The ride-sharing service Uber recently announced the launch of its UberPASSPORT program, which will take customers on the 20-mile trip from San Diego to Tijuana. UberPASSPORT will not, however, give rides traveling from Mexico into the United States.
The border is one of the focal points in the upcoming presidential election, as issues tied to immigration, crime, and international relations continue to dominate speeches and debates. Because everything border-related carries with it certain political implications, we reached out to Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition and human rights director at Alliance San Diego, to weigh in on Uber’s new initiative.
What is your take on Uber now offering trips from San Diego to Tijuana?
I think that it is a sign of the times and it speaks to one of the challenges that the border residents have had for many years—a poor infrastructure to cross the border in a safe, orderly, time-efficient way. The delays for vehicles to leave San Diego and enter Tijuana are astronomical. You can wait up to two hours in some instances, and it has to do with the combination of poor infrastructure and poor policies. It’s an important step for Uber to consider this innovative way of crossing the border, but without a robust approach to insuring a safe and orderly way for travelers to cross the US and Mexico border, we are still going to be facing long delays.
Do you think people using the UberPASSPORT will receive the same levels of abuse and harassment crossing from San Diego to Tijuana that many face now?
There will be a whole lot of scrutiny on Uber drivers, there’s a lot of scrutiny already on taxi drivers and other commercial transportation vehicles. Abuse is part of the challenge that we have been facing with [U.S.] Customs and Border Protection, which is the agency that oversees border patrol and customs officials. It is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States, and in the past several years it has been under a whole lot of scrutiny—not only by the human rights groups, but also by law enforcement officials—as an agency that is out of control. It really lacks adequate oversight mechanisms. There’s virtually no way for a border resident or a traveler that enters a port of entry to file a complaint in an efficient manner if they feel that they have been the subject of abuse by law enforcement agents.
What are some of the issues faced by people who are routinely crossing the border?
One of out every six people who enter the United States, enter through the San Ysidro port of entry. We’re talking about millions of people. Obviously not everyone has a bad experience, but there is a sentiment among border residents that whenever a serious incident does occur, or whenever folks feel that they were treated unfairly by customs officials, that there is no way to file a complaint. This is particularly troubling when there are incidents of excessive use of force and folks are either seriously injured or are killed. It is not so much that everyone has a horrible experience every single time they use the port of entry, but everyone knows of someone who might have been mistreated. When you have a law enforcement agency that is perceived as being violent and as operating with impunity, that creates a whole lot of tension.
Things are becoming even worse, there’s a private project that’s happening in the nearby port in San Diego County in which custom border protection agents are now capturing the irises of travelers and their biometrics. That is the climate that we’re facing here, not so much that abuse is happening every single day to every single person, but that there is a systematic approach to collectively punishing border residents, and worse is that this law enforcement agency can, in fact, get away with murder if they want to. Since 2010, 42 people have been killed, and not a single border patrol agent or customs agents has been found guilty of any wrongdoing.
Do you think UberPASSPORT will be a step towards increased border travel between U.S and Mexico in different parts of the country as well?
We need that. Mexico is one of the leading trading partners of the United States. Some border communities in the United States will completely go bankrupt without the constant influx of Mexican shoppers. San Ysidro, which is a subdivision of the city of San Diego, will completely disappear off the face of the Earth if folks from Tijuana will not cross every weekend to shop. That entire community of nearly 20,000 people right up against the border wall will not be able to survive, it depends exclusively on Mexican shoppers.
To provide border residences a safe and orderly infrastructure to be able to go back and forth, to provide alternatives where folks will not have to depend exclusively on their own private vehicles to cross the border, are all absolutely necessary to begin to think of our region not as a place of conflict, but a place of opportunity. We are beginning to see it now with telecommunications, a lot of carriers now offer free services across the border, which is absolutely necessary for us. I was born in Tijuana and I live in San Diego and I have family in Tijuana, and before, it was so expensive to make an international call. Now a lot of phone carriers are realizing there’s a market here. The most important aspect of the border, despite the walls and despite all the delays, is that it is an integrated community. We don’t see a distinction between San Diego and Tijuana, the only distinction is we have to wait in line to be able to visit our friends and family who are only a mile or so away from us.
How do you think this new Uber services will help San Diego and Tijuana both culturally and financially?
Besides the dire picture that I presented to you, there is one clear reality here: Despite the long delays, despite the sense of militarization that we endure on a daily basis, people are still coming across the border. People are still shopping, people still need to get from point A to point B. A lot of folks go from San Diego to Tijuana every other Friday to watch a soccer game, or a lot of folks will come during baseball season from Tijuana to San Diego to go watch a Major League Baseball game. There is this back and forth that is part of what makes this region so unique, so interesting, so important. There is a need for innovative commercial ventures like Uber, like the recent private port of entry at the Tijuana International Airport allowing travelers to go over the border fence from the US side, and walk into the Tijuana International Airport and be able to fly cheap flights from Tijuana to other parts of Mexico, or even other parts of the world.
These kinds of ventures are fundamental to have a new narrative, the real narrative of the U.S.-Mexico border as not a place of conflict, but a place in which border residents from both sides of the international divide have been contributing to the economic vibrancy, not only of the United States and Mexico, but really, of an entire continent for generations. This is the kind of narrative that we need moving forward, moving away from the tired rhetoric that addressing border concerns has to be done through iron-fisted law enforcement, the building of walls, the deployment of guns.
With a presidential election coming in month, do you think UberPASSPORT can change change the ongoing debate on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico borders?
We cannot continue to speak about the US-Mexico border region as though we are still living in a post-war era with Mexico. The border was created out of war between the Mexico and United States in the 19th century, and that rhetoric has continued on for over a 150 years. In those 150 years, this region has become a proud binational region, a proud bicultural region, a region that despite the economic woes that both Mexico and the US have faced throughout the many decades, continues to move forward, continues to be vibrant, continues to employ folks, and contributes not only economically, but also socially and culturally, and even politically. As we are moving forward as an integrated, globalized economy, it is quite ironic that even now in the 21st century, in the middle of a globalized world, in the middle of technology that brings down borders, that allows communication to travel without delays from one part of the world to the other, we in the United States are still looking to our southern neighbors as though they are in another planet.