November 18, 2014
Last week, I walked to Mexico and back. Not from D.C.—from San Ysidro, a suburb of San Diego that spills into Tijuana. I was doing research in San Diego and visiting friends there, and figured it would be worth venturing across the border on foot, to see what it’s like for the thousands of people who do it all the time.
San Diego-Tijuana is one of the largest binational urban regions in the world, with a combined 4.7 million residents. The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest land border crossing in the world, traversed by some 50,000 cars and 30,000 pedestrians every day. Yet the U.S.-Mexico border is also one of the world’s most militarized. This adds up to a paradox: Crossing the border is a mundane act that’s nevertheless highly policed and charged with anxiety.
Walking to the border, I felt like a transgressor, even though I wasn’t doing anything unusual. The signage and pedestrian path itself reinforced this feeling. You’re walking a path more traveled than a hiking trail in a national park, but the authorities aren’t really helping you find your way. It’s entirely possible to get lost.
The first surprise came after I parked my car in one of the many private lots. I thought the environment would guide me, like it does in an airport. But it didn’t and I had to ask the attendant where to go. I ended up following the parking-lot pedicabs that offer free rides, and the people pulling big suitcases or lugging comforters still in their plastic casings.
Business and government leaders in San Diego have been pleading for better infrastructure at the border, and they commissioned research showing delays cause billions of dollars in lost commerce and thousands of lost jobs. The vehicle crossing at San Ysidro recently got an upgrade, and a new pedestrian crossing is scheduled to open in 2016. The pedestrian route is of far lesser economic value. Right now, it has occasional, mismatched signs, like a half-forgotten city heritage trail.
I went up some ramps to a checkpoint. A guard waved me through. No one looked at my passport. The ramps were disorienting, and the walls meant I couldn’t tell where “the border” was exactly. I’m sure that’s deliberate.
Suddenly, I was in Tijuana. It was Sunday morning and I didn’t have anywhere to go. There weren’t many other tourists around, so as I wandered up Avenida Revolucion, I drew the attention of all the souvenir sellers.
I bought a hat for my son. The man who sold it to me spoke perfect American-accented English. He had grown up in the U.S., he said, but “got into some trouble” and wound up back here. There was a ten-year waiting period before he could apply for readmission to the U.S., and he was two years into it.
I thanked him for the hat. “Come back again,” he said. “I’ll be here. For eight more years.”
I didn’t want cheap meds or tequila shooters or tacos—it was 10:30 AM—so I started to walk back. I could sort of make out the path, mainly because of the people on it.
Although Tijuana is reputed to be much safer than it was a few years ago, this stopped me short:
I followed what few signs there were and started to see people with suitcases again—empty ones, this time. I crossed over the Rio Tijuana, where an encampment faces the back of the newly refurbished U.S. Land Port of Entry.
Then it was time to wait.
At some point during Hour One, the single line split into two parallel lines: the “ready line” and the “general public” line. There was no signage explaining the difference, and we were so far from the actual border-patrol facility, there were no officers around to ask.
Someone told me I should stand in the ready line, since I hold a U.S. passport. Someone else said no, you need a passport card, rather than a booklet, to join the ready line. I listened to him and I’m glad I did—the general-public line was much slower, but if I’d joined the ready line, I would have been sent right back to the end, as a woman standing near me eventually was.
Hour Two: people hawking paletas and water. A group of McDonald’s employees ahead of me, calling out to their friends coming the other way, from the U.S. You start to spot the regulars, with their snacks and water and umbrellas. There are a lot of regulars.
Hour Three: Watching churros makers and a woman cooking carne asada. A railing you could sit on, awkwardly. Two men hauled out of line by police, the first for reasons unclear, the second for falling down drunk.
The wait is long but it could be worse. There’s plenty of human interest. Families reuniting; lovers saying tearful goodbyes. Shady types who offer to get you to the front of the line, as people around you shake their heads and chuckle.
Still, I can’t imagine doing this every day. Or every week.
Finally, the border. We’re in. I’m back. On the other side, people break into a sprint.
The border-control officer takes my passport and demands, “What were you doing in Mexico?” I tell him. He looks at me. “You mean to say,” he asks slowly, incredulity creeping into his voice, “you walked across the border by yourself, just to look around?”
That’s what I mean to say, yes.