EL PASO (Border Report) — There are two ways to cross the land ports of entry leading to the United States from Mexico: on foot or by vehicle.

Long wait times with vehicles

The trip north from Mexico usually starts with a one- to two-hour wait just to get to the vehicle inspection booths on the American side of a border crossing. The crawl is usually enlivened by encounters with vendors and “ragmen” who walk along the vehicle lines peddling anything from candy to arts and crafts to the waiting motorists. Other street entrepreneurs carry bottles of soapy water and a rag, offering to wash car windows or dust off the hood while people wait.

Most international crossings have toll booths on the Mexican side that charge 30 Mexican pesos (About $1.65, depending on the exchange rate) before the vehicle is allowed to approach the U.S. side. Most border crossings have multiple vehicle lanes — anywhere from two to six — that are subdivided into additional lanes as the vehicle approaches the U.S. inspection booths.

Across the bridge

Part of the actual land crossing or border bridge belongs to Mexico and part belongs to the United States. The border is usually defined by U.S. flags on the U.S. side. Once a vehicle enters the American side of the crossing, even if it still hasn’t reached the actual inspection booths for admission into the United States, it’s subject to a random search by roving U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. The officers often carry mirrors attached long metal rods for undercarriage inspections of vehicles; others lead drugs- and explosive-sniffing dogs through the lines of waiting vehicles. Sometimes the officers will ask people to roll down their window and ask what they are bringing back from Mexico. Sometimes they will radio peers at inspection booths, recommending vehicles be sent to “secondary inspection.”

As the crawl toward American territory continues, some of the lanes divide into secure “Ready Lanes” and general vehicle lanes. The Ready Lanes are for motorists and passengers who carry chip-enabled immigration documents that are read by sensors using radio-frequency technology, which allows CBP officers to load the crosser’s information onto their computer screen even before the vehicle stops at the booth. Cameras a few feet from the inspection booths take photos of vehicle plates as well as any visible occupants.

Vehicle and document inspection

The officer at the inspection booth asks motorists and their passengers questions to determine admissibility to the United States. This involves scanning immigration documents — including passports, passport cards, permanent legal resident cards, border crossing cards or foreign passports with valid U.S. visas. The officer may ask “control” questions to verify the information on the documents and ensure the carrier is, indeed, the lawful owner. The officer will routinely ask: “What was the purpose of your visit to Mexico?”

Another part of the admission interview includes questions about what the driver or passengers are bringing into the United States. Common questions include, “Are you bringing any fruits or vegetables?” or “Do you have anything to declare?” Border crossers are supposed to state if they’re carrying items that are prohibited or cash or monetary instruments in excess of $10,000. The officer often will inspect the trunk or glove compartment of the vehicle.

If the CBP officer is satisfied with the documents and the answers, he will grant admission to the United States and the vehicle is allowed to proceed. Leaving the border crossing usually involves navigating a series of physical obstacles, such as concrete barriers, orange drums or cones, designed to prevent vehicles from speeding past the inspection booths.

If the officer determines further inspection is required, he or she will direct the vehicle and its occupants to the “secondary” area of the crossing. At secondary inspection, another officer will question the occupants and either direct the vehicle to a low-level X-ray machine or re-inspect the vehicle while the occupants are directed to wait nearby.

Walking across the border

In the case of people crossing on foot, the inspection process usually takes place in a building parallel to the vehicle booths. In some crossings, like El Paso, an initial inspection takes place where the U.S. side of the bridge or crossing begins, just to ensure the pedestrian has some sort of immigration document and is not a vendor or an unregistered asylum seeker. As the pedestrian approaches the inspection building, doors are marked for U.S. citizens, Sentri (pre-screened travelers), non-U.S. citizens, students and/or the handicapped.

Inside the building, pedestrians line up according to their status and a new crawl toward the inspection table begins, taking anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. As the individual approaches the inspector, they place their immigration document on an electronic reader that allows the CBP inspector to access the border-crosser’s information before he or she approaches for an interview.

The admission interview for pedestrians is similar to that of drivers and their passengers. The officer will ask questions to test basic information, the purpose of the trip to Mexico and what the individual is bringing into the United States. If the officer determines more questions are warranted, he will send the individual to a secondary inspection area, usually an office. If the individual gains admission, the last step usually involves placing bags, backpacks or luggage in an X-ray machine a few feet behind the primary inspection area.

As documents are checked by CBP inspectors and a record of the crossing is created and added to the traveler’s profile.