Edith Palacios says she and her friend Leticia Preciado used to cross the border into Nogales once a week to shop for items to resell to friends and neighbors in Hermosillo, Sonora.
“I’d do the same now if (the line) was shorter,” said the 42-yar-old Palacios.
Preciado, 44, concurred. “You spend two hours waiting in line. I’d come more if it was less,” she said.
In addition to long wait-times, the price of a visa makes it more difficult for Mexicans to make the trip across the border, they said. “It was much more accessible before,” Palacios said.
Whether it’s due to long lines, visa costs or other reasons such as the lingering effects of the economic recession, legal border crossings through Nogales continue to decline, though at a slower pace than last year, according to recently released statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The total number of pedestrians and passengers who crossed the border in Nogales in fiscal year 2012, which ran from Oct. 1, 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012, dropped to 9.2 million from 9.54 million in 2011, a 4-percent drop. However, the decline from 2010 to 2011 was a 15 percent fall from 11.15 million, and the 12.75 million crossings in 2009 dropped by 13 percent in 2010.
Much of the decline in fiscal year 2012 came from a decrease in the number of people who walked across the border in Nogales, with 3.24 million hoofing it across, as compared to 3.76 million in 2011 and 4.24 million in 2009. In some bad news for the merchants on Morley Avenue, so far in 2013 pedestrians are crossing at a pace slightly lower than they did in the first months of 2012.
The number of people riding in cars across the border dropped from 8.06 million crossings recorded in 2009 to 5.49 million in 2012. However, last year’s traffic rebounded from the 5.31 million who crossed in 2011.
On the other hand, the number of cars and other private vehicles crossing the border in Nogales increased since 2011, from 2.65 million to 2.72 million. However, the current number is still less than the 2.98 million recorded in 2009.
And although the overall decline in local cross-border traffic hangs over Nogales like a dark cloud, statistics on commercial truck traffic offer a silver lining.
Not ‘just one factor’
The causes of the overall decline in crossings are varied, said Bruce Bracker, partner at Bracker’s Department Store and head of both the Greater Nogales-Santa Cruz County Port Authority and the Downtown Merchants Association.
“You can never point to just one factor,” he said. “As a merchant, I can tell you that number one, wait-times to cross the border are hurting us, and number two, the number of visas that are being issued, or lack thereof, is hurting us.”
Those are the complaints that he and other merchants have heard “over and over again” from their customers, he said, adding that more than 85 percent of his clientele comes from Mexico.
Bracker’s thoughts were echoed by several people shopping along Morley Avenue last week, including Blanca Iniguez.
Before heading across the border to shop in Nogales, Iniguez said, she and her friends in Nogales, Sonora check news reports on wait-times at the ports of entry.
“If there is a long line of cars, then you know there will be a long line of people,” said Iniguez, 60, as she pushed her purchases down Morley Avenue.
“The prices are good, the businesses are good, it’s the line that’s no good,” she said.
In a possible reflection of the recent decline in overall border crossings – and especially pedestrian crossings – City of Nogales sales tax revenues in the calendar year of 2012 lagged by 8.4 percent, or $859,629, compared to the previous 12 months. It was the lowest collection number in three years.
While visas and wait-times are local factors that might help explain the decline in crossings, much larger forces also are at work, according to Terry Shannon, Jr., vice-president of Shannon Brokerage and head of the Nogales-Santa Cruz Economic Development Foundation.
“When the economy is bad in the U.S., no one purchases a new car, which leads to the Ford plants in Mexico having to reduce production,” he wrote in an email.
In a possible reflection of that phenomenon, train crossings in Nogales were down in fiscal year 2012 from 2011, with a drop from 681 to 653, though the total for 2012 was still higher than the 583 that crossed in 2009. Many of the trains that cross into Nogales from Mexico are loaded with cars built in Mexico.
The economy south of the border also affects crossings, Shannon wrote. “A bad economy in Mexico leads to less Mexicans coming to our stores, restaurants, malls, hotels and attractions. Same goes for U.S.-produced items destined for Mexico or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It's all tied together,” he wrote.
Truck crossings, the lifeblood of the produce and border factory industries, increased in number in 2012, rising from 286,735 in 2011 to 302,079, a 5 percent increase. That trend was reflected in numbers for Arizona, which showed 372,143 truck crossings in 2012, up from 353,575 in 2011. The number of commercial trucks crossing through Nogales this year is outpacing last year’s flow by a few percentage points on a month-to-month basis.
A possible explanation for the recent increase in truck crossings is that manufacturing businesses are returning to Mexico after a decade-long trend of moving production to Asian countries, Shannon wrote.
The shift is a result of rising fuel costs, logistical challenges and general increases in the cost of doing business, he wrote.
“Mexico has an educated and experienced work force right next door with a rapidly growing middle class and easy access to North American markets. Both the U.S. and Mexico obviously will benefit from this trend,” he wrote.
CBP took longer than usual to release its fiscal year border-crossing statistics this year, waiting until March as opposed to December last year. In the meantime, it has also posted statistics for the first four months of fiscal year 2013, which show some promise.
The number of private vehicle passengers so far in fiscal year 2013 is on pace to surpass last year’s total, with December 2012 showing an increase of more than 100,000 passengers over the 505,612 who crossed in December 2011.
So far in 2013, train crossings are also a bright spot, with 68 trains crossing in January 2013 compared with 43 in January 2012.
And as Nogales weathers the decline in border crossings, there is another bright spot on the horizon, Shannon wrote.
“Our economic engine, the new Mariposa port of entry is about a year from completion and now is the time for Nogales to put out the welcome mats and the open for business signs because job creation is what it's all about.”