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Border wait could get worse
By Leonel Sanchez STAFF WRITER
October 17, 2001
Long lines at the San Ysidro Port of Entry may grow longer if immigration inspectors are required to run name checks on every pedestrian, as inspectors in Texas and New Mexico are now being required to do.
The additional security precautions in those states began last week after the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., issued a directive instructing its inspectors to ask each pedestrian for a photo ID and to run their names through a database maintained by 19 federal agencies, including the FBI.
But inspectors in the western United States, including San Diego, haven't implemented the measures because their supervising regional office has questioned whether it must fully comply with the directive.
On Monday, the Western Regional Office was told it won't have to ask each person for a photo ID. Yesterday, the office was still waiting to hear whether it would be forced to conduct the electronic name checks on every pedestrian over the age of 14.
"We stand ready to do whatever we're directed to do," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the INS' Western Regional Office, which oversees land ports in California, Arizona and Washington.
But Kice said the regional office has asked that its inspectors be allowed to retain a "modicum . . . of discretion" so they can keep the flow of border crossers moving, particularly at San Ysidro, the world's busiest land port.
Each name check takes about two minutes, according to a Texas INS spokesman.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, San Ysidro inspectors have been running name checks on 80 percent of pedestrians, officials said. The long delays caused by those checks have caused foot traffic to drop from 42,000 people per day to 27,000. At Calexico, it has shrunk from 21,000 to 16,000 per day.
Despite the reduced volume, pedestrians at San Ysidro are still waiting an hour or longer to cross in the mornings. Vehicles face waits of up to 21/2 hours.
"If we go to 100 percent (name checks), pedestrians can expect further delays," Kice said.
The INS Western Region's land ports are the busiest in the world. More than 324 million people crossed through the 13 checkpoints in California and Arizona in the last fiscal year, compared to 169 million in the Central Region, which includes Texas and New Mexico.
About two-thirds of those who cross the Western border are immigrants or foreign visitors who are already accustomed to being asked for photo identification and, in some cases, to having their names run through the computer system. But one-third are U.S. citizens who have never been required to carry a photo ID.
Kice strongly advises everyone to carry identification when crossing the border.
"We still the reserve the right to ask for photo ID from U.S. citizens," she said, adding that U.S. citizens who don't have an ID may be referred to secondary inspection for questioning.
People traveling in vehicles may also be asked for proof of identification, and license-plate readers connected to the federal database system scan every vehicle. The database program, known as the Interagency Border Inspections System, indicates whether an individual is on a wanted list or has a warrant for his or her arrest.
If the INS decides to require name checks for every pedestrian who crosses into San Diego, the longer delays could further damage the local economy, said U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego. Last week, Filner and other federal legislators urged President Bush to declare an economic state of emergency along the Southwest border because of huge drops in business.
Filner says he supports tighter security measures but wants the federal government to hire more inspectors to keep the traffic moving.
"Let's do everything we need to keep terrorists out, but let's provide the resources to make sure our economy doesn't die in San Diego," he said.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors weighed in on border security yesterday by voting to send a letter to federal officials asking for the development of tamperproof Social Security cards, better tracking of expired visas and installation of scanners to check laser visas of border crossers.
The supervisors didn't address the electronic name checks or photo ID measures but called on the federal government to "take all necessary measures to ensure that our San Diego ports of entry are safe and secure."
Nearly half of all arrests at ports of entry along the Southwest are made at the San Ysidro border crossing, the supervisors said.
Staff writer Luis Monteagudo Jr. contributed to this report.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), October 17, 2001