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Border & Immigration

Politicians lobbied for border reopening as San Ysidro businesses suffered

Matthew Bowler
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria speaks with the media in San Ysidro about the reopening of the Mexican border to vaccinated travelers, Nov. 8, 2021.

The federal government’s ban on non-essential cross-border travel was the enemy that San Diego’s political establishment needed to find its voice on border advocacy.

The ban was implemented by the Trump administration in March 2020 and continued under the Biden administration until Monday. To local business leaders, it represented a Washington D.C. policy that failed to consider the needs of people who live along the border.

“It never had anything to do with the actual pandemic,” said Jason Wells, CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. “It was a capricious political decision made by the previous administration and the new administration didn’t know how to eliminate it without a guy in Ohio thinking they’re opening the border.”


Convincing the federal government to end the ban required lobbying from leaders in San Diego and all over the world. Mayors of border states in the U.S., Mexico and Canada joined business leaders and advocates in calling for a reopening. The controversial travel ban on residents from European countries was also lifted Monday.

While this lobbying was grinding along, those who live and work in border communities were struggling to survive.

Politicians lobbied for border reopening as San Ysidro businesses suffered

Speaker 1: (00:00)

After 20 months of COVID travel restrictions, non-essential travelers can finally cross the U S Mexico border. This is particularly welcome news to San Ysidro businesses who make most of their money from Mexican customers, KPBS border reporter, Gustavo Selise tells us what the reopening means to San Ysidro

Speaker 2: (00:22)

And dos COVID recoveries and full swing bars and restaurants have impact on weekends and tourists are coming back to beach, front hotels, but in San Ysidro it's been a different story. Sure. The state COVID protocols were lifted, but not the one that matters most cross border travel restrictions still kept Tijuana shoppers away from San Ysidro stores. Jason Wells is the CEO of the San Ysidro chamber of commerce. He has a funny way of explaining what San Ysidro has been going through.

Speaker 3: (00:49)

This is how I explained Santa CDOT. It's as if the governor had told little Italy, you could reopen go back to your normal lives. And then the president of United States came in and said, but the only people that can shop and needed a little little year, those that live in little Italy, they wouldn't have survived and we barely have,

Speaker 2: (01:05)

Well, it says the restrictions are inherently unfair. They protect large corporations at the expense of small businesses. That's because truckers and workers have been able to cross no problem, but shoppers haven't

Speaker 3: (01:17)

The low hanging fruit where tourist visas, uh, and unfortunately in binational communities, that's what we depend on for our living and our, and our quality of life. I will say because of our family members that could or could have

Speaker 2: (01:29)

San Diego council, woman, Vivian Moreno agrees, she represents San Ysidro and sees this as an equity issue.

Speaker 4: (01:36)

Communities have long been disproportionately impacted by the closure of the San Ysidro port of entry. The biggest port of entry crossing of the world. Border closures devastated the small businesses in San Ysidro depleted the regional economy and San Diego and weakened the tourism industry's ability to make a

Speaker 2: (01:57)

Comeback. The numbers speak for themselves.

Speaker 4: (02:00)

The Sandy Seadrill chamber of commerce reports that since 2020 $1 billion in retail sales have been lost. Over 2000 people lost their jobs. And over 200 businesses had to close permanently here in San Ysidro.

Speaker 5: (02:22)


Speaker 2: (02:25)

Olivia campus owns Caroline shoes. When the border opened Monday, she opened an hour early and even put goodie bags together for customer. She hadn't seen in 20 months, but on day one, the border reopening didn't live up to the hype.

Speaker 2: (02:43)

We expected to see more people. She says one theory behind the low numbers is long border wait times, or at least the fear of it only took about 15 minutes for people to walk across the border on Monday morning. But customs and border protection told the public to expect longer wait because of the reopening. So maybe people stayed home Monday to see how things play out. Kenya semi revise, the executive director of international businesses, fares for the San Diego regional chamber of commerce. Even with ongoing concerns over border wait times reopening the border is a net positive. She says,

Speaker 6: (03:17)

Especially for south county, even with the border, wait times, this is a new opportunity for them to reconnect with their consumer base, reconnect with their cross border workers. Um, and at least keep that low with tourism. Inject that into the new economy.

Speaker 7: (03:32)

We've been waiting a very long time for this day. This is a great day for Tijuana for San Diego, for our binational ratio. Let's give it up for reopening.

Speaker 2: (03:41)

That was San Diego mayor, Todd Gloria. He joined dozens of politicians from both sides of the border to celebrate the reopening. They spent months trying to convince Washington DC to lift the ban. One Ray of hope from this whole ordeal is that local leaders now have a roadmap of how to get the federal government to care about border issues

Speaker 7: (03:59)

We have done today should be a template going forward to drive positive change. The border is an asset in Tijuana and San Diego and Baja, California. And in California. This is a difference maker. It gives us an edge in the global economy. It improves our quality of life. It makes us a better region.

