In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the U.S. sealed its border with Mexico. The purpose, U.S. officials said, was to protect Americans from the spread of Covid-19. But in the neighboring cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, the unintended consequences of the border closure have come into sharp focus.
In addition to Covid-related deaths, the economy on the U.S. side has been devastated. Meanwhile, business on the Mexican side is booming.
What does this shift in the economic center of gravity mean for a region where travel and migration across the border has been a part of life for generations?
In the latest episode of A Better Life?, Producers Maritza Felix and Julio Cisneros visit both cities to learn.
This story was produced in partnership with palabra.
There is a frightening silence in Nogales, Arizona. On Morley Avenue, the heart of what used to be the city’s vibrant downtown business district, you can count the people on the street on one hand.
In March of 2020 the United States government sealed the border between the U.S. and Mexico. “What we’re losing right now, basically, even though a lot of the stores are still closed downtown, is that floating population of 50,000 to 60,000 people that come in from Nogales, Sonora, to Nogales, Arizona daily,” explains Arturo Garino, the mayor of the city on the U.S. side.
The stores on Morley Avenue that have managed to survive are in business thanks to loans and grants from the federal government. Others have signs stuck to their windows, some with broken glass, cobwebs and a lot of dust. Only a few vehicles cross the border that divides the two communities that share a common name. Gone are the long lines at the ports of entry between the U.S. and Mexico that connect the two cities. You don’t have to fight to find a parking space or wait in line to check out at the store. Desolation is seen and felt.
In Nogales, Arizona it seems that life has been put on hold. For Gregory Kory, one of the owners of La Cinderella store, waiting for the few customers that do come in is “like watching paint dry.”
On the other side of the border wall, Mexico still vibrates.
Nogales, Sonora sounds and feels different. There is lots of construction, trucks grinding their gears, dogs barking, and reggaeton songs sneaking through the windows of taxis driving through the city. Newspaper vendors call out to customers in the streets, and ice cream vans travel from one neighborhood to the next. There are parades and karaoke nights in the restaurants. There are lines at the supermarket, street markets, and a shortage of parking at shopping centers.
“Mexico has benefited, in some ways, from border restrictions. The fact that there is a need to buy, and not being able to do it in the United States, forces people to consume locally, and that helps economic recovery,” said Julio César León Gil, president of CANACO, the chamber of commerce of Nogales, Sonora.
Restaurant owner Margarito Salvador, agrees. Salvador, better known as Chava, already had a carnitas restaurant in a popular neighborhood. During the pandemic he opened two more restaurants. Although his business has done well, for which he thanks his customers and the blessings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he believes it is imperative that the border be reopened.
When the United States closed the border to tourism and other nonessential travel the Trump administration gave assurances that it would be a temporary measure to protect public health during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 18 months have passed, and the border crossing restrictions continue to be extended month by month. For a short period Mexico also imposed some restrictions, but they were not vigorously enforced.
Visitors from Mexico contribute 60% to 70% of sales tax revenue in Arizona border communities, according to the Arizona-Mexico Commission, which promotes trade and tourism. According to the University of Arizona, in the Nogales district alone, the number of people crossing the border fell from almost 2 million in January 2020 to a little more than 552,000 in April of last year, before climbing back to 1.25 million in March 2021.
In the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora, international sales increased in 2020 by 14.5% compared to 2019.
In Sonora 108,000 infections and just over 8,200 deaths from Covid have been reported since the pandemic began. In Arizona more than 1.1 million Covid cases have been reported, and in September Arizona passed the grim milestone of 20,000 Covid-related deaths.
Border restrictions have forced Mexicans, and specially Sonorans, to invest their pesos or dollars in their own country, and are changing the narrative of the trade in the region.
A year and a half without Mexicans is killing the economy in U.S. border communities. The constant flow of immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries has long been seen as a sign of United States superiority. But perhaps the pandemic has made a point: the U.S. needs Mexicans as much as Mexico needs the US.
Feet in 2 Worlds is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.