Border Pedestrians

Products languish in many stores in Nogales because there are not enough customers who cross the border daily to shop.

While she waits for a family member to pick her up, Daniela Minerva sits near the pedestrian gate in Nogales, Ariz., painting her nails. She often spends time waiting in this spot in order to see her husband who lives in Mexico.

When she visits Nogales, Sonora, Minerva needs to plan at least two hours in advance due to the long lines to get back across the border on foot.

“Sometimes you just walk up, and sometimes it’s all the way up to the train tracks, which is usually like two hours and you’re standing there still for 10 minutes because there’s no flow,” she said. “We don’t know who to blame.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many residents of Nogales. The number of pedestrians crossing from Mexico into Arizona through the state’s six border crossings fell 12 percent from the first half of 2018 to the first half of 2019, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data, and the number crossing in passenger vehicles fell 10 percent in the same period.

The change follows several years of steady growth after a precipitous drop between 2007 and 2014, when DOT data show that crossings at Nogales alone fell from 7.7 million to just 2.8 million pedestrians. Local authorities and border experts attribute the latest drop to a combination of factors: the declining value of the Mexico peso against the dollar, long lines to cross through ports of entry and an increase in online shopping.

“If you have a favorite store, and you go in that store, and that store started making you wait half an hour, 45 minutes, two hours to check out, how long would that be your favorite store?” asked County Supervisor Bruce Bracker, a former merchant in downtown Nogales. “Probably not very long. You’d find someplace else to shop. But that’s exactly what happened with the Mexican customer base.”

He sees the evidence in his town.

“(If) you spend time in downtown Nogales, you’re seeing a lot of store closures and just not a lot of people on the street,” Bracker said. “You used to see people shoulder to shoulder on the street, especially on the weekends. On holidays, you couldn’t even walk up and down the sidewalks.”

Bracker said the principal factor in this change is that the lines to cross the U.S. border have continued to grow because there are not sufficient U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel. He said CBP has not done a good job recruiting agents and that a rigorous polygraph exam has left out many candidates.

A CBP official said in an email that the application process is rigorous by design.

“CBP’s hiring standards for our frontline positions are intentionally rigorous and the congressionally required polygraph is just one part of a hiring process that ensures we hire those of the highest integrity,” the statement said.

Border Pedestrians

Pedestrian cossings at Arizona ports of entry like the Morley Gate in Nogales are in decline.

The spokesperson went on to say CBP is trying to adapt its hiring system through marketing, streamlining parts of the process, and interacting with applicants.

In February, the agency launched its “Fast Track Hiring Process,” which takes about 120 days to complete, compared to 300 days under the traditional method.

In order to be admitted as an agent, the applicants must pass various physical and intellectual tests. CBP’s Credibility Assessment Division reviews and analyzes the polygraph exam, which lasts an average of four hours. The agency’s website says 37 percent of their applicants pass.

The test asks questions about personal and criminal backgrounds. Failing the polygraph does not automatically eliminate an applicant from consideration.

Far-reaching impact

The first sight for people crossing the border from Sonora into Arizona through the Nogales pedestrian gate is Morley Avenue, a street filled with local shops, many of which have been there for years and have felt the effects of the drop in tourism.

Chris Park, who owns the stores La Familia and Victoria, estimated that 90 percent of his customers are Mexican pedestrians. Every day, he hears their complaints about the long lines to enter the country.

Downtown

Shoppers check out the merchandise at Chi’s Fashion Mart on Morley Avenue in this file photo from 2015. Stores in downtown Nogales have seen their sales decline along with the number of pedestrian border-crossers from Mexico.

“The wait time to cross can be very unpredictable,” said Evan Kory, owner of Kory’s, a clothing store on the avenue. “I think that people who are crossing, especially pedestrians, are (hesitant) to take that risk because, sure, sometimes you’re lucky … but then other days, time to wait might be two to three hours. After having those experiences over time, eventually those numbers (of people crossing) will start dwindling.”

Bracker said he doesn’t think this lack of tourism would be an issue for the rest of the state, but Juan Ciscomani of the Arizona-Mexico Commission disagrees.

“I think many people assume that any border issue affects only border communities,” said Ciscomani, Gov. Doug Ducey’s senior adviser for regional and international affairs. “That’s not the case … They also come up north, and they go to Tucson, they go to Phoenix, they go to Flagstaff. When these people are not crossing as often anymore, that impacts the entire state.”

Ciscomani said 228,000 jobs in Arizona depend on this trade relationship, and those jobs exist throughout the state.

However, it’s not all bad news: The Transportation Department’s data show commercial vehicle traffic was up 12 percent in the first half of this year, compared to the same period in 2018. And while pedestrians aren’t crossing as often, Ciscomani said that when they do cross, they buy more.

Owners on Morley Avenue are waiting to see things improve for them, just as pedestrians are waiting in line to cross the border.

“Every year is more down, more down,” said Rebeca Castañeda, manager of Chi’s, a store of wholesale and retail, in a mix of Spanish and English. “Many stores here on Morley are closing.”

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