Skip to main content

The Unpredictable Border Line Beast

Cover image for podcast episode

Show transcript

The line of cars and people waiting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border is so big -- so long -- it’s got its own gravitational pull.

It’s created this whole world of its own -- an ecosystem that swirls all around it.

Natsound of border line vehicles

Dozens of vendors wander through the massive, parking-lot-of-a-line at the port between Tijuana and San Diego, selling burritos, churros, blankets, and other trinkets to people stuck waiting in their cars...sometimes for hours on end.

Alan riff on his line experience here. Set up clip of you playing your border son while waiting in line.

Begin Alan’s song right after he says “sometimes it is a drag…”

Alan Border Song Clip From Insta

I really try to do my best to stay creative and entertained so I bought a little ukulele-guitar hybrid to pass the time.

[More of Alan’s song]

The people in the line -- most of us anyway -- we’re used to this wait -- this huge uncertainty of never knowing exactly how long the line will be.

But just because we’re used to the line, doesn’t mean we wouldn’t love for it to go away.

Border Wait Paid To Be In The Line
What do you think of the line? Like what didn't you like waiting in line? No, nobody does.

Only Here Producer Kinsee Morlan and I recently fanned out across the lines of traffic at the border to ask some of the people why they were waiting in line and what it’s like.
Bathroom Clip 1 Waited Six Hours Part 1
Last time when I waited a long time. I waited. I waited to cross the border for six hours and a half. Wow. He saw a lot of, a lot of very long time.
Bathroom Clip 2 Improvise With Bottles
what is important is the restroom part, because if you're driving on your own, you have to be prepared to not use the restroom for like three hours. Yeah. I've seen some people that they have a little bottles to improvise
Border Wait Clip 1 Hour Wait for Work
Can I just ask you why you're waiting in line today? Uh, to cross the border to going to work. Okay. You cross every morning? Not every morning, but two or three times a week. And how long is your wait today? Uh, today, like a hour and a half. Ohh that’s long.
Border Wait Clip 2 Spends Time Reading
How do you spend your time? A reading book or on the phone or listen to music? You can read a book and, and drive it. Alright, have a good time.
Border Wait Spanish WAiter
Exchange in Spanish with Alan.
Border Wait Clip 4 Kid Playing Chess on Phone
Do you like crossing the line everyday to go to school? Yeah. Yeah. You don't mind it? How do you, how do you entertain yourself? How do you entertain yourself? Oh, no, you're playing chess. Yeah. Do you know how to play? Yeah?!
Border Wait In Spanish It’s stressful
Quanto tiemp en la linea oye?
Dos horas.
Oh man, that's long.
Te gustas? lol
No, no. Que? Es muy esresante….pero mi esposa via aca.
Border Wait Cosmetic Surgery
Hi. Can I ask you just why you're crossing today for a radio story? Uh, well, we are crossing because we have patients from Mexico. She's one of us patient, uh, for cosmetic surgery. That's right. Yeah.
Border Wait Part of the Show Part 1
Why are you crossing the line today? We own a home here in la mision. so we have, we come here often.

Border Wait It's Part of the Show
Do you mind the line? No. The wait you, you know, as part of the show. It’s part of the show, you know,....Part of the show, you've got to have your mindset that this is going to happen. It's going to happen.
Border Wait Cosmetic Dental Part 2
Why are yo crossing? Medical reasons…..And how do you deal with this wait? Does it bug you? Nope. It's like for me, it's normal. You know, if you compare with other kind of, uh, things to do, it's normal. All depends. The vibe you take, you take the things, because if you start and wake up, well, you know, he's going to be a bad day. I will go and cross the border. You will program at the beginning. Now these are reason. Everything depends about you. If you are listening to this. Just programmed to be a happy person, not the ugly person. You're getting all deep on me, bro. You will ask me. You come with me too with a microphone to share a message. This is my message to all the people. Perfect. Thank you so much. You're welcome. Bye. Bye. [00:01:00]
Border Wait Line Does Not Teach Patience
What do you do in the line to entertain yourself? Uh, watch on Netflix or . Hear music, eat cookies, coffee, eat everything we can eat. Do you think the line teaches you patience? No. Alright, have a good day.
Border Wait Crosses to See His Wife Who Can't Cross
I'm doing a radio story. Can I just ask why you're crossing the line today? Uh, well, I married a girl down in Mexico and I'm waiting for paperwork to pass so. It's taken a lot longer than we thought, but it's what's happening.
Border Wait Crosses to See Wife Part 2
And how long have you went waiting today? Not that long in this line. So I mean, Sentri’s not that bad. So especially with today, with them having some kind of. School days off or something that they're having. So it's a little less today. Do you wish the line was shorter? who doesn't? Laughter.
A shorter line would be a thing of beauty.

