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.”
“Isn’t it near Deer Lake? Lake Mille Lacs? Lake of the Woods? Itasca, source of the Mississippi? I know it’s north of the Twin Cities. North of Bemidji, even?”
In the land of 10,000 lakes, locating a single one with specificity is a brainbuster. I had once passed through Detroit Lakes on a trip to Canada, but I was ten years old at the time.
They finally let me through, and I vowed to learn more about the geography of my natal state.
Another line of questioning:
“Where are you going?”
I sometimes wanted to say something flip, like “the United States” or “Point Barrow, Alaska” or “Hey, I’m a citizen, my passport says so…” But I learned to be measured in my response.
“First, Walmart off Palomar in Chula Vista, then Borders Books in downtown San Diego, then Little Italy, for some ravioli and an espresso…”
I think they really just wanted to hear my English, to see if it was accented, and if I could speak colloquial Americanese. Well, I can throw in “Mickey Mouse” and “Joe DiMaggio,” too, if required.
For several years during the dotcom boom of the late ’90s through the early 2000s, I flew from San Jose to San Diego every three weeks or so, mainly because I was making good dough, and because my European sojourns during that period had given me a wanderlust that was insatiable. I dubbed Tijuana “the poor man’s Paris.”
I’d fly down from the San Francisco Bay Area on Southwest, take the red trolley to San Ysidro, then catch a Mexicoach across the border and into downtown TJ. It was no-sweat automatic. Business as usual. I had so many frequent-flyer freebies, they’d expire before I could use them, and my complimentary free-drink booklets offered more than one beer guzzler could ever consume. Crossing north, it was the same: just walk over the border. “Citizenship?” they’d ask. Answer “USA!” and you were on your way, with plenty of time to make it back to Lindbergh Field for the return flight within an hour or so.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was little action taken to alter the way things were, the way things had been, but trips in the weeks to come brought dramatic change.
Arriving at the line a couple of hours ahead of my flight was no longer good enough. There were thousands of people. Crossing, someone said, took four hours. I could leave my front door in San Jose and be on Avenida Revolución in 2 1/2 hours, but to get back over the border, I needed four hours to cover a mile? I’d never make my flight, or so I thought, until a Mexican guy told me I could ride a bike across in five minutes.
An entire enterprise had arisen: the renting of children’s bicycles.
The bikes were itty-bitty, so diminutive that your feet touched the ground. You had only to scuttle along, pushing with your feet into the regular motor-vehicle lanes, where amidst the thrumming of hundreds of engines combusting internal, you could move ahead of the cars — as motorcyclists do, weaving in and out — and thus rapidly cross into the U.S.A. Some loophole in the law — or perhaps a clear policy had not yet been established — allowed this bizarre workaround to flourish, and for a while, hundreds of kid-sized bikes rented out for $5 a pop. On the U.S. side, guys collected the bikes and walked them back into Mexico, four at a time.
Where all those little bicycles came from so suddenly, stockpiled behind a chainlink fence, is a mystery, but I imagined that somewhere in TJ, lots of elementary school kids were missing their wheels.
With the realization that bicycle riders were allowed rapid access, more day laborers, construction workers, and NASSCO shipbuilders began riding to the trolley terminus in San Ysidro from Tijuana. For a time, hundreds of bicycles could be seen locked to whatever immovable object was available around the trolley station.
An American friend, also living in Tijuana, took to riding a bicycle from his residence in town a mile or so to the border crossing, but he gave it up after he was waylaid by a gang of thieves on the pedestrian bridge early one morning. They bulldogged him off the bike as he rode by, robbed him of his backpack and wallet, and left him in a scraped heap on the bridge. He started to take a taxi to the border — at a cost of $5 a day.
Then came the requirement that bike riders had to enter the customs building and get in line with all the pedestrian border crossers. There was a brief protest, a hubbub of discontent, but the whip had come down. Thus, the bike-rental business on the Mexican side dwindled.
I began to cross earlier and earlier. I was by this time living in TJ, and to get to my job in the U.S. had become increasingly annoying. I’d lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic congestion had been growing for two decades — particularly during the influx of population brought about by the dot-com boom — and the commute to SF from San Jose, some 50 miles, could take three hours or more. Now, a commute of a little over a mile was a three-hour undertaking. I began to leave for work at 4:00 a.m. in order to be on time for a job that began at 8:00 a.m.
