Quick Crossers

— For two years, I've crossed the border once a month to visit friends who live in Playas de Tijuana. I've learned to go after 7:00 p.m. on weekdays. But in the beginning I always went on Saturday, midmorning. Big mistake. "Weekends are usually packed," says Aldo Ortega, who crosses every weekday on his way to work as manager of a Chula Vista medical transportation company. "A lot of people have the day off, and people down here decide to come across. I tell people to try to go early, 7:00 a.m., and they'll be across before 8:00. The problem is, the stores won't be open, so you have to have breakfast somewhere and then go shopping."

If I'd heard that advice two years ago, my border crossings would have been more pleasant. Instead, each month I spent an hour and a quarter sweating in the noontime sun, fretting as I watched the needle of my temperature gauge creep toward the red zone. "It's going to overheat," I thought to myself, "and I'll be stuck in this foreign land with 300 people behind me, honking and yelling." Then, as the needle flirted with the red zone, the thermostat would trigger the electric fan, and the needle would slowly recede.

One day, just after I'd learned to pay no attention to the temperature gauge, the thermostat failed to turn on the fan, my engine boiled over, and a hot cloud of Prestone-infused steam shrouded my car. It happened to be the day that the line was the longest I'd ever seen. I was sitting on the south side of the bridge over the Tijuana River, a half mile from the border. Luckily, I had a friend with me that day, and we pushed my minivan all the way to the border inspection booth.

I crossed on Saturdays because I figured the traffic on weekdays, when people crossed to work, would be much worse. According to Ortega, I was mistaken. "My average wait at that time has been 45 minutes," he explains. "Right now, I'm in the line by 7:15. I'm usually on the north side by 8:00, 8:10 at the latest. I work so close to the border here in Chula Vista that by 8:15 I'm at work."

That was Ortega's routine until and including September 11, 2001. "I was able to come across just before they closed the border. I got to the border at about 7:15 or 7:20, and by 7:45 I was already on the north side of the border. That's about the time they closed it."

Like many daily crossers, Ortega decided to leave his car at home the next day and cross la frontera on foot. "Those first few days," he says, "the word spread through Tijuana that it was faster walking. The first couple of days I made it over on foot in an hour and a half, max. It was two to two and a half hours in the car. But after that it got really, really crazy. The lines were up to about 3000 people walking. I know people who were in the line up to five hours."

A friend of mine, Bob, is an American who lives in El Mirador, between downtown Tijuana and Playas. He telecommutes for his San Diego-based job and crosses the border only once a month to meet with his boss. He had to cross on September 12. "It took about an hour and half," he says. "I thought that was long, but the subsequent months have taken longer."

Bob found the situation very orderly on September 12. "Most of the people in line were Mexicans coming over to work," he recalls. "I was one of the only gringos. Many people came up to me and told me how sorry they were about what happened in New York and Washington. Everyone was very somber and polite and cooperative. The only ugly scene I saw the whole time was made by an American tourist. He was an older guy, in his 60s maybe. He was trying to cut into the front of the line because he said he had an appointment he had to get to. He was being very rude and belligerent. Finally, some Tijuana police officers told him he would have to go to the back of the line."

Bob walked across the border again in October and November. "Those times," he says, "after waiting an hour and a half just to get to the customs building, they were stopping everybody and taking people into the building in groups of ten. That took another hour."

And the patience and understanding he saw on September 12, Bob says, is no longer as universal. "The Tijuana police have started putting extra officers at the border to keep people from cutting into line and to break up fights."

In December, Bob decided to take a shuttle bus across. "But, for some reason, all the shuttle buses got diverted to Otay Mesa. And after the extra time to get to Otay, we had to sit in a traffic jam of buses. And there was a huge line of people who were getting off the buses to cross on foot. Well, one busload of people piled out of their bus and tried to jump into the front of the line, and things got very tense. The people who were already in line started chanting, 'linea...linea,' which means line. There was some pushing and shoving, and I thought for sure that a riot was going to break out. Finally, a kind of rent-a-cop came out and told the newcomers that they had to go to the back of this huge line. You should have seen the looks on some of their faces. I've never seen people more dejected."

Ortega walked over September 12 and 13, but word started spreading that, for the first time in memory, crossing by car was the fastest way across. "So I decided to get back in the car. I was doing an average of two hours, two and a half hours in the car. That lasted until pretty much the first week of December."

That first week of December, Ortega's average wait dropped back below an hour again, and now, "It's pretty much where it used to be. What I've noticed is that in the past we used to have customs agents and some immigration officers as well. Now, I've seen border patrol officers in the booths coming across. So I guess they increased staff that way."

And, while every driver was made to stop and open the hood and trunk for about a month, by Ortega's estimation, after September 11, that situation has loosened. "It varies depending on who's at the booth," he explains. "I see the same people over and over at those booths, and I've seen certain officers that sit in the booth, and they don't even walk out to your car. They don't even check your ID. They just say, 'Go ahead,' and wave you through. I've seen other officers who are really strict. They make everybody open up the hood. They make you open up the trunk. They check the car. Usually, it's the same officers who do that. So it actually depends on who the officer is in your line."

Though he's never seen riots or near-riots at the border, Ortega has witnessed a few lost tempers. "And I've heard stories from other crossers about that. Especially after September 11, when everything was going crazy, people were getting a little desperate. I saw a lot more cutting in, more anger, and I heard stories of actual fistfights breaking out. I never saw them, but I heard stories from some of my employees who live down there as well."

Asked how he keeps his cool at the border, Ortega responds with a laugh. "Well, I take a crossword -- not all the time, but I do carry them once in a while. And I make calls on my cell phone to check on my employees. But mostly, I'm just mentally prepared to spend some time in line. I'm already used to it, and I don't mind the line at all. But, because I'm familiar with it, I do know that it can be pretty stressful to some people. What I recommend is that they just allow themselves to get used to it. The line is always going to be there."

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