The San Ysidro Port of Entry / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As stores in the northern parts of the region begin to bounce back, expect the border businesses to continue to struggle.

Nearly a quarter of all businesses in San Ysidro have permanently closed during the pandemic.

The driving force isn’t pandemic-related business restrictions. It is a ban on “non-essential” cross-border travel that has essentially cut off San Ysidro’s businesses from the majority of their customers.

Tijuana residents who used to be able to cross with tourist visas accounted for 95 percent of the customers who frequent the mom-and-pop shops along San Ysidro Boulevard and 65 percent of the customers at the outlet shops, said Jason Wells, CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.

Wells has been tracking the human and financial toll of these border travel restrictions since they began in March 2020.

He told me 197 of the roughly 800 businesses in the area have closed for good. Those closures add up to 1,900 people losing their jobs.

On the financial side, Wells said businesses in San Ysidro have lost a collective $600 million in sales compared with the last non-pandemic year – a loss that also impacts San Diego’s sales tax revenues.

And because San Ysidro’s economic woes are fueled by cross-border travel restrictions, the reopening of California’s economy likely won’t solve the issue. As stores in the northern parts of the region begin to bounce back, expect the border businesses to continue to struggle.

“You would be hard-pressed to find anybody who thinks this is a good situation,” Wells said.

One particular point of frustration is the unequal nature of how border restrictions have been implemented.

The Department of Homeland Security announced the restrictions as a “collaborative and reciprocal initiative” between the United States and Mexico.

But in practice, southbound tourist traffic into Mexico hasn’t been stopped. So Americans are free to spend their dollars on weekend trips to Valle de Guadalupe while Mexicans are barred from spending their money in San Ysidro’s outlet shops.

Wells believes Mexico City recognizes the importance of cross-border customers more than the Washington D.C. does.

“They’re smart enough to know that they, as a country, depend on American dollars like we, as a community, depend on the Mexican shopper,” he said.

The restrictions also favor one type of business over another – specifically Wall Street over Main Street.

The stated purpose of the “non-essential” travel restrictions has been to limit the spread of COVID-19 without impeding binational trade and commerce.

“Recognizing the robust trade relationship between the United States and Mexico, we agree our two countries, in response to the ongoing global and regional health situation, require particular measures both to protect bilateral trade and our countries’ economies and ensure the health of our nations’ citizens,” reads a statement on the Department of Homeland Security website.

Cargo trucks have been allowed to continue to transport goods manufactured in Mexico to consumers in the U.S. Some of those goods are from American companies that relocated to Mexico because of the significantly lower labor costs – minimum wage in Tijuana is a little more than $10 a day.

Meanwhile the mom-and-pop shops along SanYsidro Boulevard have taken the brunt of the damage, Wells said.

“The federal government talks about commerce as cargo trucks crossing the border,” he said. “But they are ignoring a different type of cross-border commerce, which is primarily done by small businesses along the border.”

Not-So-Friendly Friendship Park

In a move that has angered local advocates, Customs and Border Protection will keep Friendship Park closed indefinitely because of what the agency described as a lack of staffing.

For decades, the park has been a symbol of binational unity.

Juan Aguiar holds his daughter, Sinay, as they visit with family members through the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Friendship Park in 2017. / Photo by David Maung

Friendship Park, which is within Border Field State Park, is one of the few places along the U.S.-Mexico border where people on the U.S. side can talk to loved ones in Mexico who are unable to legally cross the border.

It has been used for weddings, yoga classes and religious services. People drive from as far away as Los Angeles and the Inland Empire to see their loved ones in this unique place along an increasingly militarized border.

CBP closed Friendship Park last year when California shut down the state park system. The rationale was that since Border Field State Park was closed, there is no real access to Friendship Park.

When the state reopened the state park system, advocates thought Friendship Park would reopen too.

But that hasn’t been the case.

“We continually monitor the increase in immigration and the number of agents we have available,” CBP said in a statement to Telemundo 20 “Unfortunately, at the moment we won’t be able to open Friendship Park until we have enough staff available to ensure that when we open it the whole audience is safe.”

Recommended Reading

  • Big Changes are coming to the Cross-Border XPress, a pedestrian bridge that connects the United STates to Tijuana International Airport. This expansion will bring a parking garage, hotel rooms, gas station and retail shops to a terminal that had 3 million users in 2019 and generated $855 million in economic impact. (Union-Tribune)
  • Since March, the San Diego Convention Center has housed 2,629 unaccompanied children. So far, 989 have been reunited with family members or sponsors in the U.S. The average stay is 30 days and the average population has held steady at roughly 1,100. (KPBS)
  • A Tijuana shelter is offering free classes to migrants. The U.N. Refugee Agency is financing the construction and the Vista Hermosa Foundation will cover the operating expenses. This is mostly in response to record asylum applications in Mexico from migrants who are giving up on their American dream and deciding to stay in Mexico. A record 9,000 asylum petitions were reported in March 2021. (Union-Tribune)

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