"Leon" Vega of Mexicali has an old card. It has no thumb imprint and no information strip on the back. It allowed him to pass into the U.S. on Friday but will not let him pass Monday.
Michael Freeman, port director for the INS's Calexico and Andrade ports, said more than 1,000 Mexicali border-crossers in Vega's predicament could be banned Monday if they try to cross with their old cards.
If they aren't allowed over, it won't be the fault of the INS, he said.
"(We) have been publicizing (the deadline) for the past two years. It hasn't been a secret. This is the second extension (border-crossers) are working on right now," Freeman said.
In 1996 Congress passed legislation requiring the replacement of the old border- crossing cards with "laser visas" — cards imprinted with laser technology. The new cards are harder to counterfeit and contain more information about the crosser.
The old cards were to have been phased out by 1999 but Congress passed an extension until Oct. 1, 2001.
Although another extension has been written into pending legislation, the bill remains mired in the Senate's Judiciary Committee.
Congress did not take any action on the bill before breaking last week.
Freeman compared the predicament facing border-crossers with old cards to those who file their taxes at the last minute.
"A majority of the people have renewed their cards already," he said.
Those who haven't might have to wait until November to get an appointment at the U.S. consulate, according to an agent working the line.
Freeman said the consulate is processing the applications of 900-1,000 people a day but acknowledged that some might not get new cards anytime soon.
Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.orgBy AARON CLAVERIE
CALEXICO — If some would-be border crossers are not allowed to enter the U.S. on Monday because they don't have new border-crossing cards, it will be one more blow to a local economy hammered since strict security measures at the Calexico ports of entry have cut the number of people who shop and eat here.
Ricky Chun, owner of Casa Ricky, a novelty and toy store across the street from the downtown port of entry, said his business has dwindled 75 percent since border security was tightened.
Added measures were instituted at all U.S. ports of entry on Sept. 11 — hours after the coordinated attack on the U.S.
On Friday, Chun said a policy requiring Mexicali border-crossers to have new cards could worsen the situation for his business.
He waved his hand in the direction of the port and said, "The (Immigration and Naturalization Service) needs to help increase the number of people crossing the border."
He stopped talking and rang up a sale. A woman paid less than a dollar for two packages of novelty gum.
After she left, the store was empty.
No children oohed or ahhed over the flashing lights of a battery-powered robot or squealed for a Hello Kitty backpack.
If it was the "Old West" circa 1952 a tumbleweed would have been seen rumbling down First Street and the only business still open would be the saloon.
Across town at the Calexico Wal-Mart, the parking lot is "30 percent less full from what it used to be," according to Assistant Manager George Valdez.
When asked if the recent security measures on the border have affected business, he echoed Vice President Dick Cheney when he said "Big time."
Valdez said banning border-crossers who don't have new "laser cards" could exacerbate the problem. The new cards are imprinted with laser technology, according to the INS.
While business at Wal-Mart hasn't dropped 75 percent, Valdez said it is definitely off.
He said a number of ancillary businesses surrounding the Wal-Mart might close if stricter security measures continue. One of those ancillary businesses is Hometown Buffet on Cole Road.
Before the attacks, the restaurant and Wal-Mart were beacons for Mexicali-based border-crossers tourists who shopped for an hour and then had a leisurely lunch.
Recently Hometown Buffet has seen business drop by 30 percent as prospective customers have had to wait up to two hours in line to cross into Calexico.
Hometown Buffet manager Susan Valle said banning border-crossers without new cards would have "a big effect" on an already bad situation.
It will cause a ripple throughout Calexico and the Imperial Valley because the buffet's food orders are down and employees have seen their hours slashed.
"We're scheduling because of our projected guest counts and those counts have decreased by 30 percent," Valle said.
When asked what should be done to help local merchants, she said, "Calexico merchants need to get together and speak to INS and have a meeting.
"A lot of our employees are late to work because they can't get across. We were talking about that (Friday). The agents are standing around talking and taking their time while (border-crossers) have been in the line for an hour or an hour-and-a-half.
"I realize they have to do their job but I don't think there is a sense of urgency," Valle said.
Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or email@example.com