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Tuesday, August 02, 2005 | Judith Morgan Jennings says the moment she crosses the international border from the United States into Mexico her shoulders loosen, she takes a deep breath, and she can feel time slowing down.

Jennings is one of a growing number of San Diegans who have traded traffic for tacos, pension funds for piñatas and Fourth of July for Cinco de Mayo. Unperturbed by border delays that sometimes last three hours or more, Jennings and others have moved south to settle in Northern Baja, often in Tijuana, Rosarito and the surrounding suburbs.

The reasons these migrants offer for their decision to move south range from economic to cultural to quality of life considerations, and for most of them, it’s a one-way trip. Once they make the move, they’re not coming back.

“It’s not for everyone,” said Jennings. “The Baja dwellers are houseboat dwellers, they listen to a different drummer. I have people that come down often just to chill – it’s such a quick fix.”

Quick fix or not, living across the border is also much cheaper than living in San Diego. Imagine buying a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in one of the city’s best neighborhoods and paying $400 a month for your mortgage. Of course, the city is Tijuana, not San Diego, the neighborhood is Chapultepec, not La Jolla, but nevertheless, the price difference just a few miles across the border is staggering.

That’s exactly what 26-year-old Pablo Jaime Sainz and his wife thought when they decided to move to Tijuana in early 2001.

Sainz, a Los Angeles-born U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, was then working as a journalist covering border issues for several San Diego newspapers. He said the move simply made economic sense.

“It was going to be cheaper,” he said. “That was the main reason, the rent. … We moved in the summer of 2001, then Sept. 11 came along – oh man!”

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 changed the ball game considerably for Sainz and his wife. What had previously been a manageable, if long, commute became a nightmare of lines, searches, hassles and delays as the Department of Homeland Security heightened precautions at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, the two border crossings nearest to San Diego. The wait became so bad that the couple nearly moved back to the United States.

The lines gradually eased off, however, and their commute has now leveled off at an average of one hour to cross the border. He said after four years of crossings, he has it wired, and always avoids peak times such as Monday mornings and Friday evenings.

Sainz and Morgan Jennings, like the bulk of U.S. citizens who are Baja-to-San Diego commuters, come across the border by car. Of course, there are a multitude of other options available, from walking across, to cycling, to catching the trolley.

On a recent misty Friday morning, the lines of cars packing the border crossing were already jam-packed by 5 a.m. Traffic was backed up hundreds of meters on the Mexico side, and cars of all shapes and sizes jostled for position as fumes belched up from their exhausts into the chilly air.

By contrast, the wait to walk across the border was only slightly backed up. Standing patiently in line were Mexican workers carrying the tools of their trade – a spirit level here, a bundle of blueprints there.

The sole U.S. citizen waiting in line was a blonde lady, who looked in her mid-forties. She said she couldn’t give her name because her employers don’t know she lives in Mexico, and would possibly stigmatize her if they did. The commuter explained that she does this crossing every morning, walking across from where she has parked her car on the Tijuana side. The lady, who works downtown and catches the trolley each day, said the 15 minutes it took that morning to cross the border is about standard for this time of day.

If taking the trolley isn’t a viable option, and sitting in line for an hour or more sounds like too much hassle, a program called the SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) Pass Program was launched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2000. The program allows individuals who undergo an extensive series of background checks to pass through specially allocated traffic lines. For an annual fee, a vehicle is equipped with a transponder that automatically transmits the driver’s identity to border guards. SENTRI pass holders on average get over the border much quicker, and after two extra SENTRI lanes were opened earlier this year, pass holders like Jennings have seen their wait times reduced to an average of about 30 minutes when crossing from Mexico.

The SENTRI passes have turned Tijuana into a suburb of San Diego, said Nicolas Renard, who has been a real estate agent in Tijuana for 16 years.

“Or San Diego into a suburb of Tijuana,” he joked. Renard said he has seen a notable increase in the number of San Diegans inquiring about living in Tijuana in the last year or so. The reason?

“San Diego is getting too expensive,” he said. “In Tijuana, you can have comfortable living at a fraction of the price. Taxes are lower, property taxes are ridiculous, and you can even have a maid – things that only well-to-do people can have in the United States.”

Apart from the lower costs of living in Baja, however, there are other considerations to take into account, some positive, some negative.

Victor Muñoz, an artist, high school teacher and activist who owns properties in San Diego and Tijuana, said the main reason that draws him back to Mexico is culture, not cost. Muñoz, who was born in the United States to Mexican immigrants, said living in Mexico allows him to really be himself, and to connect to a culture that he feels is just more accepting of Latinos.

But Sainz cautioned that a move to Baja can be just as unsettling for a Mexican American as for a U.S. citizen of European descent. Most Mexican Americans, he said, have to learn the same rules and adjust to a way of life that is far different from what they are used to. He said it took him at least a year to assimilate to the Mexican way of life.

“It was a cultural check for me,” he said. “I was used to never saying good day or good night to my neighbors. Here, especially in Tijuana, there’s a lot more friendship with the neighbors, it’s more of a community.”

On the negative side, Sainz said, there are a few issues he has become aware of since moving to Mexico. His wife recently gave birth to a baby boy, and the young couple can’t help but wonder what they are giving up by not living in the United States. Lamenting the lack of a 911-style emergency network in Tijuana, Sainz said he doesn’t really trust the local police or the fire department.

“I don’t feel secure,” he said. “I know that if we have an emergency, we’re going to depend on each other. So, in a way, we’re by ourselves.”

Moving to Mexico is a fairly simple process for a U.S. citizen. Migrants must apply for an FM3 visa, a process that Renard said is simple to complete. Applicants must show that they have an income of at least $1,500 per month and are employed. They must also renew their FM3 papers annually.

Buying a house in Mexico is different than purchasing property in the United States. A combination of the Mexican Constitution and a statute, the 1973 Foreign Investment Law, prohibit “direct” foreign ownership of land or water within border and coastal areas known as the restricted zone. The only way foreigners can legally own land is through a title holding a bank trust. Renard said such trusts operate similarly to a fee simple in the United States. More information about the legalities of moving to Mexico and buying a home there can be found at

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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