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It is with some reluctance that I write about my recent acquisition of the SENTRI border-crossing card because, well, I got a good thing going.

After years of standing for hours in that long, sinuous pedestrian line that huffs and puffs, lurches and shuffles north from the U.S. border station at San Ysidro, I finally applied for a SENTRI card. The acronym stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection.

A fellow in his late 60s cut in front of me just as I neared the gate, simultaneously slipping a five-dollar bill into my hand and speaking familiarly in a Boston accent, as if I had known him forever.

I applied because the crossing had become increasingly intolerable. Some 18,000 pedestrians go into Tijuana each day, and the line, bad as it whenever you cross, is especially inchoate and disorganized during maximum-traffic hours. Annually, 6.5 million people cross the border on foot, and with a population that size, there are bound to be problems. Fights break out. Social civility disintegrates. As a U.S. citizen who lives in TJ, I was developing a phobia, part depression, part anxiety — a choked-back nausea coupled with the weariness that Sisyphean futility inevitably brings — about getting back into California, something I needed to do regularly to keep on working.

There might be four people waiting in the San Ysidro border SENTRI line (on left) while thousands stand for hours in the regular line.

Often, the length of the line did not correspond to the wait, and that way lies madness. There was no foolproof formula for ascertaining an ideal time to cross. A friend of mine postulated that the secret lay in the inspectors’ hands; they could speed or slow the movement of the line on a whim. But who knows?

Not long ago, while waiting, I overheard a middle-aged American tourist inquire of a Mexican police officer, who was trying to keep order in the crowd, as to the location of the end of the line for Americans wishing to return to the U.S. The officer pointed several blocks away. The American found it astonishing that there was not a special line to accommodate him; he was, by God, an American citizen. I tried to reassure him, telling him that the wait shouldn’t take more than an hour and a half. He looked off into the distance, his face the color of pease porridge.

Another time, a fellow in his late 60s cut in front of me just as I neared the gate, simultaneously slipping a five-dollar bill into my hand and speaking familiarly in a Boston accent, as if I had known him forever. Whitey Bulger? A clever ruse. What could I do? I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot accept this bribe. You’ll have to go to the end of the line and wait like everyone else.

The fellow kept up a steady patter about horseracing, baseball, and football, until we crossed. I sheepishly looked around, trying to appear as if I’d been expecting him to show up: I was just holding his place while he ran off to buy a burrito or something.

It is considered socially acceptable to hold a friend’s place, or to get in line early and have your later arriving friends cell phone you in order to determine where in the line you are. You just passed the taco stand near the railroad tracks, where the line bends back? I’ll be right there. You’re by the duty-free store, under the canopy? Even better! See you soon, and thanks for holding my place… As the flash mob meets up with their contact, a person can wind up eight or more places behind. A few repetitions of this, and your reptilian brain grows peevish, ready to strike.

Ah, but the SENTRI card.

I have, since 1995, owned a U.S. passport — or rather I was in possession of one, since it states clearly on my passport that it is the property of the U.S. government, and subject to re-appropriation at any time and for any reason. I imagine the same to be true of the SENTRI card, but I haven’t read all the fine print.

You would assume that a U.S. passport is the sine qua non of international ID, commanding built-in respect (this is what the statement in English, French, and Spanish revealed inside the passport booklet asks foreign authorities to honor). But you would be wrong in that assumption. A passport has all the prestige of an empty beer can in terms of speeding one’s crossing into the U.S., at least at San Ysidro. It will not expedite the passage by one nanosecond. According to posted signs delineating the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — or WHTI Act — there are five or six other documents that equal its authority.

The U.S. passport also carries little clout with the local police, a lesson I learned when I was detained by Tijuana cops. I showed them my passport and asked them to read the section where it beseeches foreign authorities to permit U.S. citizens to pass without undue delay. The officer told me that the passport carried no significance in Mexico, that it was for “the other side.” Hmm…seemed to carry some clout in Europe…

Prior to 9/11, the day that “changed everything,” crossing the border in San Ysidro from Tijuana to U.S. soil was a simple matter of verbal declaration. Lines of thousands, waiting for hours, were nonexistent. It might take five minutes, and it usually went something like this:

Bored border agent: “Citizenship?”

Equally phlegmatic returnee: “US.”

Then one slipped through the turnstile and went on. Nary an ID was flashed, and, of course, no passport necessary. Though even during that pre 9/11 era, suspected illegals were nabbed at the turnstiles at precisely the moment they thought they had it made. I saw it happen several times; a seemingly laconic agent behind the counter would let someone through, then snag them as they exited passage. Some sixth sense, apparently.

Following 9/11, the questions began.

“Where are you going?”

A snappy repost like “the United States” could result in a prolonged quiz.

“From Minnesota, huh?”

“Yes.” That’s what is listed as my birthplace on my passport, that document which grants me citizenship status.

“Where’s Detroit Lakes?”

“Hey, I was brought to California when I was three.”

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bohemianopus Nov. 24, 2011 @ 8:57 a.m.

I LOVED reading this! Hopefully, one day, we will be able to go back and forth across the border like we did before 911. Glad to read you were able to find a solution.


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