Thursday, March 24, 2011
The San Ysidro port of entry is a constant sea of U.S.-bound vehicles and travelers—a complicated daily operation requiring an army of customs agents.
SAN DIEGO A San Diego native, Angelica De Cima has been a Customs and Border Protection agent for over 12 years. She has trained on behavior analysis, interviewing techniques, defensive tactics, shooting a firearm, and immigration and customs law. But that was before the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Back then, border and immigration enforcement was a different, much smaller undertaking.
This port of entry, the busiest in the U.S., is a perfect metaphor for the size of the entire border enforcement operation. There are 24 vehicle lanes seeing constant bumper-to-bumper traffic, 7 days a week. Every day, officers stationed there see up to 40,000 vehicles and inspect close to 90,000 people, including pedestrians.
“An average work day here is eight hours," says De Cima. "You come to work and you find out where you’re assigned for the day. Not more than half of the day you’re going to be doing primary inspections, and that’s basically being at the booth and inspecting people as they come into the country.”
De Cima zigzags on foot through the traffic coming into the U.S. from Tijuana, a few steps away from an agent being pulled by a trained police dog. It’s 11 a.m., not quite rush hour, but the rows of cars extend as far as the eye can see.
Suddenly, one of the agents nearby calls out the number "915" to the others—that’s code for human smuggling. De Cima rushes past the cars and the booths to see if the agents handling the smuggler need backup.
“For security reasons, he was put in handcuffs and he’s being escorted to secondary," says De Cima, out of breath. "The officers are taking the vehicle with the people in the trunk into the secondary inspection area.”
The beige Honda Accord is taken to an area right under the pedestrian bridge where agents can do more checking and process drug and human smuggling cases.
“You see this everyday," says De Cima. "People trying to come into the country hidden in the trunks, and in even deeper concealment methods, like specially built compartments—we call them coffin compartments—people cannot get out of them.”
These journeys can leave people physically drained or hurt and in some cases, lead to death.
“See, in this case we have four adults in the trunk of this Honda Accord, two males and two females," says De Cima, standing only a couple of steps away from the people as they emerge from the trunk of the car. "We’ll give them water, we’ll make sure they’re OK—if they’re not feeling well, like having trouble doing normal things, we’ll call in a medical first responder.”
The four Mexicans are covered in sweat and visibly upset. They sit on a curb until the Honda Accord is fully checked. Later, they will be processed and charged, then sent right back to Tijuana.
“It’s definitely challenging, it can be tiring," says De Cima. "Yes, you’re processing travelers every day, but it’s not the same every day and just never know what you’re going to run into. You could run into a person who is armed and dangerous; you could find somebody, a missing person or child who was kidnapped… It’s definitely not boring, but challenging at times.”
But De Cima loves her job, she says, and has always been interested in public service.
“I do it with a sense of pride for my country. And it’s not against anybody. I have family in Mexico, I love my family, I love the Mexican culture—so that doesn’t take away from the job I do everyday to secure this nation.”