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Many years ago, I watched a TV show episode in which the main character, a weed-dealing widow, is trying to cross the border from Tijuana, Mexico, back to her Southern California town. She’s stuck in her car behind hundreds of other cars waiting to pass the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the largest land border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. It’s a sweltering hot afternoon, so she calls out to one of the street vendors and buys an iced latte. Bad idea. As the traffic moves along a foot every 15 minutes, she squirms in her seat, still hours away from the other side, and eventually relieves herself while still stuck in her car.
Ever since watching that episode, I told myself I would never, ever drive into Tijuana. Sure, the city is only a three-hour drive from my home in Los Angeles, and it only takes about five minutes to cross the border over to the Mexican side. But to sit behind a train of cars for half a day just to get back into America? With my overactive bladder? That sounds like my worst nightmare.
But then I began reading news about migrant caravans. I read President Trump’s tweets calling the migrants an “invasion” and promising to greet them with the military. I read accounts of protests and tear gas and overcrowded shelters—and the more I read, the more I wondered how much of what I was reading was true. As a WORLD reporter living close to the border, I decided—reluctantly—I might have to make that trip to Tijuana after all.
I ended up making several trips. When I told friends who had been to Tijuana that I was planning my own visit, they advised me to park my car on the U.S. side of the border and walk through the pedestrian crossing instead of driving. So for my first three trips to Tijuana, I followed my friends’ advice and crossed the border on foot, taking taxi and Uber or begging rides from my sources once I reached Mexican territory. Each time, I breezed back into my country by foot—the whole process takes maybe 10 minutes. Looking at the mile-long, unmoving lanes of vehicles sitting in their own exhaust fumes, I smirked: “Ha-ha, miserable folks. Should have walked the border like I did!”
Then last week, it was my turn to sit in my fumes. The night before my fourth trip to Tijuana, the missionary I thought would pick me up at the border told me his car was in the shop. There was no way we could get around without a car: We needed to visit various places in Tijuana the next day, and they were all in opposite directions. No way out of this—I had to drive in this time. I did not sleep well that night.
The next day, I woke up at 5 a.m. with dread fermenting in my stomach. It was going to be a very long day. I drove down to the last U.S. exit stop before Tijuana and stopped by an insurance agency to purchase Mexican auto insurance for the day. There, with fingers crossed, I asked an employee how long it typically takes to cross back over the border by car. He responded first with a grimace, which made my heart sink, and then said with a shrug, “Honestly, it can take about four hours.”
Four hours? Four hours! That’s longer than my entire commute back to LA! The guy looked at my horrified expression and took pity on me. “If you’re lucky, it can take just one hour,” he added sympathetically. OK, Lord Jesus, we’re shooting for an hour. I can do an hour. Please, God, have mercy.
That night, after a full day of reporting in Tijuana, I dropped off the missionary at 7:30 and headed toward the border. I came prepared: I had drunk no liquids during the previous hour, made a bathroom stop beforehand, and had two chocolate chip cookies in the glove compartment ready for stress-munching.
As I approached the border crossing and stopped, about 50 cars sat in my lane ahead of me. Every day some 70,000 vehicles take this border crossing into California, and today I was one of them. Within five minutes, dozens of additional cars lined up behind me. Every eight minutes or so, we moved a few inches forward, then braked again. We all sat in our cars with the same miserable, dazed expressions. The only person who smiled was a red-headed guy who kept honking at me from the other lane, flashing me a sweet smile and signaling that he wanted to cut in front of me. No way, Jose. When I ignored him, he tried honking and smiling at other people behind me, but nobody paid him any attention—no room for charity here.
Meanwhile, vendors walked up and down the lanes hawking their wares. Some sold local edibles such as Takis, raspados, elotes, and pan dulce. Others sold goods such as giant Mexican and Rams flags, child-size statues of Mother Mary and Jesus, rainbow light-flashing balloons, talismans, beaded jewelry, hand-knitted keychains, and blankets. They must walk for miles each day—walking around and around each and every lane, trying to make eye contact with bored drivers. I wondered how much money they make a day. I can’t imagine it’s enough to live by.
I also saw many beggars: men in wheelchairs with stumps instead of legs, women in sagging pants, even a young girl and boy who looked no older than 7. These kids seemed to have the most success earning people’s sympathy as they stood on tiptoes to rap on car windows. Probably like everyone else, I wondered where their parents were.
Then I thought about the two teenage sisters I’d met that day. They had trekked by themselves all the way from El Salvador to Tijuana as part of the latest wave of caravans. The older sister, a 15-year-old beauty, is now five months pregnant—a motherless child bearing a fatherless child. I also thought of the 25-year-old Honduran migrant I met at a shelter with a tin roof that barely keeps out the rain that drenches the city and turns roads into muddy sinkholes. He looked ill, with yellowed eyes, a split lip, and little hope of ever making it to his dream destination: America.
If anything, being stuck in my car forced me to pay greater attention to what was going on around me, and to process everything I saw and heard during my reporting in Tijuana. Here I was, complaining about the long wait to cross the border while watching signs of deep poverty and dysfunction in a Third World city. Less than a mile away was my country, America, the fabled land of opportunity that’s drawing tens of thousands of desperate souls from elsewhere. All that separates these two vastly different worlds are a wall and some border guards. Many of the migrants and locals I met in Tijuana were stuck in deplorable conditions, while all I had to do was wait in my heated rental car and flash my passport to enter what these people thought of as heaven.
It did not take four hours to cross the border, but only 2½. That was still longer than I would have liked, but as I gunned it back home to LA, I knew I would have a hot meal, a bed, and a roof waiting for me. As much as I anticipated those daily luxuries, I also felt somber: What am I to do with the knowledge that I am daily living a life that to so many other people remains a desperate dream?