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Is Calexico’s Border Gridlock Mexico’s Doing?

As Imperial County Pleads for Federal Help to Ease Traffic Back-up, Vargas Aide Says Consulate Key to Efforts

Photos of the southbound traffic jams plaguing Calexico of late have been making their way around social media. The problem is a key focus of Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Escobar, who is trying to get the Calexico East Port of Entry’s hours extended beyond the pandemic-instituted closing time of 2 p.m. daily. | FACEBOOK PHOTOS
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CALEXICO — As epic gridlock surrounding southbound border traffic continues in Calexico, officials braced for another weekend of jammed-up streets, which have been much worse and occurring much earlier than many have seen in ages, if ever.

“To say this is the worst it’s ever been, that would not be an exaggeration,” Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Escobar explained last week, dreading the fact that he was to drive to Mexicali a few hours later.

District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar speaks during the city of Calexico’s 113th birthday celebration in April 16. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Recently, Escobar has led a full-court press from his position as vice chair of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and as head of a coalition of stakeholders on his Imperial Valley Southern Border Committee to compel whoever will listen to do one thing: Keep the Calexico East Port of Entry open past 2 p.m.

It’s the simplest solution, Escobar said, in what has proven to be a complex set of circumstances — a “perfect storm,” he says — that has backed up border traffic in Calexico consistently farther, more often and earlier in the season than is commonplace.

Yet even his simple solution comes with no simple answers, no simple statement as to who is ultimately responsible for extending the curtailed hours of operation at Calexico East since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Any potential solution to the ongoing problem seems to be in the hands of the Mexican government and not United States border officials, according to an aide of U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Chula Vista, Imperial County’s congressman.

Vargas’ office received Imperial County’s urgent plea on Friday, Sept. 24, in the form of a letter (that was ratified by Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 28) asking for his help to extend the opening of the Calexico East port to a reasonable-enough hour that would alleviate the crush of Mexicali workers who return home past the 2 p.m. closing time. Limited operations have been in place since March 2020.

“Traffic congestion between to 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM Monday through Thursday and between 2:00 PM and 10:00 PM on Fridays effectively divides the city of Calexico in two, with commute times of 30-45 minutes the new ‘normal’ when traveling from the east to the west side of the city,” the letter states.

Yet the congressman’s local aide put the onus on Mexico and the ball in the Mexican consulate’s court.

“We’re going to go through the proper channels first, right, and give them the currency and the credit (the work on the issue). … I have confidence that at that level, they’ll do what they can,” Vargas’ Imperial County representative Tomas Oliva said of the consulate. “I don’t think we have gotten to the point yet where we need to get extremely diplomatic, where the White House needs to reach out to Mexico City, or something like that.

Tomas Oliva, Imperial County’s field representative for Congressman Juan Vargas. | COURTESY PHOTO

“We’re just barely engaging with the consulate, so I want to make sure that they have an opportunity to see what they can do first without assuming that they’re not going to get it done,” Oliva added.

Vargas’ representatives, including Oliva and a senior field representative from San Diego County, toured the Calexico-area ports on Sept. 20, on behalf of the congressman.

Oliva said he understands Imperial County officials have already been speaking with the consulate on the issue, but Imperial County officials want more pressure from Vargas then tours and leaving fate in the hands of the consulate.

The letter sent out Friday, Escobar said, is “ordering Vargas” and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla to force an audience with the proper federal officials to fast-track the opening of the Calexico East port.

Although the draft of the letter was addressed to Vargas only, the version that went out was also addressed to Feinstein and Padilla, and Escobar even wanted state elected officials, Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, and Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, included “because they’re technically there between us and the federal government. They should be aware.

“Although they have no political power because this is a federal issue, they can help in lobbying for an emergency meeting with Customs and Border Protection (in Washington, D.C.) to get this in order and justify opening up Calexico East,” said the Calexico-area District 1 supervisor and former Calexico City Council member. “We can’t continue to operate this way.”