The long line is actually a problem that the federal governments and local business leaders on both sides of the border are trying to solve.

Because the border equals money.

Music bump: upbeat

I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Today, a story about the unpredictable beast that is the border line, and a tech entrepreneur who’s trying to tame it.

We’ll be right back.

ad

Over 100,000 people cross through the San Diego-Tijuana border every single day. It’s the most-crossed border in the Western Hemisphere. There are 62 inspection booths, one dedicated bus lane, two different pedestrian crossings, and 34 vehicle lanes. But it seems like no matter how many lanes are open or how many border agents are on duty, it’s just never enough. Because especially when there’s an incident and someone is caught doing something illegal, or even when someone who’s not doing anything wrong is sent to what’s called secondary inspection, delays happen.

A 2006 report from a San Diego government agency estimates that border delays cost the region billions of dollars in potential revenues every year, with most of those losses coming from retail sales. I mean, a tooooon of those 100,00 people going through the border every day from Tijuana to San Diego are crossing to either buy stuff, go to work or go to school. And all of those things generate money for the region. Plus, a lot of valuable goods are being shipped through the border every single day.

The government is working on speeding things up at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Just last year, the federal government cut the ribbon on a decade-long expansion and renovation project at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

KPBS News Clip from here: https://www.kpbs.org/news/2019/dec/17/after-10-years-and-741-million-rebuilt-san-ysidro-/

But even with all those improvements, the lines are still usually suuuuuper long. And one projection from a local government organization in San Diego is saying we can expect up to 50 percent growth in vehicle traffic through the San Ysidro Port of Entry by 2040.

That’s really just not what I wanna hear. I mean, it’s great that our region is growing and there’s more people crossing, but it means we can expect another car for every two that cross the border today. And that could happen in just 20 years. That's a ton for a land border crossing that's already one of the busiest in the world. There just has to be a better solution.

For now and the foreseeable future, border crossers like me just have to make the best of it. And we do that by using the tools we have to try to avoid the border when it’s at its worst and drive through it when it’s at its best.

Like for example...there’s a Facebook group called “Como Esta La Linea Tijuana” where almost 400,000 members share status updates about the line.

Every once in awhile, it's a happy update with photos or a video of a completely clear and open line. Some people dream of open fields and tropical beaches. To me cruising through the line, no cars around, windows down, and driving right up to the agent’s window... man, that’s Border-Crossing Heaven.

Still need this clip

Facebook Clip From Alan https://www.facebook.com/100002612350844/videos/2608275162602870/

https://www.facebook.com/cristina.guerena.1/videos/3419358111438637/

More commonly though, it’s people posting the cry-face emoji alongside photos of long, twisting lines of people and cars.

Still need this clip
Facebook Clip from Alan https://www.facebook.com/ramses.verduzco.12/videos/466680454041284/

Then there’s the live traffic cam you can look at and make a guess as to how long you think it’ll take.

Still need this clip

Clip: Alan Records himself one morning: Ok, i’m gonna pick up my phone and check out the camera to see how bad the traffic is today...

And, last on most people’s list is the official info from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. On its seriously outdated website, the agency posts wait-time estimates and the number of lanes open at a given time. But the info is usually pretty inaccurate and almost always unhelpful.

Still need this clip

Clip: Alan Records himself one morning: Checking information on this site. Later record yourself as you get to the actual line and see how off it is.

Music bump: Momentum

There are all kinds of really impressive economic figures that get thrown around when people talk about the border crossing here and the money it brings to both sides. Most people agree that every year, the crossing in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa bring in billions to the region because of all those shoppers, workers and students crossing every day, plus the billions of dollars worth of goods that crisscross this border on a regular basis.

And when it comes to money lost because of delays at the border -- most agree that the number is also in the billions.

It’s those really big dollar figures that are driving business groups like the Smart Border Coalition in San Diego to figure out how to make the border more fluid so more money can flow to both sides.
Border Innovation Should We Start
Border Innovation Introduction
Should we start? Let's get started.
Good evening. Thank you everybody. And we are delighted to be here hosting these border innovation challenge.
Last year, San Diego and Tijuana business and civic leaders who are part of a group called the Smart Border Coalition partnered with UC San Diego for a competition that asked people to submit their ideas related to improving the border-crossing experience.

