SAN DIEGO Opening a satellite city office in a far-flung neighborhood is not unusual in sprawling cities like this one. But one thing sets apart Mayor Bob Filner's newest outpost: It is in another country.
When he opened San Diego's Tijuana office this year, Filner spoke in grand terms about the future of cross-border relations. "Dos ciudades, pero una región we are two cities, but one region," he said, using the phrase popular among those who want more collaboration in the area. San Diego would put in a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, he said, but only to host jointly with Tijuana.
For years, this coastal city was widely viewed as a hotbed of illegal immigration. Neighbors traded stories of migrants hiding in their garages and scurrying through their backyards. But now the region is considered one of the safest areas along the Mexican border, and the number of apprehensions of people crossing illegally is a tiny fraction of what it was a decade ago.
The changes have helped bring an astounding shift in residents' attitudes toward the border: Far from seeing it as a threat, more are embracing it as a potential economic engine for the region. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Filner's efforts to bolster Tijuana is that there has been no opposition from other politicians or organized protests from conservative critics.
"We need to make the border the center, not the end. But the biggest problem we have is not security, it is openness and communication," Filner said in an interview in his City Hall office. "People have to understand that the infrastructure that we need should be an important part of any discussion on immigration. The volume here is so incredible, yet nobody understands how much this matters. People can't go back and forth, and we're losing out."
Border security has been at the center of the debate on an immigration overhaul in Washington, with many lawmakers pushing for more security and fences at the border. The bipartisan group of eight senators who proposed sweeping changes has pointed to San Diego as the example of a secure border. But here, where a multimillion-dollar secondary fence was added a few years ago, many worry about the enormous economic cost of improving security that they feel is already too tight, not too loose.
Filner and his supporters cite delays at the border crossings that frequently stretch to more than three hours as the prime example of the problems the region faces. They say that more crossing lanes and agents are needed to allow people to cross quickly, and that technology could allow inspections to be completed in seconds rather than minutes. A study by the San Diego Association of Governments estimated that the region loses more than $2 billion annually because of the waits.
"The political buzz made it so that there is a self-evident truth that the border was out of control, and that national stigma remains," said Paul Ganster, director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University. "It might make people from Iowa feel better knowing that it takes hours to cross the border, but a better approach is to fix the border so it functions for legitimate purposes."
While several former mayors have had warm relations with Tijuana officials, Filner has made cross-border relations a centerpiece of his administration, appointing a binational affairs director and mentioning Mexico at nearly every opportunity. In his inaugural speech, he congratulated the Tijuana soccer team, the Xolos, for winning the Mexican league title the day before, calling the team "our champions." And while the Olympic Committee has rejected the cross-border bid, Filner is not deterred.
He was elected in the fall after serving for nearly two decades as the Democratic congressman representing a district that included all of California's Mexico border communities. In Congress, he routinely complained about the long lines at the border here, the busiest land crossing in the world.
There are still signs that the longstanding ambivalence about the border here remains. While other U.S. cities along the border have deep ties with or even a reliance on Mexico, many here say San Diego residents mostly have their back to the border and give little thought to their southern neighbor. A recent survey by one local group found that less than 10 percent of residents believed strengthening the border region should be a priority for improving the local economy. By some estimates, more than 60 percent of San Diego residents have never crossed the border.
Mexico receives more exports from the United States than any country besides Canada, according to the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University. At the Otay-Mesa crossing, a primarily commercial port of entry just eight miles east of the coast, some 3,000 trucks cross daily using two small local roads.
While plans to expand the larger crossing to the west have been approved, the federal money has never been appropriated. The Mexican government completed a renovation on its side of the San Ysidro-Tijuana crossing, but the plans on the U.S. side of the border have stalled, although President Barack Obama included $226 million for the project in his proposed federal budget last month.
"The problem has always been getting others to listen to us," said Mayor Carlos Bustamante of Tijuana, who was born in California and attended the University of San Diego. "But we are an economic force now in a way that we were not a decade or two ago. It is in everyone's interest to take advantage of that."