border project: a new pedestrian inspection facility for northbound border crossers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
The new PedEast entrance exudes openness and light, with 22 inspection lanes inside a structure with high translucent ceilings, tall doors and large windows. Its opening significantly expands the pedestrian processing capacity at San Ysidro, the busiest port of entry in the Western Hemisphere, where some 25,000 northbound crossers are processed on any given day.
PedEast’s opening marks the latest stage in the multi-phase, multi-year, $741 million expansion and redesign of the San Ysidro Port of Entry overseen by the U.S. General Services Administration. Rising east of the vehicle inspection lanes, the facility replaces an eight-lane temporary structure that had been serving those who cross on the eastern side of the port.
As soon as the new lanes opened for business at 2:30 p.m., crossers wasted no time lining up, children and suitcases in tow. “Today was really fast, incredible,” said Celeste Montano, who has been crossing for seven years and has waited as long as three or four hours. “I did it in 10 minutes.”
“This a great day,” said U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, who joined U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, in praising the new facility. Both Republican and Democratic members of San Diego’s congressional delegation joined forces to fight for the reconstruction of San Ysidro which is scheduled for completion next year.
“We know in San Diego that the border is not a threat, it’s an opportunity,” said Peters. “Mexico is part of San Diego’s economy, it’s part of our culture, it’s part of our life. We understand that very well.”
But even amid the rejoicing, questions loom about the ability of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to staff the new facility. Business leaders in South County, where many stores are reliant on shoppers from Mexico, worry that without enough officers to operate the lanes, long pedestrian queues will continue.
“You have the infrastructure, and it’s fantastic,” said Cindy Gompper-Graves, president and CEO of the South County Economic Development Council. “But the booths and infrastructure are one thing, the second thing we need is more CBP officers to staff those booths.”
Along San Ysidro Boulevard, business owners are hopeful the opening of the new facility will bring a return of foot traffic. “We’re happy to have it,” said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. “At the end of the day, we have to make sure that San Ysidro has the personnel.”
Sidney Aki, CBP’s port director for San Ysidro, said the initial plan is to open 10 of the PedEast’s 22 lanes. “For two weeks or a month, we’re going to watch the flow of traffic entering the United States, and depending on what we see, is how we’re going to maneuver resources back and forth.”
While varying with traffic and peak travel periods, CBP normally keeps open 10 lanes at PedWest, according to the agency.
Like other ports operated by CBP, San Ysidro has suffered from a shortage of manpower in recent years, though Aki and Pete Flores, the agency’s director of field operations in San Diego, said staffing at the port has improved in recent months.
“We’re pretty close to what our allocated target number is,” Flores said, adding that “staffing would always help in regards to what we do at the border, in regards to being able to take care of everything that we’re asked to take care of.”
While Flores did not discuss staffing numbers, ports nationwide need another 2,500 officers “to meet current workload staffing models,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers. “The CBP employees at San Ysidro, as well as the people who pass through this port every day, deserve better.”
The administration’s proposed budget for 2019 did not include funding for new hiring at the ports of entry, he said. But Congress has approved funds to hire 375 new CBP officers through Department of Homeland Security funding bills.
“It is unfortunate that the new PedEast pedestrian entrance … will not be able to open 22 lanes because Customs and Border Protection doesn’t have enough employees,” Reardon said. “This is a classic example of how the agency-wide staffing shortage … affects international trade and travel.”
PedEast’s 22 lanes include four lanes set aside for bus passengers who come across at San Ysidro. Like PedWest, the new entry has the capacity to process the three main types of pedestrian travelers: holders of SENTRI and Global Entry cards who have undergone previous background checks; those who have cards such as the U.S. passport card and laser visa that can be quickly processed through by RFID readers; and general lanes for the remainder of travelers.
The opening of PedEast involved the complete reconstruction of San Ysidro’s pedestrian and bus inspection facilities. The firms hired by GSA to design and build the facility, Stantec and Hensel Phelps, said the project aims to meet LEED Platinum standards, a seal of approval for environmentally-friendly buildings.