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Border town economies struggle to get business back after pandemic border closures

The U.S. southern border is now open to vaccinated travelers.
Border town economies struggle to get business back after pandemic border closures
Posted at 11:21 AM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 11:22:26-05

NOGALES, Ariz. — The town of Nogales, Arizona usually hosts visitors from Mexico by the thousands every day.

“We are not at the level we were pre-pandemic as far as the crossing,” Edith Serrano, the public affairs liaison for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection - Tucson Field Office, said.

“It was a drastic decrease in the volume of traffic that was entering through the ports of entry but we expect that to slowly be climbing.”

During the pandemic, only essential travelers or legal residents were allowed into the U.S.

In the past few months, both essential and nonessential travelers from Mexico, including tourists, were allowed to enter the U.S. with proof of vaccination.

“Since these were put in place it has delayed the wait time crossing the border a little bit,” Serrano said.

Once quiet and closed off in 2020, people are coming back through the entry points.

Businesses like La Familia are welcoming people back with open arms.

“De hecho ya estaban bajando las ventas pero estamos estables. Y con la pandemia, la verdad, si afectó a muchas personas, muchos negocios,” Ivan Caballero, who has worked at La Familia for over two decades, said. (“Truth is, business was already going down, but we were stable. And with the pandemic, it really affected a lot of people and a lot of businesses.”)

The store has significantly less staff now than pre-pandemic.

But they have fared better than other businesses in this once-busy street, littered with padlocked doors and closed signs.

“Bastantes tiendas cerraron y muchas ya no volvieron abrir,” Caballero said. (“A lot of stores closed and some didn’t open up again.”)

The U.S. southern ports of entry saw 130.8 million passenger vehicles come into the U.S. in the fiscal year of 2019.

In 2021, that number was down to 88.3 million.

In the same years, pedestrian crossings fell from 48.7 million to 26 million, according to stats from the U.S. Customers and Border Protection.

“If these people cross and they even buy a bottle of water for a dollar, that's just a huge impact,” Serrano said.

She added the economic impact goes beyond the border towns.

“It doesn't necessarily just stay here on our southern border, it expands throughout the United States,” she explained.

For David’s Western Wear, the lack of foot traffic is just one of many issues they face.

“It won’t get back to where it was and that's not just COVID, that's a lot of things,” David Moore, part owner at David’s Western Wear, said.

“Border business has been kind of tricky anyways for the past few years.”

Moore said Mexican nationals who once spent money in the U.S. instead spent their money in Mexico when they couldn’t cross.

“People have been coming back in but it’s slow going because a lot of people’s Visas ran out. So they’re trying to get appointments or re-validate them,” Moore said.

“But they can’t because the appointments are a year, two years out sometimes.”

With open borders and safety measures in place, customers are trickling back.

Businesses are staying open how ever they can, but many owners already see change coming.

“Aquí es un pueblo y no hay muchas partes en donde trabajar. Y a afectado demasiado y si sigue así, van a seguir quebrando y pues toda la gente va a necesitar trabajo. Vamos a tener que emigrar(…) a otras partes,” Caballero said. (“It’s a small town here and there’s not many places to work. It has really affected the community and if it continues to be like this, many businesses will keep closing and closing and more people are going to need jobs. This will make people move to other places.”)

“The dynamic of business is changing everywhere,” Moore said.

“Nogales’ problems have been problems since before COVID but COVID just put the squeeze on us pretty hard.”