Vehicles head north from Mexico through an inspection point at the Calexico East Port of Entry in May. Hours of operation at the port have been curtailed to a 2 p.m. closure since March 2020, and Imperial County officials are working to end that. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Best-case scenario, Escobar wants the county to have a seat at the table with Homeland Security as well. When he learned that Vargas’ office was waiting for the consulate, that wasn’t good enough.

“We need to work together collectively to address the issue. This is a federal issue that’s affecting the fate of Calexico, and this is no longer territories,” Escobar said on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 28. “International Mexican port authorities along with the U.S. we need to be working in conjunction to solve this issue.

“It’s pretty clear that that coordination between both countries needs to take place, obviously, between CBP and Mexican port authorities, and that’s what I’ve asked our (county) governmental affairs officer to work with our federal lobbyist to get a meeting together with senior CBP officials in D.C. in order to really stress how important this is,” he added.

The logjam of border traffic is that bad, Escobar said, and is affecting the economy of Calexico and the greater Imperial Valley, and the workforce in the county that employs countless Mexican workers in the agriculture and food-processing industries, healthcare, professional services like engineering and information technology, and many other sectors.

In a more localized sense, the commutes are quickly draining Calexico city coffers. With the fiscal 2021-2022 budget for traffic-control measures at $630,000, Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo said this week that he expects that account to be depleted by February if not earlier — just halfway into the budget year that started July 1.

“Perfect Storm” of Poorly Coordinated Conditions

One could set their clock or calendar by the traffic congestion experienced in Calexico. There are few things as consistent as the late fall/early winter harvest clogging city streets in time for the labor-intensive lettuce season, a problem compounded even more by holiday travel and shopping.

All of these factors have been thrown out the window during the pandemic, however, as the past 18 months have seen different reasons for different periods of gridlock, including regime change on the Mexicali side of the ports and checkpoints for COVID (and beer) as it was surging though the Baja California capital in late 2020 and early 2021.

Yet now, as economies and societies are adjusting to the pandemic, traffic is getting worse. Cases of COVID are cresting in Imperial County and Mexicali, but life is bustling on both sides in ways that have not been seen for many months.

These are at least some of the factors of Escobar’s “perfect storm.”

The yellow lane shows the detour through June 1, 2022, for southbound private vehicle traffic at the Calexico West Port of Entry. | GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION GRAPHIC

“After 2 (p.m.), there’s only one access point, and that is Calexico West (Port of Entry), so that’s issue No. 1. Issue No. 2 is because of construction, (Calexico West) has had to move things around,” he explained, referring to the U.S. General Services Administration’s work to expand the port from 10 lanes to 16 lanes.

With that project’s estimated completion delayed by a full year, to December 2023, the ongoing work has caused its own bottleneck due to temporary detours and measures to slow traffic.

“That has caused a little bit of a zigzag, a sharp right followed by a sharp left, which is not really productive toward the movement of goods, or in this case, the movement of vehicles,” he said. “Then, adding insult to injury, you have speed bumps. … Now, if you want to add more insult to injury, they’re working on the expansion of Highway 98 to accommodate more traffic, again, because of the Port of Entry being increased in lanes.

“But you’re doing it at the same time, so you drive around in Calexico on portions of Birch Avenue (/Highway 98) on one lane. … All this combined is just a bumbling cluster****,” Escobar said.

Yes, there are two major construction projects happening concurrently in Calexico, the GSA and the state Department of Transportation’s COVID-delayed expansion of 98.

“You’re killing Calexico. Come on. Hey, at least take the speed bumps out,” Escobar said.

In many ways, the letter to Vargas — clearly meant for eyes other than his — has all of the vice chair’s conviction but with a political polish. However, in parts, it still reads like a raw nerve and an open wound, jumping across many fronts and a myriad topics.

“EMS personnel responding to any emergency situation west of Highway 111 (Imperial Avenue) are unable to arrive on scene in a timely fashion, putting our citizens at extreme risk” during major traffic times, according to the draft letter.

“This severe traffic congestion continues to negatively impact the quality of life for our shared constituents in a number of significant ways. From degraded air quality to decreased economic productivity to increased incidents of road rage, the lack of border-crossing capacity caused by the continued closure of the Calexico East LPOE is taking its toll on our region and is completely unacceptable,” the letter states.

