June 17, 2005

New SENTRI lane opens at Border, Another on the way

By: Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

For years, thousands of people yearned for it to end. Long waits at the border surrounded by endless rows of cars, the scattered sound of running motors and the stressful glance at the car clock. Then it happened. The SENTRI program opened and registered users were able to cross the border carefree. No long lines and virtually no wait. Although this express lane program was a perfect solution in its beginning stages, users now agree on one notion: the honeymoon is over.

Roughly 76,000 people are enrolled in the SENTRI program, with an average of 7,200 vehicle crossings through the San Ysidro lanes each day. Recently though, the SENTRI lanes are just as long if not longer than the regular ones, thus making the once indispensable SENTRI id’s somewhat irrelevant by waiting standards.

That has already begun to change though. An additional SENTRI lane opened last week and another will open in the next few weeks for a total of four. 

The Otay Mesa port will also add on another express lane.

“The wait is finally coming to an end,” says Vince Bond, public relations officer for the Department of Homeland Security.” This program has had an enormous success and we understand that during peak periods the wait is longer than anyone would want it to be. “

In order to make the two additional lanes accessible to commuters at the San Ysidro port of entry, new infrastructure will also be constructed along Tijuana roads that lead to the SENTRI area. The U.S government will provide the economic base for this project that will partially be overseen by the North American Consulate in Tijuana.

In an attempt to modernize the program and the systems used by the Department of Homeland Security, electronic advances will also be kept up to speed. The traditional white mounted devices that give information on the passenger when read through the windshield will no longer be installed. Instead, the new SENTRI ID cards will already have that chip fixed into it.

“It will make the crossing more effective, convenient and most importantly we’ll still be able to apply security measures,” says Bond. “The new lanes will have the technology for both the new id’s and the mounted device.”

Since September 11, 2001 avoiding terrorism has been the nation’s top priority, especially in the country’s borders. Radiological signal sensors, recognized by many as small yellow posts standing close to the port of entry, actually detect radioactive materials inside vehicles that can be used in the making of a dirty bomb or other explosive devices.  Nonetheless, although this method has been effective in combating the possible entry of terrorists, smuggling has slowly but surely found its way into SENTRI lanes.

In 2004 there were eight cases reported of drivers attempting to smuggle undocumented immigrants and drugs. A small number compared to the 7,200 vehicles that pass daily. Even so, smuggling through the express lanes remains a concern for the DHS.

“We trust, but verify those who pass through our borders,” says Bond. We check cars that seem too low, too high, we question abnormalities in behavior. But most of it comes from our officer’s judgment call. One can reasonably predict [misconduct] but we have to base it on past occurrences and patterns.”

Although there is no question that SENTRI lanes are usually far more expedient than the regular ones, all vehicles and passengers are subject to search by secondary inspection and even cancellation of enrollment upon violation of the program’s rules.

Throughout the addition of lanes, infrastructure improvements and technological advances, commuter’s main concern remains the same. How can one maintain a rapid crossing through the Tijuana/San Diego border that once existed in the SENTRI lanes?

“It’s terrible right now,” says Maria Rivero, a San Diego resident who works in Tijuana. “I have to cross everyday because of work. At first, the border would be 10 minutes max through the express lanes. Now I have to prepare for an hour wait. It’s not uncommon to see the SENTRI lane just as long if not longer than the regular ones.”

Japanese businessman, Mr. Harrada, echoes Rivero’s sentiments. Having to cross every day to Tijuana for business purposes and then crossing back to San Diego was alleviated when he enrolled in the SENTRI program two years ago.

“I can’t wait for the new lanes to open, says Rivero.” The long lines can sometimes be ridiculous. I’m just waiting for both governments [U.S and Mexico] to do what they have to do to get the new lanes up and going.”

According to Bond, the trusted traveler program is a critical component of the 22-point accord between U.S and Mexico and the addition of the new SENTRI lanes will facilitate the travel of low risk commuters.

Now that an express lane was added at the San Ysidro port of entry and another is on the way, there is concern that further enrollment in the program could once again cause slowness in the SENTRI lanes. Although the Department of Homeland Security has foreseen this problem, for now, the two additional lanes in San Ysidro and the other in Otay Mesa are the swift solutions to the unexpectant tardiness.

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