President Donald Trump said that there’s a crisis at the United States-Mexico border that only a brand-new wall can fix, and he shut down the U.S. government to make that wall real.

When I visited the existing wall’s busy crossing, the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, on January 5, near the start of the government shutdown, I didn’t see much of a crisis.

What I did see was Mexican commuters crossing the border and getting on one of the country’s busiest rail lines, like they have every day since 1981.

San Diego is a twin city. As you probably know, Tijuana, a Mexican city of 1.6 million residents, is close by. You may not know that TJ, as San Diegans call their Mexican neighbor, is a short Trolley ride away. The Trolley’s Blue Line terminates at the border fence. You can see it from the platform.

That makes the Blue Line something more than your ordinary light rail line. The Blue Line stop at the San Ysidro Port of Entry is the only fixed passenger rail service at an international border in North America. Other systems run close to a border, like Buffalo’s light rail and the streetcars in Detroit and El Paso, but they aren’t essential features of those places.

San Diego’s transit system would be nigh irrelevant without the San Ysidro Transit Center, because Tijuana residents make up a large part of the Trolley’s ridership. They cross at the San Ysidro checkpoint and commute to work in San Diego County via the Trolley. Trolley commuters are a significant reason why San Ysidro is the busiest border crossing in the world. 16.5 million unique pedestrian crossings occured in 2017—and there were 17.5 million Blue Line boardings in the same year

There’s a reason those numbers are similar. 20,000 northbound pedestrians cross every day—assuming 75 percent commuted in, and took a round trip, that would amount for 30,000 of the daily 110,000 boardings on the Trolley system. Another 70,000 passengers cross daily in vehicles, including private Mexican buses, vans, and jitneys—presumably a large number of them board the Blue Line for a ride into San Diego. In 2017, Blue Line passengers accounted for about 48 percent of average weekday boardings on the trolley system, the highest share of the three lines. A large slice of that large slice of riders comes from Mexico.

The San Ysidro Transit Center is one of the few true multimodal hubs in San Diego, if not Southern California. It features MTS buses and Greyhounds, like a typical U.S. train and bus station. There are also dozens of the above jitneys, which charge dollar or less fares to travel between the trolley and the farther-flung West pedestrian border crossing.

Interstate U.S. bus and van lines with Spanish names I’d never heard or read before—El Correcaminos, Fronteras Norte, Costa de Oro—advertize service to pretty much every town and city on the West Coast, including Seattle.

The hub’s amenities are similar to most major rail and bus hubs: several bodega vendors, a McDonald’s, a Jack in the Box. Uniquely, several competing currency exchange windows dot the platform. The border fence is visible, and so is downtown Tijuana, which is on the immediate opposite side of the gate. The U.S. side of the fence is scrubland and strip malls; the Mexico side is a large, bustling city with high-rises.

Visions of downtown Tijuana clash with the double wides, trailer parks, and run down single family homes that the Blue Line runs through in Chula Vista and National City. Sometimes, you get the sensation of riding the train through someone’s backyard. The train runs just a few feet away from some houses and fences, and makes laundry hung out to dry flap as it passes.

On my ride south from downtown San Diego, very American and very Mexican images appeared, and began to blend together. A man dressed as a vaquero was leaning in one corner of the car when we passed the General Dynamics shipyard in San Diego Harbor. So was a uniformed sailor.

When I rode, an under-construction supercarrier hull was visible from the train. Maybe the uniformed Navy officer in the same car was headed there when he disembarked, or maybe he was going to one of the hundreds of ships moored in the Pacific’s largest navy base. That stop is named Pacific Fleet. The Blue Line also travels through high-rise military housing, which is one of San Diego’s better examples of TOD.

The experience of riding the Blue Line is unlike riding any other train line in the United States. Its basic attributes —a publicly-run rail transit line serving immigrants and guest workers from Mexico and Latin America—are offend every aspect of conservative sensibility.

Yet the Trolley operates in the West Coast’s most conservative city, and runs past the largest military base west of the Mississippi. It’s urbanism actualized in one of the most sprawled out regions in the country.

The Blue Line is built from contradictions, but nobody seems to mind. That’s not to say that Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric, the sturm and drang of the shutdown, doesn’t have real consequences. Surely, as government workers who searched for payday loans would tell you, it does

But there’s just too much going on around San Ysidro to stop just because of Donald Trump.

34 Replies to “Trump Couldn’t Stop Border Commuters”

  1. In an ideal world, there would be no fence, no checkpoint, and MTS and SITT would have a transfer agreement. Maybe the Blue Line would continue into Tijuana, and the combined transit system would take both dollars and pesos.

    Works just fine in Europe… Trams in Basel, Switzerland cross borders into Germany and France with no complications. One line even enters France for one stop and then re-enters Switzerland.

    Trump is riding the wrong horse. Open borders are the future. His wall will be gone in 75 years.

