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'Other Way' Border Crossers Go South For Work and School

Every day, thousands of Mexicans wait in line to cross the international boundary and come to work in San Diego. But we rarely hear about San Diegans doing the same thing in reverse: crossing the bord

This piece originally aired July 12.

Every day, thousands of Mexicans wait in line to cross the international boundary and come to work in San Diego. But we rarely hear about San Diegans doing the same thing in reverse: crossing the border to go to work or school in Mexico. Reporter Adriana Alcaraz brings us the story.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Peter Mohrhardt is doing a very American thing: relaxing, grabbing a cup of coffee at this La Jolla coffee shop, and spending time with his daughter, Taylor -- far removed from the world he was in just a few hours before.

Mohrhardt : I’ve always been, I would say for most of my working career, an expatriate. Even though currently I’m living in the U.S. but working in Mexico, but still kind of an expatriate. I think the Mexican economy needs as much U.S. and foreign workers down there as much as we need them to work here.

For the past 15 years, Mohrhardt, who is a fluent Spanish speaker, has been crossing the border, sometimes daily, working for Bose, a private company that manufactures sound systems. The company has a maquiladora in Tijuana.

Mohrhardt : Like any foreign country, when you are a foreign national, you have to understand where you are and be aware of your surroundings and don’t go places you shouldn’t be at certain times of the night or early hours of the morning.

Mohrhardt says safety is not a deterrent when it comes to him doing business in Mexico. The biggest obstacle is the daily border wait after his work shift. More than 200,000 people cross the border into the U.S. every day.

Mohrhardt : I see that as a deterrent for future business growth. I mean, it’s a horrible waste of efficiency and resources, people just waiting in line at the border. And most of the people are working people who are trying to be productive and it just cuts back on the productivity.        

The majority of Americans who visit Tijuana and Baja do it for pleasure. Less than 10 percent cross the border south for business and education.

The Instituto Nacional de Migracion says about 10,000 Americans solicited permits to work in Baja last year. The process to get a work visa is relatively easy. The paperwork must be accompanied by a letter from the company doing business in Mexico. The permits must be renewed yearly. Rarely is someone denied. 

Laurel Zinn’s company worked out the legal details for her when she took the job. S&P Destination Properties is a U.S.-based company selling Trump real estate in Baja. She works at the soon-to-be three-tower ocean front project located between Tijuana and Rosarito.

Zinn : I live in downtown San Diego, right by the ballpark, and it takes me 25 to 30 minutes to get down here every morning. The location down here is closer to downtown San Diego than downtown is to parts of North County or Orange County. I pass very, very easily through the border on a daily basis.

Unlike Mohrhardt, Laurel doesn’t speak Spanish, and she doesn’t really have to. She spends the day working with a dozen other colleagues who are also American, speak only English, live in San Diego, and also cross the border daily to go to work.

Zinn says she was lured to Baja by the job and the potential of the project. The Trump Baja Project will invest more than $400 million into the area and during the peak of construction it will create 1,200 jobs. Then once the hotel is up and running, depending on the season, there will be 300-500 employees, not to mention the effect it’s going to have on all the local area.

Not all Americans crossing daily into Mexico are doing it to make a living, or contribute to the Mexican economy; some do it to save lots of money.

21-year Daniella Cosio starts her day around six every morning at her home in Chula Vista and heads south to spend the day here, at La Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, known as UABC. Almost every day her decision is questioned by agents at the border.

Cosio : When I go back late at night, they ask, what were you doing in Tijuana? And I say, I go to school there. And everyone looks at me, baffled, and they can’t understand why, if I live in San Diego, I choose to go to Mexico to school.

Cosio says she likes the school system better. As a third-year Med student, she’s already getting hands-on experience working with patients at the hospital, and feels ahead of the game.

Cosio : We do 10 semesters of school a year of social service, and a year internship at the hospital where, as here in the U.S., you do four years of college you would be in pre-Med, three years of Med school and one year of residency, so it pretty much ends up evening out. It’s just a different focus.

The other reason she comes here: a scholarship. Cosio only pays $600 for books a semester.

Cosio : But if I didn’t have my scholarship, it would be 2,500 pesos, which is about $230 per semester, and that is at UABC because it’s a government-funded school.

While Medical students don’t spend much for their mostly-government-funded education, they all pay it back with a year of social service, usually working a poor community -- something Cosio says she’s looking forward to. In fact, once she graduates from Med school, she may head south permanently.

Cosio : Right now, I am here because of my family, and it’s their decision, and they want to keep the family together, and I understand them.