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San Diego, Interrupted: Trump’s Threats To Close The Border Slow Cross-Border Trade

Commuters wait in line at the San Ysidro Port of Entry en route to the U.S. i...

Photo by Adrian Durazo

Above: Commuters wait in line at the San Ysidro Port of Entry en route to the U.S. in Tijuana, Aug. 14, 2017.

President Trump's threats to close the border have slowed cross-border commerce at the country's busiest port of entry, despite his comments Thursday indicating he intended to give Mexico a year to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S.

Local business leaders fear the effect could be long-term.

"It's actually worse to have this threat renewed for a year versus resolving it now," said Paola Avila, vice president of international business affairs for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. "I consider it very detrimental."

Avila said businesses usually plan out investments years ahead of time, and that she foresees his comments having a chilling effect.

More than 100,000 people cross the San Diego-Tijuana border every day to go to school or work, to see a doctor or to go shopping. And many industries in San Diego depend on trade with Mexico. If Trump closes the border, people's lives — and the regional economy — would be interrupted. Some businesses are already seeing an impact from the mere threat of a border closure.

"Just the threats alone, that in itself is creating a problem," said Frank Carrillo, president of SIMNSA, a health care provider that offers medical and dental services in Tijuana for U.S. citizens from San Diego, Los Angeles and other areas. "People don't want to make the trip."

Carrillo said dozens of people canceled their appointments at SIMNSA this week because Trump’s threats to close the border made them afraid they’d get stuck in Mexico if they crossed. He said an actual closure would be "devastating" to his business and to many people who lead cross-border lives.

SIMNSA was the first Mexican HMO to be licensed as a health care service plan by the State of California. The HMO employs about 500 physicians and treats between 1,500 and 2,000 patients every day, who come principally because the care is more affordable in Tijuana than in San Diego.

RELATED: Trump Backs Off Border Shutdown But Threatens Auto Tariffs

While California has a shortage of doctors, Mexico has a surplus, Carrillo said. He said this translates into shorter wait times for doctor's appointments and more quality time with doctors in Mexico than in the U.S. He said cutting off their business would cause emergency rooms in California to flood.

"We’re dividing families by doing this. So really, nobody wins in this situation. Nobody wins," he said.

One SIMNSA patient, Bertha Herrero, lives in Imperial Beach but sees a dentist in Tijuana through SIMNSA because it's cheaper. She said closing the border would be a "real mess" for her because she needs to take care of her mom in Tijuana.

“All my things and my life goes over there, but I want to see my mom, I want to stay here maybe on the weekends or vacations," she said.

A temporary closure at the San Ysidro Port of Entry late last year led to the loss of millions of dollars on both sides of the border, according to some officials. Ever since then, fears about the border closing again are stifling what is normally a $4-billion annual exchange between the two cities.

San Diego’s hotels rely on workers from Tijuana. Mexicans work as nannies in San Diego, allowing U.S.-citizen mothers to keep their jobs. Americans who can’t afford San Diego housing live in Tijuana while commuting to work. Wealthier Mexicans send their kids to private school in San Diego.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has repeatedly touted the benefits of the binational relationship.

“Our relationship with our friends in Tijuana, our relationship with Mexico, is a strength of ours," he told KPBS in an interview last year.

Many local residents live as if the region were a single place.

“San Diego and Tijuana are really one metropolitan area even though there’s a border between us that separates us geographically and politically and all this stuff we are one community," said Lucila Conde, who works at a San Diego nonprofit but has a house in Tijuana and cares for sick relatives there. “We have commitments and relationships on both sides," she said.

Every morning, dozens of new asylum seekers arrive at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to put their names on a waitlist. It takes weeks to be called to speak to a U.S. customs officer, because of the long backlog and an unprecedented number of families seeking asylum. Most are from southern Mexico and Central America. Some come from other areas. One woman who’s been waiting since last month is from Cuba.

“If they close the border, I don’t know what’s going to happen to us," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared for her life. "When a human leaves her country, her culture, her habits and her roots, it's because she must. Because the saddest thing in the world is to be a migrant. People humiliate you. They mistreat you."

Back at the medical practice, Carrillo said that as much as he fears for his business, he fears for asylum-seekers too.

“The crisis is real. It is real it’s not fabricated. We do have a crisis. The crisis is in Central America. Poverty. These people are fleeing poverty and violence. So the answer to this problem is going to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is there," he said.

He said the U.S. should help people in Central America. But President Trump recently announced plans to end all aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as punishment for failing to stem the tide of migrants.

President Trump's threats to close the border are frightening people on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border, resulting in less commerce between the two cities.

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