Escobar’s concerns don’t end with the southbound flow, either.

Southbound border traffic in June is backed up all the way to the signs near Calexico city limits on Highway 111. Recently, such delays have become commonplace much more often and much earlier in the season. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MI CALEXICO

“You’ve got this significant workforce spread out all over Imperial County be it One World Beef, be it IID, you name any private or public sector job you can think of, you’ve got all these people working.”

What used to be an “easy” 45-minute commute at the worst of times is now taking those going to work 90 minutes to two hours, he said.

And was to get arguably worse on Wednesday, Sept. 29, and Thursday, Sept. 30. GSA officials let Calexico officials know earlier this week they plan to pour the foundation for 16-lane expansion with 1,600 cubic feet of concrete brought in with 160 trucks over two days from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

With much of the daily commute still taking place after 6 p.m., Chief Gerardo was asking the public to avoid heading to Mexicali after 6 p.m.

Chief Blames Calexico Pain on Mexico’s Economy

This weekend is the end of Fiestas Del Sol, and Police Chief Gerardo expected a long night for his traffic controllers on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 25, fearing a repeat of last week.

On Sept. 16 through late Sept. 18, his traffic controllers were out en masse as traffic snarled in all directions.

Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

“My traffic controllers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday worked up to 1 o’clock in the morning. They worked over 16 hours, 16 and a half hours,” Gerardo said.

“They work very hard, and you know what? You can quote me on this. I could have 300 traffic controllers out there. It’s not going to change things,” he said.

Fiestas is an annual event, not ongoing, but the chief thinks the traffic impacting Calexico will last as long as Mexicali can avert a more open border, which nearly circles back to Congressman Vargas’ aide Oliva’s assertion that extending hours at Calexico East is in the hands of Mexico.

With the U.S. border still closed to “nonessential” travel amid the pandemic, Mexicali has seen a significant economic benefit by seeing its citizens spend their dollars at home, rather than in Imperial County, and Mexicali must want to hold onto that as long as possible, Gerardo said.

“You have all these people coming across the border now coming to work, and then you have all these people going south now because of the economy in Mexicali,” he said. “If you went to a store in that city, their economy is booming, because we don’t let border crossers come across, so other people that used to come across to buy goods here in Calexico are staying there.

“I think Mexico economically is doing better we are here in the Imperial County because they’re open,” said Gerardo, adding there are no residency restrictions going south.

Vehicles head north from Mexico through an inspection point at the Calexico East Port of Entry in May. Hours of operation at the port have been curtailed to a 2 p.m. closure since March 2020, and Imperial County officials are working to end that. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Escobar sees the point, but he sees the immediate impacts as being more significant.

“Yes, they’re spending in Mexicali. So instead of going to Costco in El Centro, they’re going to Costco in Mexicali. Instead of going to Walmart Calexico, they’re going to Walmart Mexicali and spending those extra couple 100 bucks there,” he said. “So yes, that is true. But that is across the entire footprint of the border with Mexico.”

The complex issue is all too simple for Escobar, and he just can’t understand why something as simple as extending Calexico East’s hours isn’t an easy fix.

He’s spoken to the regional director for Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the ports of entry in Calexico, and “he’s told me point blank, ‘it’s really in their (Mexico’s) hands.’ It’s going to take a long time … to open up Calexico East, and I respect that and I appreciate his honesty.

“Having said that, as an elected official living here and a politician looking at the nightmare of people that have to drive from point A to point B after 12-, 13-, 14-hour days, it is inhumane, for lack of a better term.”

A still shot from aerial drone footage taken in June shows traffic at the border backed up in all directions, which increasingly has become a common occurrence on the U.S. side. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MI CALEXICO

(This story was updated on Tuesday, Sept. 28, with new information, including the ratified and signed version of the letter to Vargas, Feinstein, and Padilla, reaction from Escobar and the announcement of possible traffic delays worsening Sept. 29 and 30.)

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