Speaker 1: (04:17)

Joining me is KPBS border reporter Gustavo Selise Gustavo. Welcome.

Speaker 2: (04:23)

Thank you, Maureen.

Speaker 1: (04:24)

So Mondays reopening of the border, didn't bring the crowds. Some businesses were hoping for is that expected to,

Speaker 2: (04:32)

Yes, yes, it is. Especially as we get closer to the holiday shopping season, which in Mexico kicks up on officially November 20th.

Speaker 1: (04:42)

Now you wrote an article recently about how long it's taking for the Mexican government to issue official vaccination documents. Could that be slowing down border travel?

Speaker 2: (04:54)

I think it's, it's better to understand it. If we compare it to what's going on in the U S right in the U S when you got vaccinated, you got a little vaccination card and you kind of kept that. And that's been your confirmation the whole time in Mexico when you got vaccinated and you got a flimsy piece of paper that you then have to go back to the federal government and more or less digitize. And in that process of converting the original flimsy one to the official one, there's been so many errors that there's now a backlog of, you know, tens of thousands of people in Tijuana who are trying to correct their documents so that they can travel to the U S I think it could be a factor, but I'm not sure how, how much of a factor. So I think maybe the expectation was, was wrong in the first place, just to have a big rush of people, the real test. I think Maureen will be this weekend, uh, to see how you know that cross border traffic is,

Speaker 1: (05:48)

Is there a concern that maybe after 20 months Mexican consumers have found alternatives to shopping in the U S

Speaker 2: (05:56)

Will. They did find alternatives, uh, in Tijuana, but I don't think those alternatives are going to stick around there. Right? The, the, the border closure really just presented a good business opportunity for people in Tijuana to target consumers that would normally buy their clothes, their electrical

Speaker 1: (06:16)

Appliances and their food in San Diego, right. They found ways to get all those goods in Mexico, but now that the border is reopening, I think those consumers, those Tijuana consumers are that are used to crossing the border. We'll just come back to San Diego. I think they prefer it to the new alternatives and Tijuana, tell us more about the equity concerns that some business owners and politicians are expressing about keeping border travel closed for such a long time.

Speaker 2: (06:46)

Right? Well, the, the real equity issue is just the fact that this, this policy came from Washington DC, and it really impacted San Ysidro and really all border communities. So the, the border communities that were feeling the brunt force of the impact, didn't really have much of a say in what was going on. And these are communities, as, as you'll know, here in San Diego, Sandy Seadrill was among the hardest hit by the pandemic when it first started. And it's just disproportionately affected by these outside factors. There's also the equity issue. When you look at the traditional conversation of wall street versus main street, the local businesses in San Ysidro have been quick to call out that the cross border restrictions didn't apply to manufacturing companies based in Tijuana that use trucks to ship their goods to San Diego. Those trucks were allowed to cross no problem. We're also big employment centers in San Diego. They're employees who live in Tijuana could cross the border and go to work in San Diego. The only businesses that were really affected by it were mom and pop businesses and the outlets who depend on their consumers, who live in Tijuana to cross the border. But all of a sudden, couldn't

Speaker 1: (07:57)

Now the numbers in your report, 200 businesses closed 2000 people, lost their jobs in San Ysidro. How does the community planning to recover from that big economic hit?

Speaker 2: (08:08)

Well, these next couple of months will be a big test of how that recovery goes right in San Ysidro. A lot of these businesses make the entire year's net profit from the holiday shopping period. Uh, so very heavily, you know, service industry dependent, uh, outside of that, there are some calls here locally. I know in San Diego county there been trying to lobby the federal government to provide some sort of COVID business relief specifically for border businesses. Not sure how much interest there will be that from the federal government, but there are at least trying.

Speaker 1: (08:43)

What about us citizens travel into Tijuana and Baja that was never officially ended, but it certainly slowed down during the pandemic. Is that expected to bounce back?

Speaker 2: (08:54)

Well, I think in many ways it's already been bouncing back. If you go to a value that while loop pay on the weekends, that's full. And there's a lot of people from San Diego and other parts of California going down there, you know, hotels by the beach and in Sonata and San Ysidro, they

Speaker 1: (09:11)

They've been open. I know just personally, there's been a lot of surface going down there in recent months. So I think collectively as a region, San Diego and Tijuana, we're going to see, we've already kind of been seeing that a recovery in the tourism sectors, your report says there's a silver lining in all this pandemic disruption, because officials say they now know how to get Washington to care about border issues. What have they learned about how to get that message across?

Speaker 2: (09:41)

I think more than anything, uh, local elected officials, business leaders, advocates, they sort of found their collective voice, right? They came together as one, uh, to lobby for this and not just here in San Diego, right? There are groups of mayors from border cities, San Diego, Tijuana, El Centro, Mexicali, uh, what is, uh, El Paso. They, they sort of realize that their voice is louder together, and they've used this border closure as almost like the, the rallying point. So I think that organizing the collective voice can be translated to other issues that affect us here locally.

