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Everything’s Fine at the Most Open Border in America

The staggering daily flow of legitimate travelers, goods and services between San Diego and Tijuana is a triumph of dollars and sense and regional integration.

Bloomberg Opinion — The border between the U.S. and Mexico is located in a large room. From the Mexican side, you get there by walking through a series of hallways. You may also take some elevators. It’s clean, quiet and orderly — more DMV than Versailles.

This description may not comport with the images of the border you may have seen on television. Those images are not false. There are certain points along the border that are magnets for misery, from one side, and demagogy from the other. Television cameras and journalists congregate in those places alongside foreign migrants desperate for relief and American senators and representatives hungry for publicity.

Yet my description of the border is nonetheless accurate. I have walked the border’s hallways and ridden its elevators. Earlier this month I flew from La Paz, on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, to Tijuana. Then I walked from the airport in Mexico across to the U.S. I was accompanied through this Cross Border Express, as it’s called, by Americans, Mexicans and a rolling battalion of luggage. By the time I was outside in the warm and open air, I had the keys to my rental car in hand and was heading for San Diego. The border, back inside the terminal, was already behind me.

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No portion of the U.S. border is “open.” To get from Tijuana to San Diego you need government authorization of one form or another. Along America’s extensive, highly militarized Southwestern land border, the U.S. Border Patrol intercepted more than 1.7 million undocumented migrants in the fiscal year that ended in October. Because a Covid-related policy named Title 42 enables essentially instant deportation, perhaps as many as one in four of those turned back were migrants who had tried to enter the U.S. multiple times.

In a logical inversion that reflects how dishonest debate can get, large numbers of arrests and deportations are cited as evidence that the border is “open.” Likewise, border seizures of large quantities of northbound drugs are noted as further proof that the border is porous. It’s akin to pointing to the U.S.’s large prison population as evidence that crime in the U.S. goes unpunished. Vast political energy goes into turning reason upside down.

Yet if you were a politician interested in showcasing a relatively open border, instead of a politician intent on manufacturing and exploiting fear, you might come to the imaginary line separating Tijuana, Mexico, from San Ysidro, California. It’s the busiest land-border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, and local officials on both sides are constantly scheming to ease the flow of goods and people in both directions.

In August alone, before border restrictions on nonessential travel were lifted for vaccinated foreigners on November 8, more than 2 million vehicle passengers traveled from Mexico across the San Ysidro port of entry. In other words, at just this one port of entry, more people lawfully drove automobiles from Mexico to the U.S. than were intercepted along the border in an entire year of record apprehensions. Nearly half a million more pedestrians walked north across the border at San Ysidro. That sounds a little open border-y doesn’t it? And that’s not counting the commercial trucks that cross at a nearby port of entry, Otay Mesa.

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“For people like me,” said Kenia Zamarippa, executive director of international business affairs for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, “the border’s a blur. I’ve been crossing the border for work since I was 19.”

Zamarippa is a live action model of a region that proudly, publicly declares itself “binational.” A citizen of both Mexico and the U.S., Zamarippa was born in the U.S. and educated in Mexico — including college at a university that’s now accredited in the U.S. She works in San Diego while living in Tijuana, where housing, as many American retirees will attest, is cheaper. Many of her friends from Tijuana, she said, began routine border crossing even before she did — attending school in California while living in Tijuana.

Cross-border integration here is both a long-term ideal and a contemporary norm. More than 100,000 commuters cross the border at San Ysidro each day. Business and political leaders in Southern California speak of a place they call “CaliBaja,” and often present a binational public face. As Jerry Sanders, who was a Republican mayor of San Diego as well as its chief of police and is now president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber, told a business journal in 2018, “We work more closely with the governor of Baja than we do with the governor of California. Our economies are so intertwined that you can’t separate them. Every new job in Baja creates half a job in San Diego.”

At the Otay Mesa border crossing, some products cross back and forth between the two countries multiple times, acquiring “inputs and raw materials” on both sides of the border before being finished and shipped. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the top freight imports coming through Otay Mesa from Mexico include electrical machinery, equipment and parts, vehicles and measuring and testing instruments — that is, relatively high-end manufacturing.

Among the San Diego Regional Chamber’s 2,500 dues-paying members are businesses located in the Mexican state of Baja. While driving around the acres of warehouses and logistics firms on the U.S. side of the border, I pulled up to a stoplight next to a truck. Its cab listed a San Diego address. Its license plate was from Baja, Mexico.

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Undocumented migrants still try to enter the U.S. near San Ysidro. But the bigger challenge is reducing wait times to keep the swelling flow of authorized travel moving in both directions. The San Ysidro Port of Entry recently completed a more than $700-million expansion, which includes more pedestrian space and additional lanes for automobile traffic, creating a total of 62 northbound vehicle inspection booths across 34 lanes. Unfortunately, 34 lanes of traffic likely won’t be enough. The San Diego Association of Governments projects an 87% increase in vehicle traffic into San Ysidro by 2030.

Most of that traffic is essential — related to labor, the transit of goods and services or school. But some of it is simply shopping. The closure of the border to nonessential travel was devastating to San Ysidro merchants. “During the 20 months of border restrictions, we lost $1.3 billion in sales, lost 2,200 jobs and closed 276 businesses,” emailed Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. “On San Ysidro Boulevard — home to our mon-n-pops — 93% of customers come from across the border.”

San Ysidro Boulevard is a discount haven featuring affordable goods, including clothes and household items. On November 13, the first Saturday after the lifting of border restrictions on nonessential travel, pedestrians and automobile drivers streamed across the border from Mexico, eager to spend money in the U.S.

At Abby’s Apparel Home Textile on San Ysidro Boulevard, in a micro-shopping center called Plaza Azul, customers brought large, plastic-encased bedding to the counter where Jocelyn Santos rang up sales. Transactions took place entirely in Spanish. “The last two years were hard,” Santos told me later, in halting English. “Most customers are from Mexico. It’s very busy today.”

A short drive away, other shoppers, their cars sporting plates mostly from Baja and California, circled the parking lot of Las Americas Premium Outlets, hoping to score a scarce parking space. From the far end of the parking lot you could see the top of a wall and barbed wire marking the nearby border. Inside the mall, however, it’s All-American consumerism. The outlet operation, which belongs to Simon Property Group, is a familiar collection of high-end brands catering to affluent consumers. Some of those consumers arrive in BMWs or Mercedes from Mexico.

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Mexico still has widespread poverty. But in FY 2021, Mexicans represented only about one-third of migrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Most of those migrants arrive from places far from the border — Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, even India and China. According to the World Bank, Mexico’s gross domestic product per capita hit almost $11,000 in 2014, before faltering. It currently stands around $8,300, less than Russia ($10,126) and more than Serbia ($7,666). Yet the world’s 10th most populous country, which has more than 126 million residents and ranks 13th in the world in geographic area, still has plenty of wealth.

Daniel Palomares, 50, and his family put their shopping bags in their red Honda CRV. “I needed some stuff,” Palomares explained. Before border travel was restricted due to Covid regulations, Palomares said, he used to cross the border to shop in the U.S. two or three times a month.

Amado Cuadres, 47, said it had been almost two years since he had shopped at Las Americas. He has a SENTRI pass that allows him to drive his four-door Jeep through an expedited transit lane at the border check. Even today, with pent-up demand increasing traffic, he said he made the trip from his home in Tijuana in about 50 minutes.

Every worker I spoke to in the Las Americas shops had registered the impact. A sales clerk at the North Face outlet said business had picked up the first night that restrictions were lifted — the previous Monday. Mexican consumers finished work and drove north to shop. “People came across right after work,” he said.

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I ate huevos rancheros that morning at Achiote, an expansive Mexican restaurant across the parking lot from most of the Las Americas shops. To my right was a couple speaking alternately in crisply enunciated English and similarly precise Spanish, without ever merging the two into Spanglish. To my left was a trio speaking exclusively in Spanish. My waiter’s accent was so thick I had trouble understanding his English.

Keno Revilla, the general manager, told me that his (understaffed) restaurant employs 45 people working two shifts, seven days a week. He’s grateful that the business survived the double blow of Covid and the border closing. Things are better now. “We’ve had a waiting list every day of the week since they reopened the border,” he said.

*****

I had trouble understanding exactly how the Cross Border Express worked until I traversed the terminal myself. It’s pretty great. The CBX opened in 2015 as the only binational airport terminal in the U.S., connecting a passenger terminal in San Diego with Tijuana International Airport via a 390-foot pedestrian skybridge across the border. More than 10 million passengers have passed through it since then.

Passengers entering from the American side can apply at digital kiosks for the Forma Migratoria Multiple, the authorization to enter Mexico as a tourist. Then they can access Tijuana flights from Aeromexico, Calafia, Volaris or Viva Aerobus at prices that are typically cheaper than they will find for flights originating at Southern California airports.

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From the Mexican side, you touch down at Tijuana International Airport, walk to the CBX ticket kiosk (if you haven’t purchased a ticket in advance) and then proceed to the U.S. border. Along the way are digital kiosks for obtaining an I-94 permit governing the terms of your visit to the U.S. I spent more time waiting in line for a CBX ticket (a few minutes) than I spent in line at Customs and Border Protection to enter the U.S.

Remarkably, the cost of the CBP personnel is paid by Otay-Tijuana Venture L.L.C., a private U.S.-Mexican group that operates the terminal. The venture derives revenue from the sale of CBX tickets, which are required to cross the border at the facility, and by leasing space to vendors in and outside the terminal. CBX just completed an expansion in anticipation of growing demand. Hotel rooms, a gas station and retail shops are also planned.

The story is the same all along the CaliBaja border. A new commercial port of entry, known as Otay Mesa II, is under construction east of the current Otay Mesa port to expedite trucking across the border. The Tijuana International Airport is expanding, constructing a new passenger processing facility to service increased international air service and provide a more streamlined immigration and customs process. Everywhere, the drive is to expand access, speed transit, increase commerce.

The border isn’t open here. But it’s trying.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.