In the News
November 12, 2021
By Wendy Fry
SAN YSIDRO — Before the border reopened to non-essential travelers on Nov. 8, I sent the same set of questions to each of our San Diego congressional delegation about border wait times and the planning process for the border reopening.
Most of the House members sent back a generic statement about the border reopening rather than specifically responding to the questions. But Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, answered our questions. (To read his complete response, click here. To read other congressional representatives responses, click here.)
Border waits were unpredictable during the pandemic, with workers sometimes having to sleep overnight in their cars at the border to make sure they would be able to make it to work on time.
From 2004 to 2015, the U.S. government spent $741 million to sharply expand and improve the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The 62 northbound inspection booths spread out over 34 lanes were supposed to speed up border crossings. But as of 3 p.m. Wednesday, a website run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency showed only six lanes were open — and that the wait time for regular drivers without the SENTRI pass was 135 minutes.
“I would say that the general perception is that wait times remained about the same or they did not improve (after the infrastructure upgrades.) I would be hard pressed to find anybody who would say otherwise,” said Gustavo De La Fuente, the executive director of the San Diego-Tijuana Smart Border Coalition.
In response to a question about long border waits, Peters pointed out the increasing number of border crossings at San Ysidro — the busiest land port of entry in the western hemisphere. From 2012 to 2019, crossings there have risen by 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
However, increases in staffing at CBP — the agency that mans the checkpoint booths — have not kept pace with upgrades to infrastructure at both the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry, Peters said. What’s more is some members of Congress were skeptical of increasing the budget to hire more officers for fear that the money would instead be used “to further Donald Trump’s harmful border policies,” he added.
“I have been and will continue to work with my colleagues to get San Diego the CBP officers it needs to reduce wait times and efficiently manage the flow of people and goods between Mexico and the United States,” said Peters.
“In San Diego, we understand the economic and emotional costs long waits at the border cause,” he later added.
Read the full response from Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego
Q: Why after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an efficient border are people still waiting four hours to cross the border into San Diego?
A: According to the US Department of Transportation, from 2012 to 2019, crossings at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land port of entry in the western hemisphere, are up 40%. At the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, which services all cargo entering from Mexico into San Diego County, non-commercial traffic is up over 16%.
For years, the San Diego delegation worked together to fund almost $1 billion for the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa Port of Entry modernizations. When the Otay Mesa Port of Entry modernization is completed next year, the number of lanes for pedestrians will be doubled from 6 to 12 and the number of inspection booths for trucks will increase from 10 to 16. Yet, while funds were allocated for construction, there was not a corresponding increase in Customs and Border Protection staff to handle the additional flow of traffic.
I strongly supported adding customs agents to fill this need. However, during the Trump Administration, many members of Congress were extremely skeptical of increasing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget for fear that funds may be used to further Donald Trump’s harmful border policies. Unfortunately, the previous administration repeatedly reallocated DHS assets against the purview of Congress which has now made it more difficult to fill those gaps. The San Diego Field Office for Custom and Border Protection is attempting to manage the additional traffic, pandemic-induced travel restrictions, and high number of migrants seeking asylum while ensuring the security of our nation. I have been and will continue to work with my colleagues to get San Diego the CBP officers it needs to reduce wait times and efficiently manage the flow of people and goods between Mexico and the United States.
Q: Would it be worth the cost to have CBP actually staff all the booths at the San Diego region border crossings so that the line moves efficiently?
A: There are multiple reasons for the increased wait times at the border. While more staff would make a difference, there are other measures already in place to help travelers. For example, Customs and Border Protection recently deployed the CBP1 app which allows travelers to pay fees and obtain provisional documents before crossing the border. This speeds up processing at the Port of Entry. We’ve also seen a large uptick in the number of travelers who live in the San Diego-Tijuana region that enroll in trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry or SENTRI which also reduce wait times. We are working closely with local CBP leadership to help increase awareness about all these options which should help travelers more efficiently cross to the U.S.
Q: Is there any advocacy for any special plan specifically for Nov. 8 to quickly move traffic through the border so as not to interrupt the passage of essential workers traveling through the border?
