We hear about plans to inspect cars before they enter Mexico and concerns over congestion and air pollution.
July 12, 2012 1:19 p.m.
Chris Maston, Director of Field Operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego
David Flores, development officer for Casa Familiar
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Traffic at the San Ysidro border crossing runs the gamut from bad to nightmare. It's not unusual to wait three hours or more to get into the U.S as U.S. Border Patrol inspectors search for contraband. A couple of new developments north and south of the border may actually increase the wait going into Mexico. The possible effects on the economy of the region and on the health of residents of San Ysidro have just started to be evaluated. Adrian Florido with the fronteras desk, welcome.
FLORIDO: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: David Flores, developer for casa familiar. Are you with us?
FLORES: Yes, I am.
CAVANAUGH: And Chris Maston is here. Director of field operations for U.S. customs and border protection in San Diego. Welcome to the program.
MASTON: Good afternoon, thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Adrian, some 200,000 people across the border between Tijuana and San Diego every day. Just to start out with, set the scene for us on how the border wait at San Ysidro actually is right now.
FLORIDO: Anybody who has been to Tijuana has probably waited in that long line of cars. We're talking about thousands of cars, like you said, waiting several hours to get in. It's often a very slow crawl toward the border. And there's often long lines of pedestrians as well. So it's definitely an experience to be prepared for.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, and it's something you just simply sato factor in, especially those people who commute regularly between San Diego and Tijuana.
CAVANAUGH: What are these plans to set up a regular checkpoint?
FLORIDO: They're not necessarily for regular checkpoints yet. But they're undertaking a very large expansion project at the point of entry at San Ysidro. They're installing new inspection booths from Mexico to the U.S., and the purpose is to decrease the really long wait times. It's to get them below about 30 minutes or so. And for the first time on the southbound side, going from the U.S. into Mexico. The plan is to construct inspection booths that would allow customs officials to inspect booths heading from north to south. What isn't yet clear, and a decision that hasn't yet been made is whether those inspections will be permanent, 24/7, as they are on the north side. The agency says there are no plans for that at this point. But there will be permanent infrastructure to allow that to happen, inspections going from north to south. And the reason is that there are concerns about money and weapons which fuel the Mexican drug war heading into Mexico from the U.S.
CAVANAUGH: I want you to weigh in on this. Is that what the Border Patrol would want to look at for cars going into Mexico?
MASTON: I think first of all, we have to acknowledge the San Ysidro border of entry. It's the largest port of entry in the world. 110,000 people inbound, and roughly the same southbound in Mexico every day. It's a tremendously important gateway between the United States and Mexico. And the wait times associated with the processing that we do there, customs and border protection, and a real concern for CVP. It's the main reason we're building this new port of entry, to really have an impact and expedite the flow of legitimate traffic across the border. The southbound inspection part of our mission is really nothing new. This has been around for some time now. Our secretary has reinvigorated our focus at CVP on the movement of illicit money and weapons associated with this whole drug enterprise that we're combating down here on the border.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, has anyone -- I know it's early out, but have you thought about how much that might increase the wait of cars going into Mexico?
MASTON: Yeah, we're constantly evaluating it, and inspection booths are in our technical design standards for land ports of entry for southbound inspections or outbound inspections. But there is flexibility in how that actually manifests itself out there on the freeway, and the impact that it will have on the traffic flowing southbound into Mexico. We've done some traffic studies on that. We've looked at the potential impacts. I think the important thing to keep in mind here is that we have no intention of standing up a full 24/7 inspectional process that you see as you come into the United States. This is a pulse and surge operation, it is largely driven by intelligence and information in a coordinated fashion with our law enforcement partners.
CAVANAUGH: David Flores, you represent community members and you're largely interested in increased traffic and air pollution from that traffic moving into Mexico, and perhaps being stopped for a longer portion of time on I-5 before they can head into Mexico. What kind of pollution levels are you concerned about and what have you already documented?
MASTON: Right. From 2008-2010 in partnership with San Diego state and another organization, we conducted air quality monitoring. We did three different type was monitoring. One was a community-wide effort locating five different sites, one at the Tijuana estuary which was our clean site, and the other four within the community and then closer to the border. We also did pedestrian analysis where people carried their own air monitors as they crossed back and forth on the pedestrian lines. And then the other was a greenhouse gas study. From the we found in the first study that in San Ysidro, ultrafine particles which are invisible to the eye that carry pollutants such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter like black carbon that is harmful to the respiratory system were three times higher than at the clean site. People that were crossing the border we found it was ten times higher than at the clean site. In imperial beach, the air quality there of a pedestrian is ten times cleaner than in San Ysidro. And for greenhouse gases, what we did was took a look at all of the San Diego County border crossings. That was an extrapolated kind of analysis, we found that there were 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air. It's the equivalent of consuming about 175,000 barrels of oil just from idling.
CAVANAUGH: So your point is that this is already the situation in the area of San Ysidro where you took these measurements, and from reading Adrian's article on KPBS.org about your concerns of the potential of inspection booths on the U.S. side of the border, that cars would be idling even more, that pollution risk would go skyhigh; is that correct?
MASTON: That's correct. And we're particularly concerned about the populations that are most at-risk, which are young children and elderly people or people that have issues with respiratory problems.
