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JEFFREY KAYE: Drug smuggling arrests are common sights on the U.S.-Mexico border. Authorities at the port of entry, just south of San Diego, are experts at ferreting out cocaine, heroin and marijuana in the unlikeliest of hiding places.
SPOKESMAN: Give me 40 or 50 pounds.
JEFFREY KAYE: But since September 11, customs and immigration officials on the border, veterans of America’s war on drugs, have a new priority: The war on terrorism. With over 50 million crossings a year, the port of entry between San Ysidro, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, is the busiest border checkpoint in the world. Authorities fear that a terrorist trying to get into the United States could hide amid the throngs of people who cross here daily, says Adele Fasano, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
ADELE FASANO, Immigration & Naturalization Service: When you conduct 130,000 inspections of people a day, of course this becomes a… a target environment, we believe, to criminals and possibly terrorists who try to blend in the traffic and enter the United States without detection. So we’re on our guard, we’re extremely vigilant right now in checking everyone very carefully.
JEFFREY KAYE: In the terrorism alert, officials are applying the same tactics used to stop drugs or immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally.
SPOKESMAN: That’s a package right there.
ADELE FASANO: We are screening the vehicles much more carefully; we’re looking inside the hoods and the trunks of the vehicles for contraband and individuals hiding. And in our pedestrian area, we are also running people’s names through our computer database with much greater frequency than we have in the past. So we are on our guard, we’re extremely vigilant right now in checking everyone very carefully.
JEFFREY KAYE: But that vigilance comes with a price: The creation of long, slow inspection lines to cross into the United States. The result is disruption of lives and business along America’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico. The hardship is best seen as dawn breaks over Tijuana. Already thousands of cross- border commuters trying to get to jobs in the United States have been in line for hours. One of them is Cynthia Reyna, a 22-year-old administrative assistant.
CYNTHIA REYNA: It is very frustrating because you don’t know what to expect. You try and get up at a certain time, try to fit this into your schedule, the next thing you know, you are waiting for about another two hours at the border. On Monday, it took me about four hours to cross the border. So it was really bad. (Laughs)
JEFFREY KAYE: The long automobile lines have prompted thousands of people to exchange four wheels for two, creating a new custom of cross-border bicycle commuting. But the new bicycle lane is moving at a snail’s pace as well.
JUAN CURIEL: I am late for work almost every day, even on my bike now. When I first started, you know, I used to show up at least half an hour early. Now with the bike, I’m still late for work, so you know…
JEFFREY KAYE: It’s estimated that more than 50,000 Tijuana residents, both Mexicans and Americans, cross into the United States daily to work. The high cost of living in the U.S. encourages them to make their homes in Mexico.
JORGE SAENZ: What’s the average price of a San Diego house? $400,000. Average rent is around $1,200. Here a house is between $100 grand and $300,000. And — I mean — it’s a big house. And for rent, you might be paying anything between $500, $600, $800 and you are renting a big house.
JEFFREY KAYE: So it’s cheaper to live in Tijuana than in San Diego?
JORGE SAENZ: It’s cheaper to live in Tijuana than San Diego.
JEFFREY KAYE: But checkpoint gridlock is reducing the benefits of a binational lifestyle. Not only have some commuters lost jobs because long waits made them late, for American retailers along the border who depend on Mexican customers, increased checkpoint security has been disastrous. In the San Diego area alone, Mexican shoppers pump more than $3 billion into the local economy annually.
LORENZO BAILLIEUX, Merchant: The Mexican customer is not a shopper, he’s a buyer. So we sell a lot to Mexican customer. He has, you know, a buyer attitude.
JEFFREY KAYE: Lorenzo Baillieux owns a San Ysidro clothing boutique.
LORENZO BAILLIEUX: The business has been drastically down by about 40%, due to increase of line at the border. The people don’t want to casually cross for leisure.
JEFFREY KAYE: For other merchants, losses have been far worse.
BERNICE TRICKETT, San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce: The situation with the mom and pop businesses here is very grave. We have businesses who are reporting sales loss over last year from 50% to 90%.
JEFFREY KAYE: Bernice Trickett owns a fast-food restaurant at the border, and is president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. We have many businesses here that don’t have the operating capital saved up. You know, what they make in sales today, they spend on inventory tomorrow. And if they don’t have sales, they won’t have inventory, and they are going to close.
JEFFREY KAYE: The troubles spawned by increased port-of- entry security aren’t confined to the U.S. side of the border. Tourism is indispensable to Tijuana’s economy. But since September 11, fewer Americans are visiting and spending their dollars. On Avenida Revolucion, the usually raucous epicenter of Tijuana’s tourist trade, business is lousy.
ABRAHAM ALFARO, Restaurant Manger (Translated): The thing is, sales have fallen off 80% to 90% on this street. There aren’t any tourists. Look at this street, it’s deserted.
JEFFREY KAYE: South of Tijuana, in resort communities such as Rosarito Beach, the economic climate is just as chilly. Horses provide Roberto Alvarez his livelihood; he rents them out to vacationers. But his steeds have had few riders in recent weeks.
ROBERT ALVAREZ (Translated): Here in Rosarito, we get visitors from everywhere. And after the attacks, not many people are coming from San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Very few people are coming.
JEFFREY KAYE: Many Mexicans say they understand America’s decision to step up border security, but they question the effectiveness of the current strategy.
SEN. HECTOR OSUNA, Mexican Legislator: Everybody is hurting; everybody is saying that this cannot last forever. What are we going to do about it?
JEFFREY KAYE: Hector Osuna is a former mayor of Tijuana who now represents his city in the Mexican Senate.
SEN. HECTOR OSUNA: I think we need to work on both sides on a better intelligence, much more communication on what goes on in Mexico, what goes on in the U.S. I think if somebody wants to do something wrong in getting across the border, I think he will wait and be patient, he’ll do it when they relax a little bit on the security. And I think we need to think on a long-term basis what are we going to do about it?
JEFFREY KAYE: U.S. Authorities say they understand the toll increased border security is taking on the local economy, and are doing what they can to keep checkpoint traffic from moving.
ADELE FASANO: I have my offices working as many as 14-hour shifts, I’ve deployed special agents, deportation officers, other Immigration officers that work for the San Diego district to the border here, to help process the traffic.
JEFFREY KAYE: As merchants on both sides of the border struggle to stay afloat, one business is benefiting from terrorism jitters in the U.S., Tijuana’s pharmacies. Recognizing a new market, they’re selling prescription- free Cipro to anthrax-worried Americans.