For awhile, I could safely arrive at the border gateway at 5:30 and still get to work on time. But the magic hour of crossing remained unpredictable. A 5:30 magic hour inexplicably became a 3:30 a.m. magic hour. It was the proverbial last straw.
I’d recently secured a three-month contract position that required prompt arrival at the even earlier hour of 7:30 a.m., and using the trolley line and bus system, I crossed five days a week at 3:30 in the morning. This entailed getting up at 2:30 a.m. I’d get ready for work, then catch a cab to the border, where thousands of other border-crossing workers were lining up with the same intention. At least the guardians at the gate were sympathetic, and the lines moved swiftly; I could usually cross within 45 minutes. But then it was necessary to sit in the trolley terminus McDonald’s drinking coffee and killing time with all the other commuters until the first trolley or bus into San Diego arrived at around 4:30 a.m. The San Ysidro trolley terminus McDonald’s must be the revenue flagship of the franchise: at that early hour, it has all of the buzz of a Nevada craps table when the come line keeps on comin’ — the coffee sales alone must gross close to a hundred grand a day during the workweek.
All this early-to-bed-early-to-rise stuff took its toll. My circadian rhythms were shot to hell, and I began to shudder and tremble as the workweek wore on. By the weekend, I wanted to sleep for 48 hours straight, just to get right, but my body had grown used to the unnatural schedule, and I lived in a murky, twilight consciousness, a sort of perennial battle fatigue, where I was awake but not really present. My state of being had adapted by developing its own self-analgesic miasma, a veil of blunted alertness mingled with a not-unpleasant confusion. In short, I knew I could survive the three-month contract, but only if nobody paid much attention to me. And in fact, it worked out fine. Nobody paid much attention to me.
But there had to be better way. Thus, the SENTRI card.
I am amazed that more people don’t have a SENTRI: only 6 percent do. Of course, if everyone had one, it would become as worthless for crossing expeditiously as the U.S. passport is for native-born Americans.
Introduced at the Otay Mesa border station in 1995, SENTRI is a boon to tension-free border crossing, whether on foot or by vehicle. A SENTRI line opened in San Ysidro in 2002; there might be four people waiting, while thousands stood for hours in the regular line. Standing in line is called en cola. (Cola means “tail,” the line being representative of a long, sweeping tail. In fact, those who cut in line are frequently greeted with shouts and jibes of “¡Cola! ¡Cola!” to embarrass the cutter into retreat. Yet some cutters can be insistent; when one elderly American pointed out to another older American that the first American had just cut in front of him, the retort was a loud and threatening, “Fuck you!” The line and its concomitant waiting do not engender love, peace, and happiness.)
In 2011, I applied for a SENTRI pass. The cards were offered for free, if the applicant qualified.
I stopped by the newly opened San Ysidro SENTRI office at the end of the trolley line and talked to the nice bilingual woman at the window. She gave me the basic info sheet and told me I had to register online. (I’ve since found out that you can get things done at the office, in terms of registration specifics, but it takes longer.) I paid online with a credit card — if you don’t have a credit card you can use one of those refillable debit cards that are all the rage for money laundering — an initial $25 fee. Done. I had to wait for two weeks while my registration was reviewed.
Two weeks later I checked the website. I was approved for an interview with Customs and Border Protection (CPB). I had to present evidence of my residence, employment, and citizenship, and I had to book the interview...online. A series of calendars showed available interview times, but the San Ysidro location was not among the places listed. What? They’d told me I could book a date for an interview at the San Ysidro office. In La Mesa, the first opening was in December 2011. (Baby, I gotta get to work; I can’t wait until December. I’ll go nuts if I have to wait in that line every day of the week until December.)
The list of other offices where I could book an appointment included Yuma, Arizona, and Laredo, Texas. I spent two hours in line to cross the border, then went again to the San Ysidro office, where the nice woman explained that, although their office was not yet online, she could book me an appointment there for four weeks hence. There was nothing sooner. I had to take it. Mentally, I’d become like a fighter in the ring, hanging in until the bell rings or everything goes black; meaning, I endured all manner of bureaucratic boondoggle until I obtained my card. (Later that week, on the Mexican side, a fellow in a bar told me that, even after I paid all the fees, I could be rejected for the SENTRI with no reimbursement. I could be out 125 bucks. This news — inaccurate, as it turned out — was so depressing I had another pint.)