CAVANAUGH: There's a school right near there, right?
MASTON: There is a school. Willow School which just got rebuilt about a year ago. It's a little over a quarter of a mile from the port, and it's actually at the beginning of the last off-ramp to get out onto surface streets in San Ysidro. So we're concerned about what does that mean for school children.
CAVANAUGH: Director Maston, customs and border protection, I know that you guys are not involved in the construction of the inspection booths. How far along is this project?
FLORES: Well, we're barely in phase 1 of the project, which is the construction of the inbound inspection booths and our new secondary inspection facility. The outbound portion of this project is in the out years, phase 3. It's not funded. So what this inspectional infrastructure will look like is still yet to be determined. I will say that the cars idling and long lines for long periods of time, it's not a good thing for anyone on a number of levels. They're economic points of entry. We need to facilitate the entry of legitimate trade and travel across our borders. One of the challenges we're faced with is this year alone we're going to approach and probably exceed 1 tons of narcotics that we're going to seize at our San Diego ports of entry. That is significant risk. And we need to find out who poses a risk and get them in the secondary that takes a little more time. Whenever we install in terms of inspectional infrastructure needs to take into account the need to manage risk, segment that risk and perform the inspections as efficiently as possible. We are not satisfied with 2-hour backups. And that is why we're building the port, to create the capacity to handle this traffic without stepping away from our mission and insuring that these lines are shortened up. So we need to take that same consideration into the southbound side as well.
CAVANAUGH: Adrian, you spoke with the general services administration, and they are the agency involved in the construction of this project. What did they 28 you about funding and their plans for actually getting phase 2 started?
FLORIDO: Yeah, well, they said much of what director Maston just said, this is a multiyear project that's happening now, and ideally I believe we want it completed by 2015 or 2016, but there's still a big question of funding. So there is not a real knowledge of when this project is actually going to go forward. And just this southbound inspection project hasn't even been technical designed yet. There are conceptual plans but no real designs yet. So because of that, there haven't been really environmental assesses done or anything like that. And they say what the GSA said when I asked them about this specific concern about pollution in the community, they said it's too early for us to tell at all because we haven't gone out there to do measurements or any kind of study. I think the concern from David's end in the San Ysidro communities that he represents is because of that uncertainty, they're trying to do as much as possible to prepare for the worst case scenario.
CAVANAUGH: Another issue is the imminent exclusion of the elChapparal border crossing station in Mexico.
FLORIDO: Well, at the same time that the U.S. government is doing this huge expansion project with the U.S. infrastructure, are the Mexican government is changing a lot of its infrastructure for inspections as cars enter the U.S. and it's a bit complicated, but essentially the current southbound entrance into Mexico, the booths you go through if you're leaving San Diego, those are all going to be closed come October because the U.S. government is building a new facility for cars to enter Mexico about a quarter mile to the west. So there is going to have to be a rerouting of traffic to get in there, and because of this problem of funding, the U.S. project, and because project funding has been stalled, and that connection that the U.S. government had planned for the new Mexican facility is not going to be complete in time for the Mexican government opening theirs, the question is what's going to happen? Is there going to be a significant amount of backup because cars are going to have to take this really hard right angle to be redirected to that new Mexican infrastructure?
CAVANAUGH: So basically the elChapparal border station on the Mexican side was constructed to meet with a planned rerouting of I-5, which hasn't been completed yet. For the most part, it really hasn't been started yet.
FLORIDO: Yeah, exactly.
CAVANAUGH: So is there any chance that anybody is going to reconsider this and maybe keep the situation as bad as it is the way it is now?
FLORIDO: Well, what the GSA project managers told me was that at this point it looks like there is going to be a pretty hard right angle that cars are going to have to take just to get to the new infrastructure. And that is likely to cause a considerable amount of backup. And the way that it relates to this larger conversation we're having about the community concerns is it might actually give community organizations like casa familiar an opportunity to see what those backups might look like more regularly. Assuming something like that would happen. We just don't know yet. Another thing to mention I think about the new southbound construction project is that while inspection booths are being installed, the number of lanes southbound is also planned to be doubled. So the project manager told me that any kind of congestion that might happen because of potentially more regular inspections might be offset by the fact that they're doubling the number of southbound lanes.
CAVANAUGH: Director Maston, I know this your expertise is in these inspection booth, and that's what you're here to talk about. But it sounds to me listening to this that the ultimate goal is to make things move more efficiently into and out of Mexico, efficiently and safely. But the next few years might be a bit of a slog.
FLORES: Yeah, we're having regular meetings with the government of Mexico and GSA, obviously, and the other agencies that are involved in this really major, major border infrastructure project to do everything we can to mitigate some of these concerns. We've done a number of traffic studies, we have had this thing engineered every which way you can imagine. And we're taking the steps that we can to try and mitigate the backups. Our goal is to have -- ultimately end up with an efficient border operation that incorporates a robust technology portfolio and that we support the officers with a good intelligence picture so that we can fulfill our interdiction mission and facilitate legitimate trade and travel across the border. When they're sitting in line, they're not spending money.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you all very much for speaking with us.
FLORIDO: Thanks Maureen.
MASTON: Thank you.