Speaker 1: (10:20)

And I've been speaking with KPBS border reporter, Gustavo Soliz. And thank you so much.

Speaker 2: (10:25)

Well, thank you, Maureen.

Economic impact of the ban

Since the ban was implemented in March 2020, almost 300 businesses in San Ysidro have permanently shut down — some as recently as a week ago. That has decimated the working-class community in south San Diego and left it far behind other parts of the county in the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Wells says the restrictions have been inherently unfair. They favor large corporations with manufacturing facilities in Tijuana over businesses in San Ysidro.


For example, truckers who move goods from Tijuana into the United States were not impacted by the restrictions.

“The large corporations were happy because cargos were protected,” he said. “The regional work centers were happy because their employees were able to cross the border.”

An employee at the San Ysidro shoe store Carloin Shoes helps a customer choose a blanket to buy, San Ysidro. November 8, 2021.
Matthew Bowler
An employee at the San Ysidro shoe store Carloin Shoes helps a customer choose a blanket to buy, San Ysidro. November 8, 2021.

San Diego Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, who represents San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, agreed that the restrictions have been particularly hard in working-class border communities.

“Border communities have long been disproportionately impacted by the closure of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the biggest Port of Entry crossing in the world,” she said. “Border closures devastated the small businesses of San Ysidro, depleted the regional economy in San Diego and weakened the tourism industry’s ability to make a comeback.”

And while San Ysidro has faced the brunt of the impact, all of San Diego has felt the sting.

The San Diego Tourism Authority tracks spending by “Mexican day visitors,” which includes anyone who comes to San Diego from Mexico without staying overnight.

From 2000 to 2019, people who crossed the border from Tijuana to San Diego spent an average of $241 million a year. In 2020, that figure dropped to $111 million.

The tourism authority data also show monthly spending going from $18 million in February 2020, to $5.8 million in April 2020. Cross-border spending has averaged less than $7 million a month throughout the border closure.

The hardest-hit sectors were retail, hospitality and tourism.

The restrictions kept some of San Diego’s most loyal shoppers in Tijuana. People like Claudia Muñoz de Cote, who loves weekend trips to Fashion Valley and dinners out at Il Fornaio in Coronado and Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse downtown.

During the pandemic, the only way Muñoz could get to San Diego was by flying — way out of the way — over the border. She’d fly from Tijuana 1,100 miles south to Guadalajara and then from Guadalajara to San Diego. The drive is normally less than 20 miles.

In Tijuana, some who were able to cross the border found an easy side hustle. Well-to-do families in Tijuana that didn’t have relatives or friends who could cross the border, paid people to run errands for them.

Muñoz de Cote said she used that service to buy the big boxes of Lysol wipes that are only sold at Costco.

San Ysidro’s Economic Outlook

Small business owners in San Ysidro Boulevard — those who are still operating — typically survived by working nonstop.

“We did it by working 10-hour days, seven days a week and cutting costs as much as possible,” said Olivia Campos, the owner of Carolin’s Shoes.

She opened an hour early Monday, offered special discounts and even put together goodie bags for returning customers. But the crowds never came.

“We expected more,” she said. “But we aren’t totally disillusioned.”

She thinks more people will start to cross regularly on the weekend and the holiday shopping period.

One theory behind Monday’s low numbers is long border wait times — or at least fear of them.

It only took 15 minutes for people to walk across the San Ysidro Port of Entry Monday morning. But Customs and Border Protection told the public to expect longer wait times because of the reopening.

Campos thinks people stayed home to see how things played out.

Montserrat Caballero, the newly elected Mayor of Tijuana, at a press conference in front of the pedestrian crossing into the United States from Tijuana. San Ysidro, Nov. 8, 2021.
Matthew Bowler
Montserrat Caballero, the newly elected Mayor of Tijuana, at a press conference in front of the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing into the United States from Tijuana, Nov. 8, 2021.

Long wait times have hurt San Diego’s economy long before COVID-19, said Kenia Zamarripa, the executive director of international business affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“Before the pandemic, it was already estimated that our region — both sides of the border — lost $3.4 billion in lost economic output just because of the border wait times," Zamarripa said. "So to add restrictions and then at one point during the pandemic we were talking about these poor people waiting three or four hours — which translates to people being late for work, not showing up, businesses operating short-staffed.”

Now that the border is reopened, Zamarripa, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and other stakeholders who lobbied for lifting the restrictions want to focus on other border issues like the long wait times and cross-border water pollution.

“Let’s take the similar efforts that we’ve done here today and drive change on our border to improve things,” Gloria said. “Let’s drive down border wait times because it shouldn't take so long to cross the border.”

This template, Gloria said, can change the country’s perception of what the borderlands are.

“Everyone up here knows the border is an asset in Tijuana, San Diego, Baja California and California,” he said. “This is a difference-maker. It gives us an edge in the global economy, it improves our quality of life, it makes us a better region.”

Politicians lobbied for border reopening as San Ysidro businesses suffered