Since the border reopened in November to non-essential travel, border waits have swelled to exceedingly long lines that could stifle local commerce and economic recovery.
According to the Smart Border Coalition, approximately 120,000 passenger vehicles, 63,000 pedestrians, and 6,000 trucks cross back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana every single day.
Before the pandemic, the value of trade between San Diego and Mexico consistently topped $4 billion per year. Commercial exchange between Tijuana and San Diego was valued at $2.1 million daily.
Border waits were unpredictable during the pandemic, with essential workers sometimes having to sleep overnight in their cars at the border to make sure they would be able to make it to work on time. Trade and commerce between the two countries drastically slowed, permanently shuttering many small businesses that line the border on both sides.
The lifting of the travel ban on Nov. 8 ended more than 18 months of restrictions and coincided with the start of the holiday shopping season, allowing non-essential tourists who had proof of their coronavirus vaccination and proper documentation to legally enter the U.S.
As of Thursday, data shows border wait times regularly surpassing two hours in regular passenger vehicle lanes, according to Customs and Border Protection’s border wait times webpage.
The issue isn’t one of infrastructure, but rather staffing. From 2004 to 2015, the U.S. government spent $741 million to sharply expand and improve the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The 62 northbound inspection booths, spread out over 34 lanes, were supposed to speed up border crossings.
But now there aren’t enough CBP officers to man the booths.
The National Treasury Employees Union, an independent labor union that represents federal employees, including border agents, says CBP doesn’t publicly disclose staffing levels at the port level for security reasons.
According to testimony the union gave to Congress in June, CBP has had to solicit officers from other ports “for temporary duty assignment (TDY) to San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, and Calexico land ports of entry” in order “to support the workload and operational challenges facing the San Diego Field Office, such as wait times in excess of four hours.”
CBP says it is processing larger travel volumes, and that wait times have not significantly increased.
“Travel volumes at the Southwest Border increased from 7.6 million last year during the same four weeks to 12.2 million travelers, still less than pre-COVID levels when CBP officers processed nearly 14 million travelers the same time period in 2019,” the agency reported in its November 2021 operational update. “Of note, however, travelers have experienced shorter wait times than even pre-COVID, largely in part to advances in technology, including facial biometrics and the CBP OneTM mobile application,” the agency stated.
Public officials in the region have said they plan to press the federal government in the new year on the issue, which they say will be vital to San Diego’s regional economic recovery.