The Ongoing Border Restrictions, Explained

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The Ongoing Border Restrictions, Explained

The border has been closed to non-essential travel since March 2020, and there’s no timeline for when it might reopen. Here’s what the current restrictions mean for residents on both sides of the border and a look at the impacts they’ve had.

Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a press conference advocating for an end to cross-border travel restrictions. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Mayor Todd Gloria advocated for a full reopening of the border Thursday at the San Ysidro Port of Entry PedWest vaccination site. The facility was set up to vaccinate thousands of Baja California residents in an ongoing effort to help ease travel restrictions.

With declining case rates and other restrictions lifted across the state, Gloria said in a press release that he sees “no reason to continue selective restrictions that impact our cross-border community.”

The border has been closed to non-essential travel since March 2020, and there’s no timeline for when it might reopen. The border restrictions have decimated businesses in San Ysidro that rely on customers from Mexico.

“We hope our friends at the federal government, both federal governments, can work collaboratively and swiftly to reopen the border as quickly as possible,” Gloria said. “It is critical for our economic recovery for this to happen.”

While the restrictions have had a significant impact on many traveling to the United States, the same can’t be said for people traveling south. Here’s what the current restrictions mean for residents on both sides of the border and a look at the impacts they’ve had.

Who Is Considered an ‘Essential’ Traveler?

As one reader recently pointed out, “People from the U.S. still come and go as they please.” This is true — U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can travel to and from Mexico without trouble.

For others, however, crossing into the U.S. is restricted to essential travel. This includes people traveling for education or medical reasons, those who have work visas and people traveling for emergency response and public health purposes, such as government officials.

Tourism Is Still Considered Non-Essential

Crossing the border with a tourist visa won’t get you far. The United States is still restricting this type of travel despite a decline in COVID-19 cases and the devastating impact closures have had on the cross-border economy. There hasn’t been much enforcement of this policy, however, for people from the U.S. traveling southbound into Mexico.

Jason Wells, CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, told us last month that Tijuana residents who used to be able to cross with tourist visas accounted for 95 percent of the customers who frequent the mom-and-pop shops along San Ysidro Boulevard and 65 percent of the customers at San Ysidro’s outlet shops.

On Thursday, County Supervisor Nora Vargas said 198 businesses in San Ysidro have closed their doors for good and that the region saw a 72 percent decrease in sales between March 2020 and March 2021.

“The economic impact has been devastating to our communities,” Vargas said. “Our residents have been waiting patiently to weather the storm.”

While many may not be able to cross at ports of entry, these restrictions do not apply to air travel. VOSD contributor Gustavo Solis gave a personal example in our latest Border Report:

“Personally, my abuela can’t visit me from her home in Mexico City. I mean, she technically could, but she’d have to pay for a much more expensive flight to Los Angeles rather than fly to Tijuana. And I’d have to drive up there to pick her up at LAX instead of the Cross Border Expressway.”

The Border Has Shut Down Before, but Not Like This

Border closures are extremely rare. The last border shutdown happened in December 2018 when a group of migrants from Central America ran around a Mexican Federal Police blockade  toward the border. Lanes in both directions were closed, and pedestrian traffic was stopped at the San Ysidro Port of Entry for roughly five hours.

The brief shutdown in the midst of a busy shopping season was said to have cost businesses in San Ysidro and Tijuana a combined $11.8 million.

Before that, three major incidents in recent history have shut down or significantly disrupted traffic at the border: a construction accident, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the murder of DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985.

The federal government will ultimately decide when to end the border closures currently in place. The Department of Homeland Security noted “positive developments in recent weeks,” and said it is working with other U.S. agencies and officials from Mexico and Canada to “identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably.”

Adriana Heldiz contributed to this report.

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