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Friday, Feb 23, 2024

New Customs Chief: ‘We Need Way of Doing Business’ at San Ysidro

The new manager of the border crossings in San Diego says San Ysidro may have reached a saturation point, and thinks it’s time to overhaul the world’s busiest border crossing.

“We need to look at what type of facilities we have to work at. Maybe we’ve reached the saturation point,” said Gurdit Dhillon, who took over as field operations director for the federal Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego region Aug. 27.

The office encompasses five ports of entry in San Diego and Imperial counties, as well as San Diego’s international airports and seaport.

In the 2006 fiscal year, the ports conducted inspections of 83 million people, with more than 60 million passing through San Ysidro alone.

In Otay Mesa, between 2,500 and 3,000 trucks cross the border daily, according to CBP data.

Dhillon said his agency is doing everything it can to meet its dual charge of managing efficient crossings while maintaining national security.

“The challenge is, where is that balance between facilitation and enforcement?” Dhillon said. “We can’t be barriers to trade. We cannot be barriers to tourism. Maybe the answer is we need new facilities. We need a new way of doing business.”

While plans have been in the works for about a decade to construct a new San Ysidro station that would involve realigning Interstate 5, Dhillon said even with an aggressive timetable, the project wouldn’t be completed until 2014. The project is estimated to cost $576 million.

Reducing Wait Times

In the interim, Customs and Border Protection is taking steps to improve the excessive waiting times entering the United States at two of the nation’s busiest border sites, in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.

Later this month, two truck lanes will open at the Otay Mesa crossing, expanding the cargo gates to 10. The Otay Mesa port also has 13 automobile gates.

In addition, the federal government’s long-term plan is to build a new crossing station a few miles east of the existing one.

“This will really help, getting two additional lanes,” said Alejandra Mier y Teran, executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, this will help the traffic flow to be much quicker.”

About 80 percent of Otay Mesa’s economy revolves around the station, Mier y Teran estimated.

That includes not only a plethora of trucking and freight forwarding companies, but a growing list of maquiladoras or twin plant companies that do manufacturing in Tijuana but maintain sales, marketing and administrative support in San Diego.

The area has had an influx of new manufacturers, 10 during the past 12 months, ranging from firms producing solar panels to packaged food and pre-cast concrete.

“Two or three years ago, we were seeing manufacturers move out, but now the trend has been changing and we’re seeing more manufacturers who see the benefits of being in Otay Mesa,” she said.

In San Ysidro, Dhillon pointed to the increase of commuters using a pre-approved, express lane program, and a pilot concept called “double stacking” that entails building two inspection booths on a single lane, permitting the processing of two cars simultaneously.

The study showed processing times could be improved by about 40 percent, he said.

“We’re looking at that aggressively to see how we can apply that and what lanes we can roll it out to,” he said. “I see it moving forward. We have tremendous support from my agency for the concept.”

Testing Programs

Then there are a myriad of testing programs reviewing new technologies aimed at cutting the inspection times for pedestrians. The optimal solution would be for everyone to possess some type of identification card containing all of the pertinent physical data.

As of now, crossers can present all sorts of documents to inspectors, which slows processing, Dhillon said.

Next year, U.S. citizens will be required to present either passports or other official documents such as a driver’s license or birth certificate to enter the country by land. As of this year, citizens arriving at airports must present a passport.

Customs and Border Protection also increased its staffing this year in the San Diego/Imperial counties region to 1,486 uniformed officers in September, up from 1,328 in September 2006.

The agency, which includes the U.S. Customs, Immigration and Naturalization Service (Border Patrol), and the Department of Agriculture, went through a major restructuring following the terrorist attacks of 2001, and is under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security.

The enhanced staffing could be a reason behind the generally increased enforcement activity at the region’s ports of entry.

For the 11 months of this fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, felony warrant arrests increased 7 percent; seizures of heroin were up 39 percent; for cocaine, up 13 percent; and for marijuana, up 6 percent.

Only methamphetamine seizures were down from the prior year, by 3 percent, according to CBP.

Immigration violations declined 14 percent, but still totaled more than 53,000.

Costly Delays

Hector Vanegas, manager of border programs for the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency, said most people appreciate the dual purpose of CBP, but it’s getting more difficult as wait times to cross the border get longer.

A Sandag study released last year found that traffic congestion and delays at the region’s border entry points cost the U.S. and Mexican economies a combined $6 billion in lost productivity through lost employee work time, and lost sales.

Using CBP data, the average processing time for those entering this country has increased from about 30 seconds to 45 seconds per individual over five years, Vanegas said.

“It’s only 15 seconds, but when you multiply that by an average of 50,000 vehicles a day, and 25,000 pedestrians, it adds up,” Vanegas said.

“The biggest problem is that the infrastructure is not big enough to accommodate the dual missions of moving people across and ensuring national security,” he said.

Dhillon, a 35-year veteran of the Customs agency, began his career in Calexico, not far from his hometown of El Centro.

He moved up in the agency’s ranks and eventually became the director at three of the regional border crossings, in Calexico, Otay Mesa and San Ysidro. Before taking over the top job at the regional CBP office he was the director of field operations at the Port of Detroit.

That crossing has a totally different set of dynamics, with an average of 6,500 trucks crossing daily, and 7 million cars per year. In San Diego, the average is close to 3,000 trucks daily, and about 18 million cars annually, Dhillon said.

Dhillon said much has changed since he left the San Diego port of entry 13 years ago, and yes, he agrees that the wait times have gotten worse.

However, the wait is worth it if it means stopping a terrorist act as happened on Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

Dhillon said his best response is a recent quote by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“He said, ‘The wait is worth the while because we have a security mission, and we do see there’s no compromise on that.’ ”


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