Despite Warnings, Border Waits Not Longer Than Usual
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Aired 3/12/13 on KPBS News.
Under sequestration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is slated to have $500 million slashed from its budget. Border authorities warn this is already making for longer waits. But their warnings don’t seem to pan out.
SAN DIEGO Mondays can be bad at the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. People are heading back to work after the weekend, back to school.
Pedestrians here reported waiting up to three and a half hours to cross into the United States on the first Monday after the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration took effect.
“It’s boring and you’re in the sun and the wind,” said Angel Ugalde, visibly disgusted. He was visiting from Mexico City.
“We’re tired and thirsty,” said Alfredo Ugalde from Tijuana.
Border authorities warned last week that cross-border travelers and businesses would start to see the effects of sequestration immediately, in the form of fewer lanes and longer lines. Media outlets repeated their warning.
But, truth is, it seems, lines were just about as bad as usual. When asked if he had waited as long in the past, Alfredo Ugalde said “yes.”
“It’s not the first time,” he said. “It happens often.”
Some crossers at the San Ysidro border last week said the lines were longer than usual, but most said they were typical.
Observers in the border cities of El Paso and Laredo, Texas said everything was running smoothly at their border crossings.
For a more concrete answer, the developer of a smart phone app that tracks border wait times compared the wait at San Ysidro last Friday with the same day a month ago and the same day a year ago, and he found no noticeable difference in wait times.
Still, border authorities insist the lines are longer.
“There’s no question in my mind that it’s already being seen,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
“We’re seeing reports around the country.”
Kelley said overtime for CBP officers — the ones who inspect your car and check your passport or visa when you enter the country — has already been cut by one-fourth.
“And many of the officers who work at land, sea and airports work a lot of overtime because there are not enough of them,” Kelley said. “Staffing was low, is too low, and has been for a couple of years.”
Several miles to the east, trucks rumble down the narrow road leading from the Otay Mesa commercial border crossing. Some 15,000 trucks cross here each week.
The port tends to clog up in the afternoon, when factories in Tijuana send out shipments of goods. Long waits at the border here are a money suck — San Diego’s regional planning agency estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars are lost each year because of the border bottleneck.
But even here, customs brokers and trucking companies say they haven’t seen a longer wait since sequestration took hold.
“We, as of yet, haven’t seen a major impact,” said Ernesto Lozano, president of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce. Lozano runs a cross-border trucking company called Mexamerica.
Still Lozano and others are worried about the future. CBP began handing out furlough notices to all employees on March 7. They’re scheduled to start taking mandatory days off starting in April, and that could mean fewer inspectors working the ports of entry.
So frequent border crossers are hatching plans. Lozano says manufacturing companies could move their production cycles up, so that they're shipping good earlier in the day, when the commercial port is pretty slow.
Back at San Ysidro, some say they may just have to get up earlier to beat the crowds. Shawn Mayes is one of them. He pilots a bike taxi that shuttles people from the border to nearby destinations like the outlet malls.
Mayes lives in Tijuana and crosses the border daily. Here's his idea for cutting down the 14 hours a week he calculates he's been spending in line lately:
"I was going to pitch up a hammock in our warehouse, where I work,” he said, “so that I could just come at two in the morning and then go back to sleep over here. So I don't have to wait in that line."
Even if legislators do finally work out an alternative to the sequester cuts, that line isn't likely to get shorter anytime soon.