The Border Innovation Challenge put up $20,000 in cash prizes to help fund the best ideas. Five finalists ended up pitching their ideas in front of a panel of judges and a live audience at UCSD.
We talked to a few of the teams before they got on stage. One of them was Leonardo Trujillo from the Instituto Tecnológico de TIjuana.
Border Innovation Chip Idea
So the idea is to embed that cheap on the sensors that can be used on you. Internet of things, technologies for the border, for example, to follow crates, people, vehicles.
Mauricio de Oliveira, a professor of engineering at UC San Diego, was pitching an idea for an app he says could speed up the transportation of patients from one side of the border to the other.
Border Innovation Ambulance Idea
they cannot cross the border. And so the way it works today is as an ambulance, uh, hits the border, a second emergency call is made to a U S group. And, and, uh, that's where try to, you know, uh, improve the service there, the, the transfer from one side to the other by allowing the teams to communicate. So
Luis Lomeli, an engineer with a software company in Mexicali, was pitching a mobile app that would gather data from people waiting in line at the border.
so we can use this data and accumulate it to in the future for the waiting lines for when the user is like, Oh, you want to go Saturday morning? Oh, just asked or replication. And we can tell you the time is gonna be, the line is going to be this long. You can go at this time
Cheslav Versky, a San Diego software engineer with a company called Curbside Labs, had a pitch for technology that would provide more detailed data about border crossing.
And Hector Rodriguez and Jose Trevino, two entrepreneurs from Mexico, made a pitch for a Cross Border Booking System that would use the same kind of technology Disneyland and Disneyworld use for speeding up ride lines to make freight shipping lines at the otay mesa port of entry more efficient.
After the five teams made their pitches, the judges and audience voted.
Border Innovation And The Winner Is
The winners are: We have. That was fun. I think we have the decision. Thank you everybody. So now let's invite our Dean to come again. Oh, wonderful. Dean Sullivan, who has the information.
Border Innovation Curbside Labs Wins
The grand prize, Mary in premium on your curbside labs. And now we want to invite everybody to come and take a pictures. All of them are winners, dollar song, Phil Soto and the participants as well, not participants. Everybody.
When we come back, I’ll tell you all about the guy behind Curbside Labs and his winning idea. Stick around.

Midroll Ad

Cheslav Versky is standing in front of a mall that sits just a few yards away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

The shopping center’s parking lot literally ends right at the thick metal slats that make up the border fence….You can park your car and walk to Taco Bell and the border fence within 10 seconds of each other.
Cheslov Clip 1 Saying Hello
Hey, how's it going? Hello, nice to meet you. I’m Kinsey. Nice to Meet you as well.
Today, Border Patrol agents are sitting inside their SUVs parked on a road that runs next to the fence, watching for people from Mexico trying to sneak into the U.S.
And just a few feet away from the Border Patrol car is a tow truck. The truck driver is parked in the mall parking lot, watching for people in San Diego trying to take advantage of the shopping center’s free parking so they can walk through the nearby pedestrian port of entry for a quick trip to Tijuana.
Natsound: Mall, rolling suitcases

Cheslav is here amid the criss-crossing traffic at the border, scouting locations...looking at businesses that might let him mount his expensive 3D cameras on their rooftops.
Cheslav Clip 12 Showing Us One Camera Location
And in fact, this one is looking out at the location that we're quite interested in because you can see the West pedestrian crossing.
Cheslav is CTO and cofounder of a company called Curbside Labs. He’s the guy who made the winning pitch at the Border Innovation Challenge last year.
At the event, he wore jeans and a hoodie...sporting the iconic look and spirit of a Mark Zuckerberg-like tech guru.

Today, he’s dressed a little more professionally… wearing glasses, a button-up shirt and jeans. And just by the way he walks around the mall analyzing things, you can tell he’s a math-minded dude…. Someone who sees the invisible numbers behind everything.

Like, when we walk by a Taco Bell inside the mall, he can’t help but launch into the economics and mechanics of loyalty programs that offer things like free tacos in exchange for your personal information.

Music Bump: Jaunty

Cheslav’s winning idea is, at its core, simply better, cleaner data.

