How a border ‘shutdown’ would look from a border town

Why We Wrote This

For many, daily border crossings are a way of life: Hundreds of thousands of people and a billion-plus dollars in goods legally cross the US-Mexican border every day, making closures a blow to both sides. 

Whitney Eulich
Antonio Ley stands in front of his food truck, Corazón de Tortas, on Nov. 19 in San Diego. Mr. Ley, a US citizen, lives in Tijuana and commutes across the US-Mexican border to get to work each day. He's one of tens of thousands of people making that commute on a daily basis.

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Antonio Ley crosses into the United States from Mexico five days a week to run his food truck. His commute is one of tens of thousands of daily border crossings that make this region distinctive. But daily crossings may now be at risk. After US Border Patrol agents clashed with Central American migrants late last month, leading to an hourslong closure at the San Ysidro border crossing, President Trump reiterated threats to shutter the US-Mexican border entirely. That could hit Mexico and the US hard, economically: About $1.7 billion in goods and services and hundreds of thousands of people legally cross the US-Mexican border every day. “Closing the border hurts both countries,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. Many Mexicans blame the closure on the migrant caravan, the estimated 6,000 Central American migrants who arrived in Tijuana in mid-November. “This isn’t going to stop. We are going to see more and more groups traveling to the border like this,” says Maritza Agundez, a lawyer with the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “This is a humanitarian crisis.” 

Antonio Ley’s commute starts off like many around the world: He brings the dog into the house, kisses his daughter goodbye, and heads down a steep hill to catch his bus.

His hourlong trip strays from the ordinary during his bus transfer, when Mr. Ley walks up a winding pedestrian ramp, shows his passport card to armed Mexican and US border agents, and answers a handful of questions, like how much cash he’s carrying. He’s leaving Mexico, where he lives, and entering the US, where he runs a food truck five days a week.

For Ley, who was born and raised in San Diego (and whose father moved in the opposite direction each day to practice law in Tijuana), his commute is one of tens of thousands of daily border crossings – for school, work, shopping, or to visit family and friends  – that make this region distinctive. 

In recent weeks, this tradition of daily crossings has been thrown into flux. After US border patrol agents clashed with a group of unarmed Central American migrants late last month, leading to an hours-long closure at the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, President Trump reiterated threats to shutter the US-Mexico border entirely. A border closure could hit Mexico and the US hard, economically: about $1.7 billion in goods and services and hundreds of thousands of people legally cross the US-Mexico border every day.

Many here say Mr. Trump couldn’t possibly follow through, largely due to the economic implications for the US, but others are taking precautions. Some now commute to work with overnight bags, just in case; parents are organizing alternate pick-up for kids who attend schools across the border and emergency childcare for children whose parents work across the border; and Tijuana-based factories are renting storage space in the US so products can reach clients even if the border closes.

“Closing the border hurts both countries. That’s the reality of integrated supply chains and economies,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “It’s a lose-lose situation,” for the US and Mexico, beyond direct border communities.

Mr. Wood doesn’t think closing the border is off the table as a negotiating tool for the US, whether in trying to pressure Mexico to do more about the migrant situation or trying to pressure Congress to pay for Trump’s long-promised border wall. “He is willing to take losses if it gets his point across, whether it’s tariffs or NAFTA renegotiations. Trump wants to get his way,” says Wood.

‘A humanitarian crisis’

On Sunday, Nov. 25, Elizabeth Rivas and her family were planning to cross the border to shop and take photos with Santa in a San Diego mall. Just before they left, Ms. Rivas started receiving messages from neighbors traveling to the US. They texted photos and videos of the melee at the border – migrants running from tear gas, others throwing rocks or sticks, some fleeing into traffic – and told her not to leave the house.

“This kind of situation really disrupts our life,” Rivas says of the border closure. She works in Tijuana, but crosses the border most weekends to run errands or visit friends, and her husband crosses multiple times a day for work during the week.

