Entering Tijuana through the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing is nothing like going to the United States. Instead of waiting in line for hours on a crooked sidewalk while beggars and salesmen of all types ask for your last remaining pesos, entering Tijuana is as simple as walking through a rotating door.
After the rotating gate, you walk through a small building with a couple of Mexican immigration officers (INM — Instituto Nacional de Migración), and a bunch of soldiers are scattered around with automatic weapons.
There is no need to show your passport, identification, or to say anything. You just walk straight and you are in Mexico. Sometimes during rush hour, when the trolley's Blue Line reaches its final stop, the line to enter Mexico can back up quite a bit. On the weekends, entering Tijuana by car can get backed up for a mile or more, making it a 10- to 30-minute wait.
Inside the building there are red and green lights that signal whether one must stop or whether a traveler can keep going. If you are carrying alcohol, tobacco cartons, or anything suspicious, you get pulled to the side even if you get a green light. Lately, though, there's been someone else in the building targeting Americans and asking them for their papers.
“They stopped us because we used the ramp to get through the building that leads to the Mexican side,” says Michael Acuña of Chula Vista. He was recently visiting family in Tijuana and had an unusual experience. “They asked us for visas and passports, but when my wife showed him her resident card, he still asked her for her passport book, all in English. He asked us where we were going and how long we were going to stay in Mexico. Funny thing is, he never stopped speaking in English, even when he saw my wife's Mexican passport. After we showed all the proper documentation, they let us through.”
The inquiry for papers while entering Mexico is similar to the pilot program that was established at the Otay border crossing in November of 2014 and quickly abandoned after tourists and businesses complained it would hurt the economy. If you are a foreigner entering Tijuana and are visiting for more than seven days, they ask for 338 pesos (around $22.50 at the current exchange rate) to stay in Mexico. This time, no one seems to be reporting that the program is back.
The enforcement also seems arbitrarily applied, since I have only seen the agents once, a couple of weeks ago. Though I sensed their intent, they did not stop me. I looked straight ahead and crossed like I always do. However, someone right behind me (obviously American) was stopped and asked for their papers. I did not look back to find out what happened.
My neighbor, a white American who knows very little Spanish, has been living in Tijuana for about a year now. He works in San Diego at a fancy restaurant and crosses back to his Tijuana apartment almost daily. They never asked him for any papers when entering Mexico until recently.
My neighbor told me the agents approached him and told him in perfect English that he had to pay the traveler visa. He refused and said he had been living in Mexico for the past year without problems. They told him he had to go back to the U.S.A. He explained his situation to U.S. Border and Customs, but they shrugged him off and told him he should try to cross to Tijuana later, when the agents were gone.
For the past few weeks I've been looking for more information on the program, to no avail. Online searches take me back to the program pilot on Otay, but I have not come across any new, relevant information. From what I gathered, the Instituto Nacional de Migración is a federal agency and they can do as they please. Local government rallied against the program and that is why the Otay pilot was canceled, but the instituto is not finished.
Lately, I've crossed the border and come back, playing innocent American to see if they would stop me and ask for my papers, but the agents haven't been there. On Wednesday, June 24, I crossed and came back and did not encounter any agents. I decided to stop by the immigration offices (despite not having Mexican papers and risking ejection). I told them the story of my neighbor who was turned away.
“Foreigners always have to pay when entering Mexico,” answered one of the three agents I found inside the INM offices at the border crossing. One of the other agents was busy attending to an American who was filling out some paperwork; the other two agents were happy to answer my questions.
I told them the story about my neighbor and the other agent chimed in, “What happened with him is that he refused to pay the permit and we sent him back. That's how it has always been, it just hasn't been enforced. Lately we have agents enforcing the rules randomly.”
I asked if it was anything similar to the program that was enforced in Otay, but they said the rules have always been in effect. I told him about another friend who crossed and told them he was just visiting for two days and they let him go.
“That wasn't us,” said one of the agents. “No matter how long you are staying, either seven days or two days, you have to pay for your tourist visa.”
“What about the 150,000-plus Americans who live in Tijuana?” I asked.
“Next month, we are opening the new entry building. It will have two lanes, one for Mexican citizens and the other for foreigners. You will form in each line accordingly. If you are American and don't have a passport, you will be sent back to America. If you have a passport, you will have to fill out paperwork and pay the 332 pesos. All other information you can find in that pamphlet.”
The agent pointed at a brochure by the rotating doors.
The new building is located east of the current entrance and has been delayed for months. There is no official date for when it will be in operation.
Because I spoke to the agents in perfect Spanish, they never asked me for my passport (though I have not gotten my Mexican papers). I read the brochure on my way home. Page 14 contradicted the agent's statement: it reads that if you are visiting Mexico for less than seven days, you don't have to pay the tourist visa.
As a tour guide, I know the visa fee would obliterate the tourist economy (and the overall economy). Tourism has been increasing in the past few years, but lately violence has as well. I have a tough time convincing my friends from California to come visit Tijuana; add a $22.50 entry fee and almost no one will be visiting.
UPDATE 7/21/15, 1:45 p.m.
A story in today's El Mexicano, presumably clarifying conflicting accounts about the issue, says only visitors who come to Mexico to make money or who plan to stay more than seven days are required to pay the fee. The article specifies that weekend visitors do not have to pay the fee and asks tourists to report any abuses to Mexican immigration.