He wants to mount fancy, smart cameras on both sides of the border that he says will collect crossing data at a level it’s just never been collected before.
His idea won’t make the border line any shorter per se. But it could make the unpredictable beast into a much more predictable one. And with predictability comes more economic opportunity and hopefully better solutions for shorter waits.
Cheslov clip 5 Cost of Inefficiencies
So an impact of such a crossing is tremendous. And, uh, now if you look at the efficiencies at the border and, uh, and, and what happens and what is the actual end result of delays at the border and increased delays to the border. It results into very large numbers. So depending on how you look at, uh, the, the current inefficiency at the border is estimated to be between seven and $8 billion a year. So it's, you know, it's a humongous, humongous impact. So if that can be improved in any particular way, I mean, you improve with to 10%. Wow. Yeah, we can all do the math that's closer to hundreds of billions of dollars. Right?
So, here’s how it’ll all work…

Music bump: Explainy
Cheslav is working on putting cameras in San Diego and Tijuana.

The smart devices will be pointed toward the border and collect highly accurate information about how people move into, around and through the lines.
Cheslav is most excited about the technology’s potential for collecting frequency data. Like, this particular person crossed from Tijuana to San Diego, then he crossed back to TJ and then back to SD and back and forth again five times in one week. That’s the insane level of detail he says his cameras can provide.
And if you’re freaking out about privacy and surveillance concerns, Cheslav would say don’t worry about it. Because these cameras aren’t collecting footage in the traditional sense. Instead, they recognize facial features, run the info through an algorithm and produce the anonymous data. The person who’s crossing back and forth five times a week is never identified.
Still, surveillance stuff like this makes a lot of people nervous because of its potential for abuse.
Anyway, Cheslav’s plan is to feed the crossing data collected by the cameras to Google and other navigation services that people are already using. Then people like me can just turn on whatever app we use to get driving directions, like Waze or Apple Maps, and the border-crossing information would be a lot more accurate and detailed than it is right now. And, of course, the better that info is, the more people can use it to plan their trips with as little waiting as possible.

And on the commercial side, if the cameras were also then mounted in Otay, where freight trucks cross, they could provide a lot more detailed, timely data about the quantity and value of goods going through.
The way Cheslav’s company plans to make money off the technology is to sell this more detailed information to companies that cross the border. Businesses that buy the data would be better equipped to streamline their border-crossing trips. The much more detailed and accurate historical data would help them plan future routes and avoid money-sucking waits at the border.
And then on the government side of things, Cheslav sees a future where his company is the one hired to do a recurring study that estimates the economic impact of the wait at the border. The next Border Delay Study is set to come out at the end of 2020, but by then, Cheslav thinks the info in it will already be outdated.
He’s confident his method will produce better, real-time data with a much longer shelf life.
And his idea scales.
Cheslov Clip 17 Works On Other Borders
Of course, you know, this is not just one. Uh, this is just one region. I mean, there are lots of other, yes, there are other, it's, it's, it's a technology that's, uh, that's widely applicable to basically any, you know, border crossing out there
Music fade/transition
After winning the Border Innovation Challenge, Cheslav now has to find places on both sides of the border to put his cameras.
Cheslov Clip 2 Explaining Project
so we're hoping that if we, we can still half of them on this side of the border and half of them, another side of the border. And what that entails is that the, it's likely going to require us to. To secure permissions, you know, from the real estate owners for, you know, different places where, you know, the cameras are going to place
On the U.S. side, Cheslav is already in conversation with the mall owners about mounting his cameras there. If he gets the green light, it’ll give the cameras a crystal clear view of both the east and west pedestrian crossings, plus the dozens of lanes of vehicle traffic.
But it’s slower going when it comes to finding property owners in Tijuana who will let him mount his cameras on their businesses. Mostly because the very problem he’s trying to solve -- the long wait time -- makes it hard for him to cross the border, scout locations and get back to San Diego in a reasonable amount of time.
Cheslov Clip 3 Long Wait Times
I mean, you know, lots of times to go here and you're like, well, let me, can I go across the night? You're actually spoken to agents quite a number of times, kind of on our side of the board. Okay. If I go, if I go across to me, how long do you think is going to take me to come back? And they're like, well, yeah, it's three and a half hours.
Music bump: Emo/transition to backstory
Cheslav is kinda the perfect person to be working on helping make some sense of the border wait mess.

He grew up in the Soviet Union with a single mom. He’s Jewish, so he and his mom were part of a big wave of Jewish refugees who emigrated to the U.S. or Israel in the 90s because of turmoil in the Soviet Union.

