On weekday mornings, Adan Montaño waits less than 45 minutes to cross the border from Tijuana to San Diego. He’s one of the lucky commuters with a special pass that allows quick travel into the United States. But going home is a different story.
When the 22-year-old Playas de Tijuana resident returns at rush hour – anytime from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.– the wait to cross from San Ysidro to Tijuana can take closer to two hours.
Here’s what’s happening: Lengthy northbound border waits have long been the bane of cross-border commuters. For those without expedited entry, known as SENTRI, the morning queues can last from two to three hours. But in recent weeks hours-long southbound waits have also become increasingly common. Commuters are becoming increasingly frustrated.
“I’m wasting my time inside a car,” Montaño told me. He works and studies in San Diego, then drives home to Tijuana at night. “It’s affecting my grades, I get home too exhausted to study, and I have other things I need to do. So many hours in traffic is unsettling.”
Multiply that exhaustion by tens of thousands of people who cross each day between Tijuana and San Diego, many of them workers and students and others with lives that straddle the international border. They must not only wait, but jockey at the end of the workday with other tired and impatient drivers to squeeze through a narrow bottleneck at Mexico’s El Chaparral Port of Entry.
Joaquin Luken, executive director of the Smart Border Coalition, says the result in recent weeks has been “a parking lot of cars” as two U.S. federal highways – Interstates 5 and 805 – merge at the border.
“It’s a throughput issue,” he told me. The San Diego-based coalition has been studying ways to speed the passage of vehicles with the opening of new lanes, and hopes to present a proposal to Mexican officials.
Commuters Are Growing Impatient
More than 1,900 crossers have signed an online petition launched this month to demand that federal, state and municipal authorities in Mexico do something.
Commuters want to know: Can officials build more access lanes into Mexico? Can they redesign the Mexican port of entry? Why not create a program for frequent crossers into Mexico at Otay and San Ysidro? How is staffing decided at the ports of entry?
“It is not just inexplicable but inexcusable for more than 80,000 vehicles that cross in both directions on a daily basis…” the petition states.
The federal authorities in Mexico City who oversee border crossings “don’t understand the border dynamic and especially the Tijuana dynamic,” Minerva Padilla, one of the petition signers. She is a 41-year-old San Diego-born psychologist who lives in Tijuana, but crosses daily to take her children to private school in San Ysidro.
“Instead of looking for options to improve the infrastructure, they reduce it. So it’s just chaotic,” she said.
There are several reasons for this soul-crushing bumper-to-bumper traffic.
There aren’t enough gates and lanes open at El Chaparral: Even at peak afternoon rush hour, authorities often open only six out of 20 available gates. Once inside the Mexican port, drivers must squeeze through an even tighter corridor of three or four lanes, where officials pull the occasional vehicle aside for inspection.
Inadequate infrastructure in Tijuana: One obstruction has been the closure in January of a damaged two-lane bridge built by the federal government that connected some 15,000 drivers daily to the Via Rapida highway. Repairs to the El Chaparral bridge began in August, and are scheduled for completion by the city early in the first part of next year – I’ve heard estimates anywhere from January to May.
At peak crossing times, city police have also closed a second bridge that feeds border crossers heading west to Playas de Tijuana on the heavily traveled Avenida Internacional – a move to divert traffic and avoid complete gridlock.
More San Diegans are moving south: Tijuana’s new customs administrator, Col. Alejandro Robles, has not given interviews on the subject of the lengthy wait times. I was able to reach Obed Silva, who is secretary of mobility for the city of Tijuana.
Silva told me that one factor is the rising numbers of border crossers, as more and more San Diegans have moved to Tijuana, pushed out by high rents, gasoline prices and other costs. The long-term solution lies either in building more infrastructure – or finding ways to use mass transit to move people across the border.
“It’s a combination of things that are provoking this phenomenon that we are seeing,” Silva said. “There is not a single explanation.”
In Other News
Migrant death: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has continued to hold migrants in between border fences at San Ysidro following the death of a 29-year-old woman from Guinea who died Oct. 11 shortly after crossing illegally into the area. Humanitarian workers have decried the open-air detention sites in San Ysidro and Jacumba, where migrants wait with few medical services and no protection from the elements, KPBS reports.
Chinese migrants: Bleak economic prospects and political repression are prompting growing numbers of Chinese citizens to travel to the U.S. border in search of asylum. After flying to Ecuador, many make their way by land through Panama’s Darien gap, with some ending up at the San Diego border. Associated Press, San Diego Union-Tribune.
Immigrant and Refugee Center: San Diego County supervisors accepted a more than $430,500 state grant for a second center for immigrants and refugees in North County. The county opened its first such center in National City in March. The precise location for the second center has not been determined. KPBS, San Diego Union-Tribune.
Hurricane relief for Acapulco: Migrant shelters in Tijuana anticipate a new wave of arrivals in the wake of Hurricane Otis, which devastated Acapulco earlier this month. El Imparcial.
Presidential candidate visits: Claudia Sheinbaum, presidential candidate for Mexico’s ruling Morena Party in the country’s June 2024 election, made stops both in southern California and Baja California earlier this month. Milenio Noticias, ABC7-Los Angeles.
Mexicans vote abroad: The Mexican Consulate in San Diego will be one of 23 locations outside Mexico where voters will be able to vote in person in the June 2024 elections, according to Mexico’s National Electoral Institute. San Diego Union-Tribune.
Historic designation: A house north of Ensenada built in 1930 received protection as a cultural heritage site by the state of Baja California this month. The house was built for General A.L. Rodriguez, who served as governor of the territory of Baja California in the 1920s–and from 1930 to 1932 was president of Mexico. The two-story residence includes stucco walls, a red tile roof, Corinthian columns and French windows and is “an excellent example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style,” according to the Save of Heritage Organization of San Diego. The house is located in the community of El Sauzal, and designed by a San Diego architect, Frank W. Stevenson. (Baja California Cultural Secretariat, SOHO, Zeta)
La Boheme in Tijuana: For two nights this month (Oct. 20 and 21), the 400-seat theater at Tijuana’s Casa de la Cultura was packed for performances of Giacomo Puccini’s four-act opera La Boheme presented by Opera de Tijuana and the Baja California Orchestra. From the staging to the musicians to the performers, there was much hometown talent on display, starting with Jose Medina, the stage director and Armando Pesqueira, the orchestra conductor.
San Diego Symphony in Tijuana: For the first time in its 113-year history, the San Diego Symphony will perform in Tijuana on Thursday at the federal Centro Cultural Tijuana in the city’s Rio Zone. The free performance is being offered as part of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations at the CECUT.
Altar for slain journalists: A Day of the Dead altar honoring slain Mexican journalists will be installed on Thursday in Tijuana at Centro Estatal de las Artes. Local journalists will gather at noon to remember slain colleagues, demanding an end to the violence against journalists and calling for justice for those slain across Mexico.
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This story has been updated to correct Claudia Sheinbaum’s name.