A: My staff is working with local CBP agents to amplify public awareness about the upcoming lifting of travel restrictions. We want to make sure travelers have all necessary medical documents accessible prior to their face-to-face interview with an officer. A few options that have been discussed are to provide a dedicated lane for essential workers, similar to what is currently offered for bus passengers, or for employers to issue employees a pass similar to those offered by medical offices in Mexico, but that would need to be coordinated with officials in Tijuana. We should be prepared for the possibility of increased delays as CBP makes procedural adjustments given the need to verify the vaccination status of non-essential border crossers.
Q: Are we properly using the available resources and technology to segment the traffic and prevent major (and sometimes deadly) border waits? If not, what can be done?
A: In San Diego, we understand the economic and emotional costs long waits at the border cause. Multiple efforts are already underway to increase the use of technology to better manage cross border travel. Caltrans recently launched a new app people can use to look up traffic conditions, but it currently only covers southbound traffic from San Diego to Tijuana. The agency told my office they are also coordinating with officials in Mexico to deploy similar technology to monitor traffic coming northbound into San Diego. At the same time, the Smart Border Coalition has been working with UCSD to create a new portal with a wide range of information on crossing the border including wait times. Finally, I would like to commend the State of Baja California and City of Tijuana which have worked to improve signage, increase lanes, and help manage the incoming flow of traffic. This close cooperation among agencies on both sides of the border is critical for efficiency and maintaining security.
Responses from other congressional representatives
Read the response from Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano
A: Non-essential travel is critical for our local economy and small businesses, as well as the many families who can now reunite with their loved ones, and I am glad to see the Department of Homeland Security restore these rules. I understand Customs and Border Protection is ramping up staffing in order to meet the expected increase in demand, and I will continue to monitor the situation to determine if additional resources are needed to help CBP’s mission of facilitating legal migration through the Ports of Entry.
Read the response from Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego
A: As we transition to the border reopening for non-essential travel, I look to the administration, Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials to plan safe and efficient operations. After more than a year-and-a-half of restrictions I am eager to see this gradual reopening, so that we can get back to seeing our loved ones and supporting the border economy. I will continue to communicate with CBP to hear updates on how operations will be increased to ensure an effective border commute, especially for our essential workforce.
Read the response from Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-San Diego
A: The Biden Administration and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency recently announced their plans for reopening our border with Mexico, and we know that a lot of folks have questions about what this process looks like and what it entails. Beginning on November 8, 2021, per the rules outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. will allow non-essential travelers from Mexico to cross the border as long as they can provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination. For many people on both sides of the border, this re-opening will provide important and long-awaited opportunities, including the ability to see family and friends who they haven’t seen since the onset of the pandemic, or resuming parts of their daily lives in our border community that the pandemic halted. Congresswoman Jacobs believes that while this is something to be celebrated, we also must ensure that our border reopens safely and effectively.
Although the vaccination requirement for non-essential travel will go into effect next month, all travelers, including essential ones, will have to show proof of vaccination when crossing the border as of January 2022. These are important steps the Biden Administration is taking to ensure a safe reopening, and is another crucial component of ending this pandemic. For awareness, the Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Covishield, Sinopharm, and Sinovac vaccines will fulfill the vaccine requirement. Folks may prove their vaccination status by providing their vaccination certificate, photos of their vaccination certificate, or an electronic vaccination record from an official source like a public health agency.
Our office is working with the Customs and Border Protection Agency to ensure they have plans to safely reopen the border, making certain that asylum seekers are allowed access to our ports of entry, while also ensuring that frequent border travelers can cross as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Congresswoman Jacobs will work with the local congressional delegation to continue to provide oversight over the ports of entry in San Diego while adhering to the guidelines that the Administration has put forth. And of course, Congresswoman Jacobs will continue to work in close coordination with Senator Padilla, Senator Feinstein, and Congressman Vargas to ensure that they are doing what they can to reduce wait times and address other issues facing cross-border travelers.
Constituents looking for assistance should contact Congresswoman Jacobs’ office at (619) 280-5353.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-San Diego, did not respond.