“The immediate effects [of a border closure] are pretty local,” says David Shirk, an associate professor of international relations at the University of San Diego who focuses on the US-Mexico border. “We see the border as a piece of infrastructure, and I think people in the rest of the country don’t understand it that way. It’s our highway and bridge, but everyone else sees it as this big gate that we can shut.”

Over the past month, the US has deployed active military troops to its southern border, and Trump has amplified pledges to expand the border wall. The calls are framed around the need to secure the border from drugs, crime, terrorism, and illegal migration. Despite the anxiety of another potential border closure, few here blame the US or Mexican governments. The so-called migrant caravan, made up of mostly Honduran migrants seeking work and safety in the US, receives the brunt of frustrations here over last month’s closure and the possibility of more in the future.   

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has also crossed the border, observers say. Even before the border closure, Tijuana residents took to the streets to protest the caravan’s arrival, throwing out slogans like “Mexico first,” and “No illegals.” Tijuana’s mayor was spotted wearing an iconic red baseball cap emblazoned with the words, “Make Tijuana Great Again.” 

An estimated 6,000 Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana with the caravan in mid-November, living in tents in a rundown, open-air sports complex with a clear view of the border wall. Heavy rains turned the space into a swamp last week, complete with a chorus of coughs and whimpering babies. By Thursday night, the government started transferring migrants to another shelter with a concrete floor and partial coverage from the elements. That, too, has been inundated with rain. 

Maritza Agundez, a lawyer with the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, calls the migrant caravan a “geopolitical problem that extends far from our borders.”

“This isn’t going to stop. We are going to see more and more groups traveling to the border like this,” given political unrest in Nicaragua and Honduras, gang violence in El Salvador, and extreme poverty in Guatemala, says Ms. Agundez, who has offered legal advice to caravan members. She believes their current living situation is beyond Mexican or US control, and requires the presence of international humanitarian actors. “This is a humanitarian crisis,” she says. 

Dr. Shirk agrees that the migrant caravan illustrates a problem that goes beyond border issues.

“None of the problems we try to manage at the border start at the border,” Shirk says of the border closures and the backlog of migrants waiting to apply for asylum in the US. “Once the problem has arrived at the border, it’s too late, whether it’s terrorism, immigration, or drugs,” he says. Making changes to the border “is not the answer.”

Privilege and perspective  

At the Alpha Guardian factory in Tijuana, workers on the factory floor are soldering, painting, and baking five-foot-tall safes for export to the US. Like many factories, or maquiladoras, here, they rely on raw materials from Asia and the US, labor in Mexico, and a global market of buyers. 

Screens hanging above employee desks in the logistics room show the GPS location of trucks moving finished products across the border into the US and materials into Mexico. A border closure could have profound effects on the business. Even a temporary closure – or threat of one – can cause a backup at the ports where freight trucks cross. Several years ago, the threat of a taxi strike led to a six-hour delay in crossing times. 

Before the migrant caravan arrived in Tijuana, Alpha Guardian’s logistics manager Roberto Delgado planned to send about 2000 completed safes across the border in advance of orders, in case of a closure.

“This was new for us,” says Mr. Delgado, who adds that the Tijuana chamber of commerce works closely with the local maquiladora association to help mitigate possible impacts on business, like border closures. The company rented storage space in the US to store safes, deciding the cost outweighed the potential losses if their safes were to become stuck in Mexico.

Ley, now in the US part of his commute, aboard a bus that drops him near the lot where he parks his food truck, thinks the focus on border closures is misguided. Standing in front of his truck, Corazón de Tortas, he says crossing the border each day is a “privilege that can’t overshadow the injustices” of what migrants are facing on the border right now. 

“I’m fortunate that I was born a gringo and that I can live in Tijuana but earn dollars in the US,” he says. “If I have to cross at another border crossing to get to work, fine. I will, even if it’s inconvenient.”

Instead of worrying about longer wait times or border closures, he says, the focus should be on “this terrible... human rights situation at our doorstep.”

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