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BORDER SLOWS TO A CRAWL
Businesses, commuters suffer from slowdown
By Sandra Dibble STAFF WRITER
September 21, 2001
TIJUANA -- By daybreak yesterday the line was more than 1,000 strong: students with knapsacks, mothers pushing carriages, workers in uniform patiently waiting to walk into the United States.
Ten days ago, crossing the border on foot took minutes. Now it can take hours.
Thousands of miles away from last week's terrorist attacks, families, schools, businesses and workers in the San Diego-Tijuana region are trying to maintain lifestyles that require constant movement across the tightly fortified border.
"I had an assembly and told the students that these are ripples," said the Rev. George Keith, director of St. John's Parish Day School in Chula Vista, where nearly one-fourth of the student body comes from Tijuana. "Something happens 3,000 miles away and it has an effect on our lives."
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government imposed a "status one security alert" on the border -- a measure just short of stopping the human flow entirely. Since then, pedestrians and motorists have endured the longest northbound waits anyone can remember.
The slowdown affects both sides. While hotels at Baja California's tourist destinations have suffered cancellations, San Diego businesses that rely on Mexican consumers have seen a sharp drop in sales.
"With these lines, I wouldn't cross to go shopping even if I were crazy," said Margarita Vargas, a Tijuana audiologist.
Vargas drives across regularly for other reasons.
Her 16-year-old daughter commutes daily to the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in San Diego's North Park neighborhood, and once a week it is Vargas' turn to wake at 4 a.m. and drive Vanessa and four other girls to San Diego.
Vargas also must go to the United States to buy her medical equipment. And she has family in San Diego.
"The worst of this is that it's going to go on, and I don't know how I'm going to organize myself," Vargas said. "This changes our whole work and family dynamic. It changes everything."
Crossing times vary so dramatically that commuters must sometimes play a guessing game. A half-hour border wait one weekday evening could be two hours the next, with no explanation. The bottleneck of early morning commuters is most consistently problematic.
"The idea is to arrive with the certainty that you're going to have to wait," said Oscar García, 63.
A pedestrian crosser for 15 years, García got in line at 5:30 a.m. to get to his maintenance job in Coronado.
"If you try to resist it, that's when you become stressed," he said.
Many people are coping by just staying away from the border entirely. Northbound cars last weekend averaged 22,000 a day, less than half the number that usually cross on a busy weekend.
Other people are scrambling for solutions. Growing numbers of Tijuana residents have been riding bicycles across the border, forgoing the wait as they pedal to the front of the car lanes. Many are staying with U.S. friends and relatives rather than tackle the daily crossing.
Leonardo Barba, a Tijuana resident who operates audio-visual equipment for the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina on Harbor Island, got to the border at 2:30 a.m. Monday to make sure he made it to work on time.
Barba said he is so worn out by commute that he is thinking about renting a room in San Diego during the week.
"If the United States attacks, the line is only going to get worse," he said.
With 30 of its 80 employees from south of the border, Southwind Landscape in Chula Vista this week put a security deposit on two houses, so its Tijuana workers can rent rooms during the week.
"We're foreseeing if this continues, it's only going to get worse," said construction manager Raul Briones.
Keith said he is thinking about the future, too, as he watches the pressure mount on the Tijuana families of St. John's.
"The mothers will get them out of the car and drop them off and then sit there and cry, the stress is so great," Keith said. "I've told them that I will do whatever we have to do to meet their needs, even sending teachers to tutor them in Tijuana as long as this crisis lasts."
The stepped-up security measures are affecting residents all along the U.S.-Mexico border. Across from El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juarez faces similar problems, said Socorro Tabuenca.
"I know people here who have family members ailing in El Paso, and they can't go see them," said Tabuenca, who heads the Ciudad Juarez office of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. "I know people who've had parties in Juarez and none of their family members came from across the border."
Some see the crisis as a chance to bring more resources to the border crossings. Among them is Charles Nathanson, director of San Diego Dialogue, a civic group that promotes cross-border ties.
"We will need to invent new ways of doing things," Nathanson said. "The quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people depends on the border working effectively. This could be an ironic blessing."
The rowdy bars in Rosarito Beach were quiet last weekend. As the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, a dozen people sat at Papas & Beer. A block away, the upstairs bar at Señor Frog's was empty.
In Rosarito Beach, a city of 80,000, hotel occupancy has fallen 60 percent to 70 percent since the attack, said Hugo Torres, owner of the Rosarito Beach Hotel and president of Rosarito Beach's Business Coordinating Council.
"The effect has been terrible," Torres said. "We have shops here that are about to close because they can't pay their employees."
For all the uncertainty at the border, one thing is certain: Thousands have no choice but to endure their new routine.
At 7 a.m. yesterday at the San Ysidro crossing, Jennifer Rabinal, 56, described the 90-minute wait in the pedestrian line as surprisingly short.
It was far less than the three-hour-plus wait Rabinal had averaged on previous mornings, she said, but far more than the five-minute wait before the Sept. 11 attacks. Rabinal, a Playas de Tijuana resident, was headed for work at a downtown law firm.
"You see anger in people and frustration and things you usually don't see here," Rabinal said. "A lot of people are just staying on the other side
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 21, 2001