It was a scary and dangerous time for jews there. The minute Cheslav and his mom left the crumbling country, they were stripped of their citizenship.
Cheslov Clip 19 Citizens of No Country
So. So as we crossed the border was Soviet union we were citizens of no country until we were admitted somewhere else.
Cheslav says the experience was chaotic, but he’s hesitant to say it was too hard for him or his mom. Mostly, he feels lucky.

He says the thing that actually haunts him the most about his cross-country journey wasn’t moving to a new place where he knew no one and didn’t speak the language…

Instead, when Cheslav talks about the experience now, he gets most upset about how messy the system for tracking immigrants was. If he or his mom had lost their papers or there’d been some other snafu or mixup when it came to their identity, things could have gone really, really wrong, very quickly.

Even back then, as a teenage refugee, he had the urge to bring order to the chaos of what he saw as an inefficient system. This urge of his is powered by his desire to keep people from feeling so close to losing absolutely everything just because of a lack of information.
Cheslav On Refugee Experience
and I have to say that, uh, I have to confess there is always in my mind that this, I mean, some other people may be different, but in my mind, uh, I still have to deal, you know, to this day with the sort of, you know, fear right? There, there was, you know, the fear of that got instilled in me and the relatively early age that, uh, yeah, I could be like, I can end up being without any support on the street. And so you, you always try to, to, to put as much distance between that. Kind of in your mind, so you're, you're never quite, you know, there you're like, okay. I mean, that was far out, you know, from that point where, and I've been close to that. Right. And you're, you're trying to sort of separate yourself from it as much as possible. And so that's why that, that gives you this extra motivation to, you know, to kind of go forward. Right. Because I may feel moving more moving forward, then you're kind of sliding backwards into that situation.
Cheslav Clip 16 Refugee past
Alan: Do you think your difficulties in leaving and entering nations in the past has to do with your motivation in doing this?
Cheslav: I certainly do have that perspective. I mean, sometimes, I mean, I may not immediately think about that, but I do have that perspective in mind. I mean, uh, those experiences, I mean, they are not necessarily foreign to me.
So, for Cheslav, he wasn’t necessarily drawn to the border because of his own, personal border-crossing experience. But it is related because his immgiration experience made him want to solve government inefficiencies.
When he looks at the mess of cars and people stuck in line at the border, the economist inside of him sees lost opportunities and a real lack of good data being put to good use.
Cheslav imagines infinite ways in which the data his cameras collect could ultimately be used. Other people will see things he doesn’t. The data will inspire innovation. And maybe one of those yet-to-be-invented tools will actually make both the commercial and noncommercial crossing lines a lot shorter.
Cheslav Clip 18 Remains to Be Seen What It Can be used for
….. I think the data will speak for itself. I mean, people are going to figure out, you know, what they want to use the data for. I mean, you know, we have figured out a couple of things that, you know, that can be used for and it certainly is something that should allow us to, to continue to exist and provide that information. But, uh, it remains to be seen what else it can be used for.
Cheslav says he is getting closer to getting his cameras installed on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, the Smart Border Coalition, the group that helped put together the Border Innovation Challenge that Cheslav won, is still looking for more ideas to improve the crossing experience. So keep dreamin em up, ya’ll! A shorter line would be awesome for everybody.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast….tacos in TIjuana!

Show Clip

We’re launching a new series of in-studio conversations with cross-border people about food, art, and culture. In the first one, we talk about tacos in Tijuana with the guy behind “A Gringo in Mexico,” a website that’s all about food and culture south of the border.

Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. Both KPBS reporter Erik Anderson and audio producer and consultant Curtis Fox helped edit the script. If you’re into it, you can always call (619) 452-0228‬ and leave us a voicemail to let us know what you thought of this episode or just to say what’s up. Thanks.

KPBS podcasts are made possible by listeners like you. Go to kpbs DOT org to make a donation or become a member today.

The line of cars and people waiting to cross the San Ysidro Port of Entry is so big — so long — it’s got its own gravitational pull. It’s created this whole world of its own, an ecosystem that swirls all around it. A shorter line would be a thing of beauty.

The long line is actually a problem that the federal governments and local business leaders on both sides of the border are trying to solve. Because the border equals money.

In this episode, we bring you sounds from the border line, then take you to the Border Innovation Challenge at UC San Diego. After that, we introduce you to Cheslav Versky, a tech entrepreneur who won the Border Innovation Challenge and is now working on installing a system that would collect detailed border-crossing data at a level it's never been collected before.

Only Here podcast branding

Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.