By Hadrián González Torres
Government officials in the U.S. and Mexico are concerned with economic recovery as the border has been closed to non-essential travel for 15 months. The U.S. – Mexico border economy needs to recover as well. However, it will remain closed for an additional month, creating potential devastating economic, commercial, and personal consequences.
Last May, the Texas Border Coalition (TBC) sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, requesting that the restrictions that began in March 2020 at the southern border be eased. And with good reason, since the United States trades close to US $700 billion in goods and services with Mexico annually. More importantly, a good part of economic activity physically crosses the border on trucks and trains. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2019 US $429 billion crossed the U.S.-Mexico border by truck, and US $82 billion by rail.
But it’s not just goods that cross the border, it’s people too. And this is perhaps the most important element of the equation. U.S. border cities heavily rely on the influx of daily travelers from Mexico that acquire goods and services on the other side of the border, an element heavily stressed, yet often neglected, in TBC’s letter.
On a more personal note, being born in Mexicali, a small city and capital of the state of Baja California that borders with Calexico in the neighbor state of California, I have witnessed this cross-border integration myself. Interestingly, both names come from combining the words Mexico and California, a sign of friendship and the interconnected relationship between them.
It is very common for dual citizens (U.S. and Mexico) to cross the border from Mexicali into Calexico early in the morning to work in the U.S., despite long waiting times. Similarly, families or individuals with a valid visa often spend some time during the weekend shopping at malls, buying groceries, or even taking a road trip to San Diego or visiting an amusement park in the Los Angeles area. Every activity and dollar spent from Mexican tourists in the U.S. benefits the local border economy of both countries.
To put things into perspective, Mexicali has a population of 1 million. Calexico has roughly 40,000 and El Centro, the Imperial County capital city, has 44,000. Both of these U.S. cities rely on their retail, dining, and hospitality sectors, all of which have been heavily impacted by the year-long exclusion of potential customers from Mexico. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Calexico in California, or El Paso in Texas. It is also the reality of every town on both sides of the border.
Although workers have been allowed to cross the border, other individuals haven’t been able to do so. Aside from the economic consequences, these restrictions have also barred these individuals from visiting family members, adding a more personal aspect to this ongoing crisis.
Vaccination will play a key role in easing these restrictions, and cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. is needed in order to accelerate the border’s economic recovery. In fact, this issue was discussed during Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ most recent visit to Mexico, during which a plan for the gradual reopening of the border was proposed. The plan seeks to immunize the Mexican population over 18 years of age in 38 municipalities in six border states to match the vaccination numbers on both sides of the border.
As a result of this joint effort, the U.S. government has donated 1.35 million doses of the Janssen vaccine (from Johnson&Johnson) to help immunize one third of the border’s population, with vaccination starting in the Mexican state of Baja California. The Mexican government will provide the vaccines to immunize the remaining two-thirds of the border’s population.
As vaccination efforts continue, businesses and families alike are hurting after more than a year of border closures. Subject matter experts predict economic recovery will be slow, but there is no estimation of the actual impact this long-period of restrictions has had on the U.S.-Mexico border.
There’s a saying “better late than never.” In this case, I hope that this gradual plan for reopening is not arriving too late, and that the region can recover and come back stronger as it has shown in the past.
* Hadrián González Torres is member of the Young Professionals Program at the Mexican Council on Foreign Affairs (COMEXI), and Commercial Attaché at the Québec General Delegation in Mexico (DGQM). The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of the DGQM. The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound