Bridging the Border

by Emily Ullmann:

In 2013, a bridge in southern California will reach across the armed fences of the border that the United States has tried so hard to keep impregnable. This cross-border facility will connect airfields in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, which are less than a mile apart, allowing travelers easier access across the border and linking bi-national firms. In the midst of heated immigration debates, legally and safely transcending this border is of great importance.

This project is revolutionary, according to Miguel Aliaga, director of public relations for Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico, the company that owns the Tijuana airport, While bi-national metropolitan regions exist all along the border between cities like El Paso-Ciudad Juárez and Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, there are currently no cross-border airport terminals. In fact, Aliaga believes this project will be the first of its kind in North America and only the second in the world. The only other is a terminal at the Geneva Airport that straddles the France-Switzerland border.

Efforts to make border crossings easier may seem surprising given news reports that portray Tijuana as a “violence-racked city,” marred by “massacres” and other instances of “spectacularly gruesome violence.” Articles often vividly describe brutal decapitations and execution-style shootings, creating the image of near total anarchy. Yet these images fail to emphasize that the vast majority of the violence is among the warring drug cartels and does not affect the general population. As the U.S. and Mexican governments have already approved the project, the real struggle will be overcoming the image of violent, chaotic Mexican border cities that has been created by the American media.

Many Americans associate business across the San Diego-Tijuana border with the drug trade or the smuggling of illegal immigrants. This common media depiction, coupled with the U.S. State Department’s warning that Tijuana’s “security situation poses serious risks for U.S. citizens,” has left most people unaware of the importance and continued growth of legitimate cross-border economic relations. The new facility officially aims to reduce congestion at border crossings, but its implications extend far beyond traffic. If the project succeeds, it could also help reduce tensions between Mexico and the United States, paving the way for improved relations.

Cars wait in hours of traffic to enter Mexico at Tijuana's only crossing point (Ullman/TYG)

Currently, Tijuana’s International Airport offers better options for international flights than the San Diego airport, so many San Diegans forgo the proximity of their own airport and cross the border to travel. The limited number of international flights also means that most travelers from abroad must fly into either Los Angeles Airport, which is over 120 miles north of San Diego, or into Tijuana and then spend several hours waiting in line to cross the border into the United States. The inconvenience of these options can easily dissuade corporations from creating factories and offices in the region. Aliaga, along with regional firms, hopes added convenience will bolster tourism. In particular, according to Kenn Morris, president and CEO of Crossborder Group, Inc., a bi-national consulting firm that facilitates business relations across the border, many in the region anticipate that this will boost China’s budding interest in the San Diego-Tijuana area and strengthen the Japanese and Korean corporations that already have extensive investment in the region.

The San Diego city government has been searching for a way to expand the San Diego Airport site for decades. Planes whiz directly above high rises in the city, sometimes swooping frighteningly close to the buildings, and turn sharply off the runway to avoid driving into the water that borders the airstrip. The airport’s size, location, and short runway have restricted its growth and made it nearly impossible for large, international flights to use the airport. The cross-border facility will increase runway access by connecting a small terminal directly to Tijuana’s major airport.

“San Diego’s airport capacity is and will be constrained. This [cross border facility] takes advantage of San Diego and Tijuana’s unique geographic location and relationship,” said Morris. His firm has been advocating for the cross-border facility project since the idea was originally discussed in the mid-1990s. The idea, however, faced strong opposition from severalSan Diego city councilmen, who believed that a border crossing would cause problems with security, traffic, and pollution in the region. The project was abandoned for almost a decade before current plans began to take shape.

As a traveler, though, the need for a new means of crossing becomes clear immediately upon reaching the border. A long fence stretches in both directions as far as the eye can see. On the U.S. side, a large sign with one word, “Mexico,” hangs down, tantalizing drivers who sometimes sit in traffic for several hours. Pedestrians going into Mexico, mostly residents of Mexico who commute across the border on a daily basis, simply pass through turnstiles on their way home. Crossing into the United States, however, is like trying to speed through total gridlock during rush hour—except the long lines and honking horns are made even more intolerable by the Customs and Border Protection officers and trunk searches.

In the fall of 2010, Crossborder conducted surveys among visitors from San Diego in Tijuana. Of the several hundred people polled, 75 percent agreed that the Baja California region of Mexico is more secure than the U.S. media depicts with its descriptions of graphic violence against civilians and a lack of police protection. Even among visitors who travel to Baja infrequently, fewer than 25 percent cited violence as the primary reason for their avoidance of the region. Morris believes that the statistics speak for themselves. “The US media tends to paint Mexico with a certain image [and has] generally overblown the risks of visitors to Tijuana,” he explained. Morris thinks that visitors crossing the border would be safe regardless of the presence of the cross-border facility, but the bridge will allow travelers to feel secure as they cross into Tijuana without stepping a foot outside the airport walls.

In the future, a ticketed passenger arriving in Mexico will step off a plane and walk down a corridor with signs and shops, just like one in any airport around the world. At the end of the hallway, a government official will stamp the traveler’s passport and check their ticket. In a matter of minutes, the traveler will walk through security and into the United States.

In spite of a travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State, people involved on both sides of the border are enthusiastic about the facility’s implications in the area.

Morris and his Crossborder Group, Inc. clients look forward to the effects, both direct and indirect, of the cross border facility. Morris believes the expected direct effects will be some of the economic and business relationships that form among companies and investors. Beyond these concrete results, he hopes that the terminal will strengthen the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Both nations, “tend to think of themselves as operating independently [and] think of problems and opportunities in a parochial sense,” explained Morris. “Instead of as two separate cities, we need to think of [the San Diego-Tijuana area] as a pool of 3.2 million people. That combined pool of individuals can have a better quality of life and better competition among businesses.”

With the United States and Mexico in each other’s top three biggest trading partners, metropolitan areas across the border could be transformed by the improved cooperation and bi-national mentality that the cross border facility has the potential to create. Although the San Diego-Tijuana terminal is still in its developmental stages, the success or failure of the project could have a serious impact on other regions. Morris thinks the project, if it works well, could inspire investors to “rethink what other opportunities might exist along the U.S.-Mexico border” and strengthen both economic and political relationships across the border. With people easily passing through the facility every day, the bridge will be more than a physical link. It has the potential to totally reinvent the area, allowing a border known now for hostility and security concerns to become a bridge to cooperation and friendship.

Emily Ullmann ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at