    1. He may be riding the wrong horse, but an awful lot of xenophobes rode it with him all the way to the White House (and a certain group of people in Britain, among others, would dispute that it “works just fine in Europe”). You’ll see open borders with Canada WELL before you’ll see open borders with Mexico. Gonna take a long time for the country to be sufficiently not-racist for that (on top of the many people, admittedly with substantial overlap with the racists, who consider all forms of open borders to be a “globalist conspiracy”), to say nothing of the still-substantial gap between the two countries’ economies.

      Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mexico had open borders with its southern neighbors before it has them with the US; my lay American perspective (from someone who’s never been to Mexico within my memory) is that while Mexico is much closer culturally to the US than the Central American countries are, it’s still much closer to those countries than it is to the US, especially once you get further away from the border. Someone with more experience could clarify.

      1. Morgan, the folks who think “open borders” are a bad thing who AREN’T “racists” (e.g. folks who think we EuroAmericans are in some fundamental, non-cultural-advantage way “better”) is by definition the NULL set.

        Seriously. The folks who have no economic value in the USA but who do in their current country will go back after the first non-tropical winter. The ones who have no economic value in their either country AND no family in their home country for support will die, as has ever been the case.

        Harsh? Yes, but Nature brooks no mistakes.

        So the “economic” argument for closed borders is just first-mover exclusionism. I grew up in Oklahoma; white people who “jumped the gun” in the land-rush — yes, this is where the figure of speech arose — are heroes, and the name of State’s football team: “sooners”.

        Pretty pathological.

      2. I have to disagree here. Open borders is a highly complicated issue that is not just about racism. Open borders basically requires a customs union and the same policies on immigration. And let’s be honest – any such agreement is going to be dominated by America – we have 3 times the population of Mexico, 10 times the population of Canada, and our GDP is over ten times the size of either. There needs to be a huge value seen by both Mexico and Canada to basically give up their foreign policies (and many domestic policies) in exchange for an open border agreement. The EU is more realistic since there’s more than one dominant country (France, Germany, Italy, Spain are all less than a factor of 3 difference in GDP) and even there there are a lot of problems

        Transportation-wise – would Mexico and Canada be willing to use US standards for freight and passenger rail? What about the same standard for cars?

        If open borders was just about racism, then we’d have had an open border with Canada long ago.

      3. Mexico and Canada already DO use US transportation standards. In fact, they did far earlier than NAFTA’s signing.

        We essentially already have an open border with Canada, though it is more restricted than it was twenty or thirty years ago. Families used to move back and forth easily, but the anti-Asian hysteria of the early part of the 20th Century meant that Canadian-US immigration had to be restricted too, because Canada is a part of the Commonwealth.

        Immigration restrictions really ARE all about race.

      4. Sorry, but no, Mexico in particular does not use US auto standards. Airbags will only be required this year or next and things like stability control (required in the US and Europe for over 5 years) are not required at all. These features are expensive and the average person in Mexico makes 3 times less than in the US or Canada. Mexican and Canadian standards are similar to American ones, but definitely not the same. I’m sure the same is true for many other regulations.

        The US-Canada border is not an open border. It is not a guarded one, but there is a huge difference between crossing the US-Canada border and the Washington-Oregon border (or Germany-France). The same was true 20 years ago (for US-Canada), even if it was easier to cross. You still had to talk to a border agent both ways and you still had to provide documentation.

    2. Comparing the US-Mexico border with Switzerland-Germany-France is a bit over simplified. Situation isn’t remotely the same. But yes, you are correct in your thinking that it can be done when the correct path or process us followed.

  2. “The Blue Line stop at the San Ysidro Port of Entry is the only fixed passenger rail service at an international border in North America.” “Other systems run close to a border…..but they aren’t essential features of those places.”

    I suspect the majority of Juarez students heading to UTEP use the streetcar whereas the molly maids use the BRT to get up to the westside residences. The streetcar stop is closer to the border crossing and the students have thus far shown a preference for it but won’t have exact numbers for a few months.

    Also, El Paso is working on the only fixed passenger rail service to CROSS an international border in North America. “phase 2 of the El Paso streetcar—which would extend the service to the El Paso Medical Center of the Americas—and introduced legislation to do a feasibility study on phase 3, which would restore transnational service to Ciudad Juárez.”

    1. And it’s just not UTEP that Mexican nationals commute to along the streetcar route. There is EPCC, Hospital District, downtown jobs and etc. There are over 1/2 dozen hotels in various stages of restoration that are/will use Mexican nationals as labor.

    2. “El Paso is working on the only fixed passenger rail service to CROSS an international border in North America”

      Do Amtrak Cascades, Maple Leaf, and Adirondack not count or am I missing something?

      1. “San Ysidro Port of Entry is the only fixed passenger rail service at an international border”

        I was assuming he meant commuter rail.

    3. I’m not sure if the San Ysidro station is much closer to the border than the El Paso Father Rahm station. The only reason it would be is because El Paso customs offices are located on a Rio Grand bridge that extends deep into the city and a station would have to recede back from it.

  3. I’d watch out Peter. This is a lot if praise for a system which is really a “streetcar”, actually running around downtown San Jose in reserved ROW on city streets!