Finally, my appointment date rolled around. I gave myself a six-hour headstart to cross: I had to ensure that I would be at the San Ysidro SENTRI office on time. I slouched around Chula Vista for a while, slurping excessive amounts of coffee and worrying. (By the way, there are no public restrooms at the San Ysidro office, so be prepared to run down to McDonald’s and spend a quarter if you gotta go, and woe is you if you miss your call-out on the appointment.)
I arrived at the San Ysidro office 15 minutes prior to my appointed time. The waiting room was painfully full. Visions of DMVs and doctors’ offices filled my head. (I’d once waited six hours in a doctor’s office to have my little finger X-rayed for a chip fracture. The line, the office, it’s all about wait.)
But once my name was called, the process lifted off like a space-shuttle launch, ponderously at first, then accelerating, gaining the necessary velocity to knock me into SENTRI card orbit.
A uniformed agent asked me a few questions. I probably spent ten minutes with him. I showed him my evidences of address (rent receipts), employment (pay stubs), and citizenship (US passport). He wanted to know if I had ever been arrested. Nope. Married? Nope. He especially focused on whether I had ever had any run-ins with the law involving drugs. Nope. Transporting human traffic (i.e. smuggling in illegal aliens)? Nope.
Then he sent me over to a nice woman who took my fingerprints digitally and took a digital ID photo with a cheesy Logitech camera (one of those gray balls with a lens in it connected to a USB port on a computer). I was then directed outside, where another nice woman in a uniform walked me and two other inductees through a series of locked gates and doors into the original old Customs Building, a WPA-constructed relic from the Great Depression that, despite its obvious inadequacy for today’s border crossings, still emanates a nostalgic stateliness, with its red-tiled roof and Spanish-federalist facade. We were shown to a window, where we paid what remained to be paid on our fees — in my case, $97 and some-odd cents. Then we went back to the San Ysidro SENTRI office, where they returned the paperwork I’d left with my interviewing officer. I was told I would get my SENTRI card in the mail, in five to ten days.
I got it in seven. The ID photo was in black-and-white, and the wide-angle lens of the digital camera had exaggerated my facial proportions, as if my visage were reflected back at me while gazing from inches away into a silver Christmas tree ornament. I wondered if I would even be recognizable from the photo.
But here’s the thing: mere possession of the card is the key. At that point, you have been so vetted, so checked-out, so inspected, so scrubbed over, so clinically nitpicked, that the card is your bond, your avatar, your digital doppelganger, your moral reality. Also, you are admonished to immediately report the loss of the card if you should lose control of it; so maybe that photo of me in which I resemble a homunculus pickled in a jar of formaldehyde is not of much importance.
The first time I used the card, some 30 minutes after activating it on the SENTRI website, I was swept alongside the waiting masses toward the special SENTRI entrance. I walked over toward the official U.S.-Mexico border line, painted in yellow and black stripes, and I could not contain my sense of self-consciousness as I passed the people in that other line, for I was once one of them. Un esperado — one who waits.
As if by divine deliverance, I’d risen above the maundering masses, the hoi polloi, and I felt, well, guilty about it. As if I’d greased the palm of some cosmic maître d’ in order to get preferential treatment. I had grown so accustomed to “the line” — it was all just part of living here — that I’d bonded with it, regardless of the misery it wrought. It was a kind of Stockholm syndrome, a brain-invading mezcal worm, and it wouldn’t release me, though it no longer had power over me. All the patience I’d developed, all the stifled resistance to unmitigated tedium, all the tolerance to human rudeness and inanity — I leapt over them like the cow over the moon. No need for that particular social armor anymore.
When I faced the official at the SENTRI counter, I told him that this was my maiden voyage with the card, and as I glanced askance at the sweating and swaying masses lined up inside, I confessed that I felt…guilty. Undeserving of such privilege. Survivor’s guilt. He looked at me quizzically, then raised an eyebrow…guilty? Then he chuckled and swiped my card through the device, and I was on my way.