The holidays are always one of the busiest times of the year along the southern border but this year the wait is expected to be longer due to measures taken since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We are doing more intensive and more thorough examinations of everything coming across the border," said U.S. Customs Service spokesman Roger Maier. "Our best advice for the traveling public is to prepare to spend more time than you normally do crossing the border during the holiday season."
Before Sept. 11, travelers were simply asked about their citizenship and whether they had anything to declare. Once those questions were satisfactorily answered, most vehicles or pedestrians were sent on their way without any further hassle from U.S. inspectors.
"Since Sept. 11, the level of questioning is much more intense, every vehicle is being inspected at the primary inspection booth, with hoods and trunks being opened, inspectors checking inside glove boxes, checking the seats, checking just about any place contraband might be contained," he said.
With Level One security in force on the border, Maier said the primary mission of U.S. Customs has become "anti-terrorism," although nothing related to any terrorist activity has been found. The intense inspections, however, have turned up more illegal drugs than last year, he said.
Because of the heavy workload at the border, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has ordered 120 members of the Texas National Guard to duty at El Paso and Laredo, two of the busiest ports of entry in Texas. They generally assist with vehicles searches for drugs and other contraband.
Many Customs agents have also been working overtime since Sept. 11 to maintain the high level of security at the ports of entry. Maier said 12- and 16-hour days are routine for many of the inspectors.
The busiest ports of entry on the southern border are Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso in Texas, Nogales, Ariz., and San Ysidro, Calif., south of San Diego, where inspectors work 24 lanes of traffic.
U.S. Customs has taken new measures since Sept. 11 to keep the public informed about the increased border security, including a link on its Web page (customs.gov) that lists updated border crossing times at all major southern and northern locations.
Maier could not estimate what the crossing numbers will be this holiday season but he said in the past the pedestrian traffic alone on El Paso's downtown bridge over the Rio Grande nearly doubles from around 15,000 to 30,000 people on a single day.