The new executive director of the Smart Border Coalition starts his role at a time when the border community is demanding solutions to streamline crossings.
Joaquín Luken, 46, is familiar with the matter. He was born in San Diego and grew up in Tijuana. He began his work in the region in 2000 as associate director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce and later served as a business representative for the South Bay Expressway project.
Luken, who lives in Coronado, was chosen in January by a committee of leaders from both sides of the border.
Business leader Steve Williams, who co-chaired the committee said in a statement, “Joaquin has a deep understanding of the U.S.-Mexico border region”.
“Joaquin is bilingual, bicultural, and binational. These are all critical to building the next generation of our binational region,” added co-chair José Larroque.
Luken succeeds Gustavo de la Fuente, who served as the organization’s executive director since March 2017.
Smart Border Coalition is an nonprofit organization based in San Diego that brings together business people and stakeholders from both sides of the border to find ways to make border crossings more efficient. The U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership (BPP), serves as fiscal sponsor.
Luken said he believes that thanks to the work of organizations such as SBC and others in the region, the voice of the border community have been heard by governments of both countries.
As an example, he cited the creation of the SENTRI trusted traveler program, which began in 1995 as a pilot program at the Otay Mesa border crossing, following the efforts of local organizations and chambers of commerce.
At that time, a survey conducted by the San Diego Dialogue group found that most people crossing the border did so regularly, he recalled.
This year there are several border crossing projects on the table. Recently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reopened the PedWest border crossing but for limited hours. Several border groups have said they will continue to insist until the port of entry resumes its previous 24-hour operations.
Other projects are the opening of the new Otay Mesa East border crossing and the proposal to extend the trolley line to Tijuana.
Luken is aware that the biggest challenge to expediting border crossings is staffing at U.S. Customs. He said that the U.S. government’s reasons must be understood given the current migratory context and the pandemic, but at the same time, he knows people want to move across the border faster.
During peak hours, travelers often experience long waits at ports of entry to cross into the United States. People who cross the border daily for school or work often sacrifice hours of sleep to get in line early to ensure they will arrive on time.
Border delays also generate economic losses. In 2016, the economic output loss due to delays at the U.S.-Mexico border was estimated at $3.4 billion and 88,000 jobs lost, according to a report released in 2021 by the San Diego Association of Governments.
The 2021 report, presented by SANDAG in collaboration with Caltrans and the Imperial County Transportation Commission, shows that without improments to the border crossings, the economic loss could grow to more than $5 billion and more than 97,000 jobs lost by 2025.
One of the projects that could reduce these losses is the Otay Mesa East port of entry slated to open by 2024, the report says.
Luken said that now is a good time, given that conditions seem to be returning to normal after the pandemic.
“Now is the time to make our voices heard in order to achieve all these staffing, efficiency and hours of operation changes,” he said.
Groups such as SBC maintain constant communication with federal government authorities from both Mexico and the U.S. It is precisely in these meetings where the concerns of the border community can be expressed.
“We have to present everything that is discussed at a group level, and from there we insist and insist until we achieve it,” said Luken.
On his first official day as executive director on Jan.17, Luken said he would continue the dialogue with the organization’s board members to learn their vision and contribute with new ideas.
One of the ideas Luken has is to propose a SENTRI carpool lane, exclusively for people who cross daily to get to work or school early in the morning.
“It doesn’t require much infrastructure, it simply requires dialogue, information and data on how many people cross,” he said.
For Luken, a smart border should be “an informed border,” referring to the exchange of information prior to arrival at ports of entry. Currently, there are programs for travelers (such as SENTRI) or for commercial crossings that take advantage of this.
But also, he said that a smart border must listen to the needs of the people who cross it regularly. “The more we understand their needs, the better chance we have to create more efficient alternatives.”
Luken said it is a crucial time to maintain the conversation with authorities of both countries, and work to boost the economic development of the region, protect the environment and improve the quality of life of people who cross the border daily.