One year anniversary of the border closure to non-essential traffic

COVID restrictions at the northern Mexican border have been applied mostly only northbound splitting families and hurting business

By Alexandra Mendoza | San Diego Union Tribune

Tijuana, BC Mexico – Today marks exactly one year since the COVID19 travel restrictions on non-essential border crossings took effect; a ban that still weighs heavily in a region so tightly interconnected as Tijuana-San Diego.

Countless businesses in the southern San Diego county have been affected by the dramatic decrease in the number of customers as well as Mexican families living south of the border unable to cross northbound to see their friends and loved ones.

Twelve months have passed now since that travel restriction was first put into effect and we will have to wait for at least one more as last Thursday, March 18, authorities in Mexico and the United States confirmed that the restrictions will remain in place at least for another month, until April 21st.

“It has been the most difficult year in our life,” said Jason Wells, director of the Chamber of Commerce in San Ysidro, a community that relies heavily on clientele that comes from Mexico.

In the last year since the restrictions were first put into place, 135 out of the 756 registered businesses in San Ysidro have closed their doors, Wells said.

Tijuana Peatonal crossing line empty

According to data from the local chamber of commerce, it is estimated that as much as 95 percent of their clients historically came from Mexico – Mexicans crossing with a a tourist visa.

The local San Ysidro business community enjoyed for decades what many interpreted as a “privileged location”, just steps away from one of the busiest border crossings in the world but today find themselves just struggling to survive as they watch the flow of customers at the border slow to a trickle.

“For businesses in San Ysidro it’s like a hose; right now the valve is closed but as soon as it is reopened, those who were able to endure this downturn will be fine, “said Wells.

The trickle down effect of the border restriction extends throughout much of the southern San Diego County.

Lisa Cohen, executive director for the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce pointed out that the COVID19 restrictions imposed by the pandemic in conjunction with those at the border also affected her business.

“We are seven miles from one of the largest borders, and having that closure definitely had an impact,” she commented.

A survey conducted between late 2019 and early 2020 by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the San Diego region’s primary public planning, transportation, and research agency found that 52 percent of respondents described their main reason for crossing the border as shopping, followed by 31 percent for work reasons and 9 percent saying they were visiting a friend or relative.

Lis Rodríguez lives in San Diego and is employed in the local insurance industry. She shared with us that she has not seen her family in over a year.

Midway through the legal process to obtain her permanent legal residence in the United States, Liz has not crossed into Mexico since October 2019.

Recently married, she initiated a process that she believed would only take three or four months but with bureaucratic delays exacerbated by the pandemic, she finds herself still waiting with no end in sight.

Before the border restrictions were implemented, her family and friends could cross from Tijuana into San Diego to visit her, but all that changed one year ago.

“I have not seen them for a year. One year without hugging them and I have missed all of their birthdays. It has been very difficult,” she shared.

At this point, Lis is unsure which will come first – her green card or the reopening of the border.

Back on March 21st of last year, she thought the border closure would only last a couple of months at the most, never dreaming it would still be in place a year later.

Pandemic impact at the border: Numbers

In fiscal year 2019, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processed nearly 40 million people crossed at the San Ysidro port of entry.

Last year with the border restrictions in place since March, that number dropped to a little more than 24 million persons, according to agency data.

Similar numbers were seen at the Otay Mesa point of entry, with 16 million travelers in processed in 2019 dropping to nearly 10 million in 2020.

Dr. Ietza Bojórquez, a researcher for the Population Studies Department at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, considers errors were made in how “non-essential border crossings” were defined and perhaps not the best way to have managed the situation, considering the impact on the local cross-border community as well as the overall economic impact.

Dr. Ietza Bojórquez, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte

She recalled that the World Health Organization (WHO) itself did not recommend travel restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic.

Dr. Bojórquez believes that restricting border crossings to primarily filter out Mexicans holding tourist visas while continuing to allow US citizens and green card holders through the border northbound, did little to stem the spread of the COVID infections in the United States or Mexico.

“If you decrease mobility in principle, yes, you decrease the probability that someone who is a carrier of a virus will transmit it to another person. That idea works at the border in a model where you completely block all border crossings.”

“However if you only decrease the number of people crossing by 40 or 50 percent the virus will continue to spread – as we clearly observed this last year – and unfairly impact a large segment of people who end up marginalized solely because they only hold a tourist visa.”

US and Mexico committed to continue the pandemic restrictions

Édgar Ramírez, attaché to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at the United States Embassy in Mexico added that “although the vaccination campaigns give us hope that the COVID-19 epidemic could begin to be controlled, we cannot lower our guard yet”.

To date, no plans as to how or when the border will be reopened have been announced.

“Based on the science as well as public health recommendations, we will work with our partners to identify an approach to ease restrictions when conditions permit and with the protection of our citizens in mind,” reported DHS.

Roberto Velasco, Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE)

In a recent visit to San Diego, Roberto Velasco, North American dispatch officer for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE), confirmed they have been working with their US counterparts for the last several weeks, evaluating options for a “careful and gradual” reopening of border.

“It is something that the pandemic itself will dictate and how the numbers continue to develop on both sides of the border. We all hope to hear in the very near future what that road will look like to be able be to achieve this, ”he said in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune.

One of the options on the table would be for a gradual reopening in stages or perhaps by states, he indicated in that conversation.

A few days ago, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard reiterated that a reopening of the border would be considered when the border states reach a green light regarding their epidemiological status.

So far, only Sonora is at that level.

Alonso Pérez Rico, Secretary of Health for the state of Baja California agreed that the best plan would be a gradual reopening.

Few border crossers at San ysidro, mostly US citizens and green card holders

“Nothing can be ‘we open everything or we close everything.”

If we do that, what is going to happen is a very important influx and transmission chains everywhere. In my opinion, the opening should be gradual and under a health security protocol ”, he commented in an interview last February.

It is still unknown when the restrictions will be lifted, and under what conditions.

But the fact remains that a border community accustomed to being able to freely cross back and forth between Tijuana and San Diego is already planning what they will do when the border finally reopens.

Lis Rodríguez has been thinking about little else lately and although she tells us that she stopped following the news out of frustration over the continuous extensions of the border restrictions, she knows that day will eventually come when the border is reopened.

“That day I’m going to hug my family like crazy.”

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