Opinion The real crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border

The discount store La Familia in Nogales, Ariz. (Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post)
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correction

An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of Arturo Garino, mayor of Nogales, Ariz. This version has been updated.

There’s a crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, but it isn’t the crisis that the media has been covering and that the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas recently blamed on President Biden. The crisis I’m talking about is the one that is eroding the livelihoods of U.S. citizens on the borderlands.

Just ask Blanca Gallardo, 45, or her colleague Ivan Caballero, 39, two of the three workers left at La Familia, a mega-discount store in the border city of Nogales, Ariz. The store once employed 24 people. La Familia occupies a prime piece of real estate on Morley Avenue, Nogales’s Main Street. Like other retail businesses on and around this thoroughfare, La Familia depends almost entirely on shoppers who live on the other side of the border fence a short walk away — Mexicans who have not been allowed to enter the United States since March last year, when land ports of entry were closed to visa-carrying nonessential travelers in an effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

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The result has been devastating. Parking meters have been turned off for months. In an email, Mayor Arturo Garino told me that the city has logged a $250,000 shortfall in sales tax revenue so far this year, but that a more important question is how much it would have collected had the border been open. Sheriff David Hathaway, a lifelong Nogales resident and the top law enforcement official in Santa Cruz County, one of four border counties in Arizona, said that 90 percent of local businesses have shut their doors and may never reopen.

Tyler Paxton and family
Tyler Paxton and family

“There is no migrant crisis,” Hathaway told me. “What we have is a big economic crisis.”

A few days ago, I drove three hours to Nogales from my home in Phoenix, but it might as well have been Chicago, so far is the city removed from the realities and understanding of life on the border. I found Gallardo and Caballero ferrying shopping carts full of merchandise from a shuttered store owned by the same owner of La Familia. This is how they have kept La Familia stocked since October, when it reopened after closing last March, hoping for a holiday boom that never came. This, they said, is how they hope to keep it going until customers start coming through the doors again.

“We want our clients back,” Caballero said in Spanish, lingua franca of the southern borderlands.

"Let the people who have visas cross the border again,” added Gallardo. “Los necesitamos” — we need them.

That’s not just a Nogales problem, though. One downtown merchant in the border city of El Paso told Border Report in November that his store had lost as much as 90 percent of its customers since last March. In McAllen, a Texas city near the southern tip of the Rio Grande Valley, where a shelter has received 200 to 300 migrants each day, Mayor Jim Darling said at a recent City Council meeting, “We need to open the border and help our businesses who have been severely affected by this.”

Mexico is the United States’ top trading partner, accounting for 14.9 percent of U.S. exports and imports in February, ahead of China (14.7 percent) and Canada (14.3 percent). For Arizona, Mexico is the destination for 35.5 percent of all exports. At La Familia, Gallardo and Caballero have Mexicans to thank for their jobs, the money they make, and their ability to feed, house and clothe themselves and their families. A lot of us may not realize it or may not want to admit it, but many Americans rely heavily on Mexico and its citizens.

“There’s a cognitive dissonance all over the place and it has never been louder,” said Erik Lee, executive director of North American Research Partnership, an Arizona-based group that studies trade and sustainability along the northern and southern borders.

One example, Lee said, is the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement signed by President Donald Trump in January 2020. It reaffirmed the importance of Mexico even after repeated threats of an additional tariff on Mexican goods to address what Trump called a “border crisis.” (The tariffs never materialized.)

Then, there’s the decision by Gov. Doug Ducey (R) last week to spend $25 million in Arizona taxpayers’ money to send 250 Arizona National Guard troops to parts of the Arizona-Mexico border to help local and state law enforcement agencies handle the crisis that he has chosen to focus on.

Hathaway, the Nogales sheriff, told me that he offered to meet with Ducey “to explain to him the reality of what’s going on at the border, not the hype.” The governor turned him down.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The influx of migrants isn’t a crisis. But it could become one without careful management.

Julio Ricardo Varela: Stop using ‘surge’ and ‘wave’ to describe what’s happening at the border

León Krauze: The border crisis is about human pain and desperation. Why can’t the media grasp this?

Arizona and Texas governors: The border crisis in our states was created by the Biden administration

Letters to the Editor: The U.S. should address its role in the migrant situation

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