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The San Ysidro Port of Entry / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

If you had asked Paola Avila two weeks ago if closing the border was a possibility and something she supported, Avila would’ve had a very different reaction than she does today.

Avila, who works on binational affairs for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, has spent her career advocating for keeping the border as open and efficient as possible.

Coronavirus has changed that. And now Avila believes limiting cross-border movement is essential for maintaining the long-term well-being of the region.

“Here’s the thing,” Avila said. “Our whole mission has been to promote cross-border activity, keep the border open at all costs because that is critical to our well-being, our lifeblood. This is unprecedented, the situation that we’re in — none of us could have predicted the severity of it. We’re at a point now where we have to take drastic measures, like these restrictions, for the greater good.”

On Saturday, restrictions on cross-border travel went into effect across the U.S.-Mexico border, closing it to all nonessential travel.

Commercial goods arriving via rail and truck are exempt, as are “essential” personnel, lawful permanent residents and those with legal work permits. Essential travel includes people in need of medical care, or who are attending school or engaged in a trade, like truck drivers, according to a regulation notice set to be published Tuesday.

Both countries’ governments wanted to figure out a way to limit the cross-border spread of coronavirus, “and do it in a way that wouldn’t affect the commercial exchange that characterizes such an integrated region,” said Carlos González Gutiérrez, the consul general of México in San Diego.

Authorities will allow anyone who shows a U.S. passport, a green card or a work permit to cross, Gutiérrez said. Tourist visa-holders will not be, unless they can convince U.S. immigration officials that they are crossing for a reason other than tourism and recreation.

If you arrive by plane from Mexico, these restrictions currently don’t apply, but things could change in the future, Gutiérrez said.

Going southbound into Mexico is another case. Gutiérrez said the same level of restrictions will likely be enforced on pedestrian crossers who have to pass through migration controls. Mexican authorities do not stop and process each and every vehicle.

“We have openly and clearly called for people on both sides of the border to stop crossing for purposes of tourism,” Gutiérrez said. “We hope that call is more than enough to discourage recreational trips to Mexico.”

Shutting down the border is extremely rare because of its economic cost.

The commercial exchange between Tijuana and San Diego is valued at $2.1 million per day, and the San Ysidro Port of Entry alone experiences more than 70,000 vehicle and 25,000 pedestrian crossings into the United States daily. With an integrated manufacturing supply chain worth $2.5 billion, the Cali-Baja region critically depends on its cross-border connectivity and the efficient movement of goods, which accounts for a gross regional product of $255 billion.

In fall 2018, when the public was experiencing delays related to the migrant caravan, one five-hour closure at the border cost businesses in San Ysidro $5.3 million. The losses to Tijuana businesses were equivalent to roughly $6.5 million.

Slowdowns at the border following Sept. 11 were also economically detrimental.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the San Ysidro Port of Entry remained open, though border traffic slowed significantly due to new security protocols. The slowdown was so intense, the city of San Diego declared an “economic emergency,” according to a paper by Brown University professor Peter Andreas.

Cross-border trade along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, which had been running at about $670 million, fell by an average of 15 percent in the weeks following the attacks, Andreas wrote.

Even though only recreation and tourism are currently being cut off at the border, Avila said it will have a severe economic impact. Based on past surveys of border crossers in the region, on average one-third of crossings are for tourism and recreation, she said.

But Gutiérrez, Avila and Jason Wells, the CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, all said that border traffic was already significantly impacted by the coronavirus before the restrictions went into place Saturday.

Businesses in San Ysidro saw a decline of about 80 percent in sales by Friday, Wells said.

“Border crossings had been down so far that there wasn’t much to cut from,” Wells said.

Avila hopes that the strength of the cross-border region will help it bounce back faster from any economic impacts of the coronavirus. The region has recovered from other recessions faster than other parts of the country.

“These are very difficult times and it will be very detrimental to our economy, but I have faith that in supporting each other during this process and afterwards, we’ll be able to restart the economy in a strong way, as we have done in the past.”

Other Changes at the Border

The United States and Mexico have also worked out new agreements regarding immigrants and asylum-seekers, Gutiérrez said.

Mexico has agreed to work with the United States to expedite the repatriation of migrants who are caught trying to cross the border without permission. The Mexican government has also agreed on a case-by-case basis to accept non-Mexican nationals form Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as refugees in Mexico, even if they are not part of the Migration Protection Protocols program.

“We are doing it because we understand it is our obligation to take care of their human rights,” Gutiérrez said, noting that both governments wanted to limit the time immigrants spend in U.S. custody.

Migrants from other countries and anyone who is already vulnerable — people over 65 years old, people already sick, children, pregnant women — will not be accepted back into Mexico right now.

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Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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