Canadian, Mexican, and American flags stand on display during the fifth round of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg)

The Border Economy Works in Spite of Trump

(Bloomberg View) -- President Donald Trump is obsessed with the southern border of the U.S. It’s less clear how much the border cares about Trump.

The U.S. president’s verbal assaults on Mexico, and his meandering threats and periodic retreats about scuttling the North American Free Trade Agreement, can’t help but influence relations between Mexico and the U.S. and potential economic development. (Among other things, it may be fueling populist politics in Mexico, aided, as in the U.S., by Russian propaganda.)

“It’s affecting long-term plans,” said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego. “Because something very weird is happening now. There is instability in the U.S. Long-term investors are waiting to see about the wall. They’re waiting to see about Nafta." 

While big investors may be hindered, at the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, the busiest border crossing in the U.S., integration of the two economies seems to be proceeding without much regard for Trump.

American schoolchildren who live in Tijuana walk across the border to attend school in the U.S. Retirees from San Diego or Chula Vista go south to obtain their medicine at a discount. Thousands of commuters armed with a Sentri identification travel across the border between home and work, with waiting times reduced to around 15 minutes even at rush hour. (If you don’t have Sentri, you’d better be patient.)

San Diego professionals spend weekends at beach houses in Baja. Meanwhile, parking lots in San Ysidro more than double their prices on weekends when Mexican shoppers and tourists flood in. Just north of the border are low-priced stores, such as Family Dollar, an upscale mall, dozens of currency-exchange kiosks and store fronts, and a pervasive odor of fried fast food.

Thanks to a new sky bridge over the border, Americans can enter the Tijuana airport from the U.S. side, speeding through customs to gain access to cheaper and more international flights than San Diego offers. Mexicans in turn can fly to Tijuana, walk over the bridge and pick up a rental car on the U.S. side. “The project,” Politico wrote, “is a striking physical manifestation of the increasing interconnectedness of the two cities.”

This is what regional planners, with a willful lack of branding skill, have labeled the “CaliBaja Bi-National Mega-Region,” an integrated, border-spanning economic zone of more than 6 million people. As a 2014 report by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies stated, “The CaliBaja region has important strengths and even greater potential when viewed not as two separate U.S. and Mexican economies, but as a combined bi-national economic region.”

While Trump continues to demand a wall, his government is spending $741 million to expand the San Ysidro port into a 50-acre behemoth including new pedestrian and vehicle crossings, and a total of 62 northbound vehicle inspection booths.

Sidney Aki, the Customs and Border Protection director of the port, envisions a “seamless border interchange” in 2019 when construction is complete. He’ll need it. The San Diego Association of Governments projects an 87 percent increase in vehicle traffic by 2030. Remarkably, that doesn’t include truck traffic, which is directed to a separate port, Otay Mesa, to the east.

Already, 40,000 cars pass north through San Ysidro each day. More than 25,000 pedestrians flow through. When authorities last year announced a 57-hour closure of southbound traffic due to construction, the San Diego Union-Tribune dubbed it “carmageddon.”

Aki expects traffic to jump immediately after the new lanes open, following the same laws of traffic generation as big-city commuter routes. If you expand access, traffic increases to fill it. “Within six months our growth in traffic will be 21 percent,” he said. “After a year it will be 33 percent.”

Trump could still do something to disrupt the flow of humans, and the intricate supply-chain dance, across the border. (Some components of manufactured goods cross the border multiple times before a product is finished.) He could also undermine the trans-border region’s emerging manufacturing specialization in audio-visual equipment, medical devices and more.

But it’s hard to see how he can hold back the tide for long. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, went to Washington in September with a clear message. “I’m going to tell that story of how free trade works, of how our relationship with Mexico is a strength, of how we’re creating those good quality jobs,” he said.

Last week, Faulconer traveled to Washington to reiterate the point at a conference on Nafta. This time, he was joined by Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum. The CaliBaja Bi-National Mega-Region was speaking with one voice. It didn’t sound anything like Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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