The San Ysidro Port of Entry / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Essential workers who cross the border have been facing hours-long wait times every morning to make it to their jobs in the United States.

Jay got in the vehicle lane at the San Ysidro Port of Entry the morning of April 27 to head to work.

“I thought I had plenty of time, getting there at 3:30 a.m.,” Jay said. “I have to be at work at 8. But by 5, I still knew there were hours ahead because of the length of the line and how slow it was moving. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’”

Jay lives in Tijuana and is an essential employee for a federal government agency in San Diego. VOSD agreed to withhold his last name because he fears retribution from his employer or U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

After waiting for three hours, he realized he was never going to get across in time to make it to work. He got out of line, and parked in a lot near the pedestrian crossing. It took him another hour and a half to cross, but Jay said he knew he still got across faster than if he had continued to wait in his car.

He took the trolley from the border, and was 20 minutes late.

Jay’s experience encapsulates the strange new reality at the border: Restrictions that went in place in mid-March limiting border crossings to essential travel have meant far fewer people are crossing. But the remaining few who do cross aren’t sailing through; instead, they’re being funneled into a modified setup that has resulted in excruciatingly long waits.

Average vehicle crossings have plummeted 49 percent across California ports of entry. Pedestrian crossings are down even further, by 71 percent to a daily average of 16,500.

Beginning in April, Customs and Border Protection, which operates ports of entry, began to modify operations. Hours at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry were limited from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. beginning May 3. Starting April 26, the Calexico East border crossing began operating from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Operations at the PedWest facility at the San Ysidro Port of Entry have been suspended since April 5, funneling all pedestrian traffic to the San Ysidro east border crossing. The Tecate Port of Entry has only been open from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily for pedestrians and vehicles since early April.

Border traffic has gradually increased over the last four weeks, said Angelica De Cima, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman. The week beginning April 27 saw a 3.8 percent increase in vehicles and a 14.7 percent increase in pedestrians crossing through ports of entry, compared to prior weeks. CBP did not directly comment about the long wait times.

On Monday, at 11 p.m., border wait times in the San Ysidro general lane were about four hours long, according to Customs and Border Protection’s Border Wait Times app. On Thursday, wait times were above average up until 6 a.m., with a two-hour wait at 2 a.m., compared with an average of 25 minutes. Customs and Border Protection estimates wait times based on how far out an officer can physically see the line of vehicles.

The Facebook group Como Esta La Linea Tijuana, in which regular border-crossers share photos and update one another on wait times, has been filled with chatter of the long waits.

“I thought they were joking when they said 5 to 8 hours to cross,” reads one post in Spanish from May 4, along with a picture of the person’s place in line. “I’ve been waiting for 4 hours and I’m still only here.”

“Horrible,” said Kellee Harris, who lives in Tijuana and works at Urbn Leaf, a cannabis dispensary in San Ysidro. “They’ve been terrible. It takes anywhere from five to 10 hours to cross in your car.”

Harris crosses five days a week, three of which are on weekdays. She said when she has to work a morning shift, she crosses on foot the night before and stays in San Ysidro.

“I’m not going to stand in line for hours with thousands of people, where no one is social distancing,” Harris said.

Harris said for those who don’t have a place to stay in San Diego, the morning wait is brutal. Some of her coworkers who cross have told her they’ve waited three to four hours on foot to cross on weekday mornings. She said there have been days where the pedestrian line has been so long that it’s extended into the SENTRI lane, requiring people to stand and wait in the road.

“People are very frustrated,” Harris said. “It’s a general consensus that we want CBP to open more lines so that it moves quicker, especially in the mornings. And especially for essential workers. If we have essential workers on the frontlines, let them through. Let them work. Let them keep the economy going.”

Juan Lopez is a truck driver whose job is considered essential. But in the past month, the long wait times have forced him to give up trying to get to the yard in San Diego where he works.

“Sometimes you spend four hours waiting and you just leave,” Lopez said. “You just get out of line because there is no point in waiting. By the time I get to the yard, it will be closed and the mechanics can’t do anything.”

Safety Concerns

People who cross regularly also expressed concern that Customs and Border Protection agents haven’t always been wearing personal protective equipment and that social distancing is basically non-existent while they wait in the pedestrian line.

Tijuana has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and southern San Diego County has been experiencing higher numbers of COVID cases than the rest of the county. Fears of the virus crossing back and forth across the border have been mounting.

Some agents have personal protective equipment, some don’t, Harris said. Some have gloves on and some – and they touch everyone’s ID.

Regina lives in Tecate, Mexico, and works at a long-term care facility in Mira Mesa. VOSD agreed to withhold her last name because she fears retribution from Customs and Border Protection.

Regina said that about a third of her coworkers live in Tijuana and cross daily. One of them has already tested positive for COVID-19 and can’t come back to work. Another recently spent nine hours waiting in line to cross.

One day, officers searched Regina’s car as she crossed. Only one of the three had a mask, she said, and they hadn’t changed gloves since searching the last car.

“It freaked me out because I have a client who has pneumonia and a lot of medical issues,” Regina said. “I’m highly concerned for my client and my family. When I go home, am I transferring? I have to Lysol my whole car after they get in there and search.”

Customs and Border Protection officer Jorge Llanos, president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 105, which represents nearly 4,000 employees in the San Diego sector, told CQ Roll Call in April that agents need more masks, goggles and gloves because of the volume of daily interactions along the border. They also requested more coronavirus testing kits.

“We are extremely low in existing quantities and we have to sparingly use them,” Llanos told Roll Call. “We will be open to other options, but social distancing is not enough.”

There have been 330 Customs and Border Protection employees with confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide. Fifty-five of them are in California, according to agency data.

Jacqueline Wasiluk, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, said that personnel who can’t telework “have ready access” to personal protective equipment, including nitrile gloves and N95 masks. The agency has also issued cleaning guidelines to all Customs and Border Protection facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

If an officer observes an individual who has symptoms of COVID-19 or who otherwise meets the CDC’s COVID-19 screening guidelines, he or she will refer the person to the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security medical contractors or local health officials for additional screening. There are also procedures in place to ensure that officers who are exposed to the virus receive timely medical evaluations, diagnosis and treatment. All employees in an area an exposure has occurred are notified “at the earliest opportunity,” Wasiluk wrote.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our workforce and the American people,” said Wasiluk. “CBP will continue to take every necessary precaution in order to keep our employees, their families and the American people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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