San Ysidro border crossing at night
The San Ysidro border crossing at night. Photo by Khari Johnson

Last Friday, as I was in one of 28 lanes heading north into the Port of Entry at San Ysidro, President Trump was telling the world that he was closing the borders with Canada and Mexico in an effort to slow down the surging menace of coronavirus.

Unlike most Americans, I live in Mexico, 20 miles south of the very border I was crossing to go to the nonprofit that implements my Medicare. Thus, above and beyond my normal journalistic interest in the border and trade, the President was telling me that he was closing the very border I was waiting to cross. I was very interested.

I am not alone. The U.S.Consulate in Tijuana, reportedly the largest American consulate in the world, states that 250,000 Americans like me, live in Baja California, most in ocean-view condos and houses in Playas de Tijuana, Rosarito Beach, Ensenada and in San Felipe on the Gulf of California.

And like me, many cross the border to shop, get medical treatment, collect mail and some — a reported 50,000 Americans and legally-entitled Mexicans — cross the border to work in Southern California or Las Vegas.

An enormous $1.6 billion worth of goods and services cross the border in both directions daily, as do over a million legal border crossers like me.

At San Ysido, where I was waiting, an estimated 120,000 people cross every day, 25,000 on foot through two pedestrian gates and the rest in 50,000 vehicles.

Given these mind-boggling numbers, the President did a very wise thing, a million times wiser than his earlier suggestions about canceling NAFTA, closing the border to stop illegal immigration, and hitting Mexico with tariffs.

Apparently the day-to-day data collected by his own administration finally convinced the President that his long held negative views of trade with Mexico were wrong.

Raoul Lowery Contreras

As intent as I was in listening to the President say he was closing the very border I was in line to cross, he surprised me when he turned the microphone over to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf. They both emphasized that the closing was of “non-essential” travel and did not apply to trade, commerce or American citizens.

So, what is “non-essential” and what is “essential” travel from Mexico into the United States?

Non-essential is a family trip from Tijuana to the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, Legoland, or San Diego’s tony Fashion Valley mall. 

Essential travel is for me to make my 9:30 a.m. doctor’s appointment at a nonprofit medical facility five minutes north of the border, or to catch a train to Los Angeles on business. 

Essential is the Mexican truck driver bringing a thousand flat screen televisions from Samsung’s 3,000-employee Tijuana factory or Foxconn’s 4,000-employee factory so that Walmart can sell them.

The restrictions outlined by secretaries Pompeo and Wolf apply primarily to non-Americans: illegal entrants and foreign-born people applying for asylum. 

U.S. citizens are not covered, nor are “green card” carrying foreign-born who reside in the U.S. legally.

The bottom line is that the closure doesn’t apply to the billions of dollars in trade, and tens of thousands of legal workers, crossing the border at this very minute in both directions. 

The President Trump of March 20 appears to be far wiser about the border than candidate Donald J. Trump was during  his campaign or in the first years of his presidency. Thankfully, Trump stepped aside and let his Secretary of State and Acting Homeland Security Secretary do their jobs. 

The country, even the border, is better off today than could have been imagined by the people in the United States and Mexico who trade with each other at the rate of a million dollars a minute.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a Marine Corps veteran, political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.