Safety breeds slowness at border

Pace: Careful inspection of people and vehicles entering the United States at Juarez, Mexico, has turned the once quick process into a lengthy ordeal.

War On Terrorism

On The Border

October 21, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

EL PASO, Texas - Stuart England installed a television in his van last week because his commute home from Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border town where he works, has been too excruciating to bear since Sept. 11.

He can use some diversion while stuck in the seemingly endless queues of cars waiting to cross the Paso del Norte bridge into El Paso, Texas.

"I saw someone in line next to me with a TV and I was trying to watch it, so I figured I should get my own," said England, a manager in a maquiladora, a factory where materials are imported from the United States, assembled duty-free and sent back across the border.

The Rio Grande, which divides the United States and Mexico, is a narrow trickle here, confined to a concrete culvert. But increased border security on the U.S. side since Sept. 11 has made England's homebound trip take 2 1/2 hours. Millions of others who live along the nearly 2,000-mile-long Mexican-American border from Texas to California share his fate.

No more are Juarez and El Paso just one big city, not since the worst attack on U.S. soil was committed by people who slipped across the country's borders, some of them illegally. What used to be a simple trip every day to go to work, school or shopping has become an arduous undertaking.

The perimeter of the United States is more heavily guarded than ever. Federal agents charged with protecting it are operating at a "level one alert," the highest security possible while still allowing the free flow of commerce with Mexico, the United States' second-largest trading partner. (Canada is No. 1.)

"Our immigration inspectors are on front lines of the nation's security - they are safeguarding our borders," said Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "They are making sure nobody who isn't supposed to be here is."

It's still a relatively quick trip across the river to Mexico, a matter of a few minutes. But on the return, every car is inspected and every person must show identification, which is run through a law enforcement database to verify identity and to check for arrest warrants.

Though that seems like common sense, it was not the case before the attacks, when cars were infrequently searched before entering the country, and when simply saying the word "American" or flashing a flimsy immigration document was enough to allow entry into the country.

Many U.S. citizens live in Juarez, where the cost of living is cheaper, and many Mexicans have documents that allow frequent passage into the United States.

Before Sept. 11, the names of only 4.5 percent of those crossing in the El Paso district, which includes West Texas and New Mexico, were checked against a law enforcement database.

On the Paso del Norte bridge, a span of about a third of a mile, the result of the intense new scrutiny is that as many as 1,000 people on foot, in cars and buses, and on bicycles are lining up at any given time during morning rush hour that begins before dawn.

There are so many cars idling that the vehicle lane closest to the pedestrian line was closed because the fumes were giving pedestrians headaches.

Overheating, out of gas

"It gets so hot you can hear radiators popping; you see people running out of gas," said Nicholas Vasquez, a security officer stationed at the foot of the bridge to make sure people pay their quarter to cross. "Sometimes they get in fights because they cut each other off. I feel really bad for them. They've got it bad."

Araceli Ramos, 32, who lives in Juarez, used to wake up at 5:30 a.m., which gave her enough time to drop off her son and drive to her job in El Paso by 7 a.m. But the lines on the bridge got so bad after Sept. 11, sometimes almost three hours, that she started walking across. Now it takes her an hour and a half.

She wakes up at 3 a.m. so that she can arrive on time at her job, which is slathering finish on wooden furniture.

"Sept. 11 changed everything," said Ramos, who has worked at the same job for eight years. "Sometimes I arrive at work late, and my boss doesn't like that. We feel better because we're better protected, but it's a bit of a pain for everyone to go through this."

Ramos is one of thousands who have refused to drive across the bridge because of the lines. The INS noted a 20 percent increase in pedestrians walking across the bridge in September compared with that month a year ago. There was a 25 percent decrease in vehicular traffic from the comparable period in 2000.

"People are saying, `I don't want to stay in line for three hours,'" said Richard Kiddney, president of QMS Manufacturing Services in Mexico, which helps foreign companies set up businesses there. "They say, `I'll go over once this week instead of five times.'"

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