September 26, 2008

The health effects of the border commute

Part 1

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Fernando Ruiz is getting anxious.

It’s almost 6 a.m. and he has to be at work at 6:30, and the way it looks, he won’t make it on time –again.

He lights up a cigarette, constantly changes radio stations, begins to worry he might lose his job.

He wishes he could get rid of the long line of cars in front of him.

“I’ve been in line for more almost two hours and I’m nervous,” said Ruiz, a 43 year old auto mechanic in San Diego. “I’ve already gotten two warnings for being late to work.”

Ruiz is one of thousands of U.S. citizens or permanent residents who live in Tijuana, Baja California, and work or go to school in San Diego County. He’s one of thousands of commuters that make the daily exodus crossing the border through the two ports of entry in the area. He’s one of thousands of people that have to bare the mental and psychological inconvenience of living between two worlds, between two cultures, between two places.

The wait times at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry in San Diego average two hours during the peak hours, according to Vince Bond, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Officer.

But the waits can be even longer: sometimes up to four hours, depending on who you ask.

The economic effects of the border wait times have been well documented in regional studies. Also, when public officials in San Diego County talk about the long waiting-times at the ports of entry, they cite the financial impacts these have on the regional economy: Lost hours of workers’ productivity, wasted gasoline, or consumers from Tijuana abstaining from crossing because of the extreme waiting times on weekends.

The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest port of entry in the world. Each year, millions of U.S. tourists and commuters cross the border daily. The positive cultural and economic exchanges that this creates on both sides of the fence are unquestionable: Both cities receive the benefits of the coming and going of legal border-crossers.

But an aspect that’s hardly taken into consideration is the effects that the long waiting-times to cross into the United States (sometimes as much as four hours) have on the health of legal border-crossers who commute back and forth daily by car.

These border-crossers are usually U.S. citizens and permanent residents (many of them children) who live in Tijuana and work or go to school in San Diego, like Ruiz, a U.S. citizen who, like the majority of commuters, moved to Mexico because of the high cost of housing in San Diego County.

“If I could afford it, I would move back to San Diego,” Ruiz said. “But it’s just too expensive. So I have to live through these wait times on a daily basis. I lose two, three hours a day sitting inside my car, in the long lines at the border.”

Francisco Bustos, a 33 year-old English professor at Southwestern College, in San Diego County, grew up commuting between Tijuana and San Diego. Since he was a child he would wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to school on the other side of the border. Now as an adult, he commuted for nine years in order to save money to buy a house in San Diego.

Bustos said he would always be stressed out, tired of waiting in line. He was always worried of not making it on time, of not having enough time to be with his family.

So a few months ago he finally moved his family to San Diego, a decision that, he said, has been a relief on his mental well-being.

“I feel so relaxed now,” said a smiling Bustos. “I’m less stressed now. I have more time for work; I have more time to be with the family. I can even drive my children to school now. It’s something that has taken a huge burden off my mind.”

But unlike Bustos, thousands still can’t afford moving to San Diego. So they have to put up with the daily border commute, and that two, three hour wait, can take its mental toll in the long run, said Tijuana psychologist Lourdes Mariscal, who has many patients that are border commuters.

“Waiting in line at the border on a daily basis creates a lot of frustration,” she said. “That frustration, in turn, creates impotence, a feeling of not being in control of your time, a feeling that makes you feel like you’re not in charge of your life anymore. It might even make you feel as if you are at the mercy of the wait times at the border.”

Luisa Perez is another daily commuter. She said that when driving towards the port of entry and hears on the radio that there’s a long line, she gets mad. But when she hears that there’s no wait time at all, she feels relaxed, relief.

“Sometimes I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “I feel like screaming inside my car.”

Clinical psychologist Paul Randolph, who is a governing board member at the San Ysidro School District in San Ysidro, the closest community to the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County, said that the stress felt by commuters at the border can be felt in other aspects of their daily life.

“They feel powerless, not in charge of their time at the ports of entry, and that carries throughout the day,” Randolph said. “That affects their job performance, their life at home. It’s something they have to put up with during the day. The mental toll is great.”

Both psychologists recommend border commuters to maintain a positive attitude, and to put emphasis on the positive aspects of their waiting times.

“You have to make the best out of this situation,” Mariscal said.

Mariscal said that commuters can use the wait times to listen to audio books, listen to uplifting music, or to plan the day ahead.

“They can start seeing this time as their alone time, the time the can use to be by themselves, to relax,” she said. “In a way, we’re inside our cars by ourselves, no one bothering us. So take advantage of that time.”

Octavio Ramirez said that, after 15 years of border commute, he’s learned to relax while waiting to cross to the U.S.

“I put a CD with my favorite music, and I start thinking about the good stuff in my life,” he said.

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