SAN YSIDRO- Fifty-three-year-old Mario Parra crosses the border every day to go to work, sometimes standing as long as two hours to enter the United States. Even so, he has not applied for a SENTRI pass that cut that wait to virtually nothing.
The businessman said he does not have the time to apply for the pass.
"They ask for too many papers, there are too many appointments," he said Thursday morning moments after crossing the border. "Honestly, I don't have the time."
He is part of the nearly 96 per cent of pedestrian border crossers who could take advantage of the SENTRI program, according to a study released Thursday by the South County Economic Development Council.
The problem is that these crossers are not aware that they qualify, think they don't need the program, or are not willing to pay the $122.25 application fee, according to the study.
It is based on interviews with 5,861 people conducted at the pedestrian crossing from July 2010 to July 2011, from 6 in the morning until 6 at night.
Of those interviewed, 44 per cent were Mexican citizens, 38 per cent U.S. citizens, 14 percent legal U.S. residents, 2 per cent declined to answer, 1 per cent had dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, and 1 percent had a status listed as "other."
The three main reasons for crossing the border were to go shopping (31 per cent), to work (23 per cent), and visit family members (20 per cent).
Currently, the wait at the pedestrian crossing fluctuates between 60 to 90 minutes, although on peak days and hours it can stretch to three or more hours.
SENTRI pas-holders cross in less than five minutes.
"The numbers speak for themselves," said Cindy Gompper-Graves, the director of SCEDC, and reflect the need to act on behalf of the 17,000 pedestrians who cross on average daily.
"It's inhumane to keep people under those conditions, under the sun, without a bathroom or drinking fountain, sometimes for more than two hours," she said.
She spoke at a press conference Thursday at the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, along with U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and a member of Mexico's Congress, Gastón Luken.
Both politicians stressed the importance of easing the wait times at the pedestrian crossing, noting that the regional economy loses more than $6 billion annually as a result of the wait times, according to a SANDAG study.
Filner said that to solve the problem, the challenge was to convince federal authorities that the border should be treated as an economic development issue not just solely a security one.
"An efficient border is a secure border," Filner said.
Luken echoed his sentiments, saying it was time to focus attention on the pedestrian crossing.
"It's simply not fair," Luken said. "These are people who have to endure the heat and fatigue simply because they want to come to work or do business or visit their family."
Currently, the San Yisdro border crossing is undergoing a remodeling that will expand the number of vehicle lanes from 34 to 62.
Phase two of the project expands the number of inspection booths in the pedestrian crossing from 14 to 20, in addition to remodeling and expanding the structure housing it.
The problem is that the U.S. Congress has not yet allocated the funds for phases two and three, which puts those projects in doubt.
Filner said he expects the Congress to take up the funding issue next year.
For his part, Jason Wells, director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, said political will is needed to solve the problem of the border crossings.
"This is not an expense, it's an investment," he stressed. "The approval of the last two phases of the San Ysidro expansion costs nearly $500 million in comparison of the $6 billion that are lost every year. I hope Congress does the right thing."
He noted that the people who enter through the pedestrian crossing have made the San Ysidro trolley station the most used in San Diego County, with more than 10,000 daily riders.
Authorities from both sides of the border agreed that the solution to long border wait times is to beef up staffing at the pedestrian inspection booths and to use technology to more efficiently process visitors.
Last year, SCEDC conducted a similar survey that yielded similar results (95 per cent of those interviewed did not use SENTRI).
Council officials sent the results to the U.S. Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Alan Bersin, who supported an effort to increase the number of SENTRI users.
Also as a result of that study, CBP put up signs at the pedestrian crossing indicating the SENTRI lane and opened a SENTRI office steps away from the border crossing where people could apply for the pass.
Currently, that office on San Ysidro Boulevard receives more than 100 persons a day.
According to CBP, a total of 6,429,952 pedestrian crossed at San Ysidro in fiscal year 2010, about 4 percent more than the previous year.
On Thursday, Noemí Lepa, 33, put on her hat and picked up bottles of water and headed for the border crossing.
Though she ended up crossing in 20 minutes, she said that she generally waits more than two hours, so she came prepared to stand under the punishing sun.
"The wait is always so slow and tiring," said the San Diego resident, who was traveling with her mother and daughter.
Though she visits Tijuana at least twice a week to visit family, Lepa does not think she needs a SENTRI card.
The council's identified another problem in the pedestrian crossing: people who cut in near the front of the line without waiting their turn.
It's a problem Tijuana resident María de los Ángeles Palafox, 52, knows all too well.
"It happens every day," she said moments after entering the United States on Thursday morning. "They cut in line and nobody says anything."