    Woe betide such “19th Century” technologies.

    1. Would that be San Jose Costa Rica?

      “19th Century”? What century did the bus or car from? First airplane flew in 1903, almost 19th century.

      1. And so’s a king, though I doubt any of our Founders would have praised anything by tracing its ancestry to the Middle Ages. Our country’s founders really considered themselves the heirs of the ancient Roman and Greek republics before they rotted into empires through corruption. Hence the Emoluments Clause.

        Little-known fact, but the “SPQR” lettering on shields, flagstaffs in the movies and such pretty well said it: “The Senate and People of Rome.” The Republic never went anywhere! And somehow nobody had a problem with a Republic whose chief was always called “Caesar.” Or if they did, lived to brag about it.

        Another cautionary antiquity. In their own alphabet, word for “Caesar” starts with a Ts sound in Russian. To the T add an “r”, a “u”, an “m”, and a “p” and hey, you got a problem with things like walls, wheels, Tsars and rulers whose title is their family name? Present Tsar’s a good leader, Donald said so. Didn’t people used to put a “The” before “Donald?”

        History changes the name. The MO remains the same, starting with the people making or just letting it happen. Just please not in our country, on our watch.

        Mark Dublin

      1. Alsi, I should have included the “/snark” tag, but I wondered if the Streetcar Hater caucus would take the bait. Alas, a fouled casting line.

    2. Have you ridden the San Diego Trolley? I did the last time I was there and the technology seemed much more like Link than the Seattle Streetcar.

      1. Yes, there are two-car trains on the Blue Line, but they travel around downtown San Diego in surface streets with no apparent signal priority. They do have reserved right if way, but truly they’re more like trams than streetcars.

        They’re “Light Rail”, not Inekon streetcars. But only at the lower end.

  4. Only one edit, Peter: put some cautionary quotation marks around “conservative sensibilities”. Intolerance and suspicion are no more truly conservative mind-sets than punitive regulatory punctiliousness and goggle-eyed gullibility are liberal ones.

    Difference is personified by El Paso’s Assistant Director of Streetcar Operations Carl Jackson, who along with his superb abilities is greatly missed here.

    And I’ve said before that I consider the late New Electric Railway Journal patronPaul Weyrich’s attachment to street rail and its interurban outgrowths to be my own definition of the term “Conservative.” His preference for monarchy as a form of government, however…doubtless he’s already had a belly-full.

    Mark Dublin

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  6. I am fine with conservatives when they advocate low taxes and pro business policies, but man alive I hate when they hate on brown and black people. Trump is all about the racism and that sucks monkey balls.

    We are in this global fight for combating extinction warming and we need to work together — now. We can do it and we can wipe out some borders as part of it.

    1. I think its more of a hate of POOR brown and black people. The Trumps sure have an affinity for Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

      1. Trump is a well-known racist, going back to the full page ad he took out to rile up the public against the central park five back in the 80s. The exception is, of course, if he has something to personally gain from working with non-whites. This is why he’s friendly with the Saudis. Everything he does is for personal gain only.

  7. “Senatus Populusque Romani”.

    The Don apparently thinks that the Assyrians fought Charlemagne.

  8. No matter how good the transit is going to and from the Mexican border, one would think that the length of the lines to get through the border, alone, would make daily commuting across it impractical. Especially when you add all the other pieces.

    I’m imagining a hypothetical Tijuana->San Diego commute in my mind. 5 minutes to walk to the bus, 5 minutes to wait for the bus, 20 minutes to ride the bus to the border, 2 hours waiting in line to enter the United States, 10 minutes to wait for the trolley, 20 minutes to ride the trolley. Even if the final destination is right next to a trolley station (which, in practice, is likely not the case, as San Diego has a lot of sprawl), that’s still three hours total for the morning commute. For the afternoon commute, re-entry into Mexico is likely faster. But, even if it’s just 15 minutes, that’s still 1 hour 15 minutes total travel time, or 4 hours 15 minutes round trip commuting time. This would be time-equivalant to car commuting to downtown Seattle every day, all the way from Yakima.

    But, it actually gets even worse, as the time it takes to wait in line to enter the United States is likely wildly unpredictable , depending on how many border agents are working that day, and how thoroughly they are deciding to question people. So, the two hours to enter the U.S. might be 30 minutes some days, 5 hours others. Which means, for any kind of job that requires you to arrive at a specific time, this just isn’t going to work.

    Presumably, if this many people are doing a cross-border commute, the border crossing itself must be doing something to keep the lines reliably moving that I’m not aware of.

    1. 2 hours waiting in line? El Paso is only a few minutes from what I recall. Besides 3 month visa stay at a cousins does wonders.

    2. Regular commuters presumably have NEXUS passes, which has a goal of only fifteen minutes wait time. Even without NEXUS, I believe the five-hour waits are (almost?) always in the car lanes, not pedestrian.

    3. Regardless of wait times, El Paso’s primary bridges handle 6,188,488 pedestrians a year. That’s a huge market for public transportation.

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