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Tighter Security Squeezes Businesses

Fallout: Post-Sept. 11 crackdown chokes northbound traffic, scaring away Mexican customers and leaving many merchants on the U.S. side going bust.


SAN DIEGO — Merchants along the U.S. side of the Mexican border say tightened border controls since Sept. 11 have scared away their usual customers and left many businesses on the brink of collapse.

In much the way Tijuana souvenir vendors watched their American clientele wither after the attacks, dozens of U.S. businesses near the border crossing in San Ysidro have now seen sales tumble, some as much as 75%. Some owners have had to lay off employees, while many of the rest say they might not survive past January without a turnaround during the holidays.

"I have my clientele--they're just not coming," said clothing store owner Rafael Vaca, who laid off three of four sales clerks. Vaca said he has exhausted his credit cards and now relies on earnings from a second job in construction to keep the store, Xtra Casual, afloat until customers come back.

The reason for the downturn, border merchants say, is that the Mexican shoppers who traditionally have crossed to buy everything from American milk and shampoo to Capri pants and cut-rate appliances are unwilling to endure border waits that stretch up to four hours as U.S. inspectors search cars and check documents more rigorously than before.

The sales slowdown has been felt all along San Ysidro Boulevard. It affects everything from mom-and-pop clothing stores to the myriad businesses that change currency, rent postal boxes, prepare tax forms and tend to a host of bureaucratic complications that are part of living and working across two nations.

Rosa Gordon said her 6-year-old car registration business has had almost zero customers since September. She gestured at three empty customers' chairs in her small office, in a strip mall half a mile from the border crossing. "As you can see," she said, "it's the same all over."

For the first time, Gordon this month fell behind on her office rent, and she is unsure how long she can cover $3,000 in monthly expenses. She has begun applying for other jobs.

Longer waits have cut northbound crossings significantly. The number of people entering on foot--a big chunk of the customer base--has dropped nearly in half to about 23,000 daily. Entries by cars are off by about a fifth, to 35,000. All along the Southwest border, reduced traffic has hurt American businesses, prompting calls for the U.S. government to declare an economic emergency.

"We have a disaster in the border communities," U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) told about 50 merchants who gathered in a local school to learn about federal emergency aid programs. "This is something that the government caused in our need for more security. So the government ought to solve [it]."

Filner said in an interview that he was enlisting the support of other representatives along the border to lobby for adding $25 million to the federal budget to hire more border inspectors and speed the flow of traffic without sacrificing security.

"If this situation continues, the whole border dies. We're going to have to do it," Filner said.

Border officials agree they need more inspectors to manage the stepped-up searches. Last week, 20 U.S. Border Patrol agents who normally watch the countryside between the ports of entry joined inspectors of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs Service at the San Ysidro crossing as part of a monthlong assignment.

"Additional staffing is certainly something we're seeking right now," said Lauren Mack, INS spokeswoman in San Diego.

Mexicans Represent Lifeblood of San Ysidro

The economic crisis has underscored the degree to which residents of Mexico represent the lifeblood of San Ysidro. The working-class neighborhood of 30,000, where Spanish is the language of the street and commerce, is part of San Diego, but it sits much closer to Tijuana than to downtown San Diego. San Ysidro's sisterly ties to Tijuana make it feel like a classic border town in ways the rest of San Diego does not.

"They say that when Tijuana has a cold, San Ysidro sneezes," said Bertha Alicia Gonzalez, a longtime business owner and community activist who publishes a Spanish-language weekly newspaper.

That closeness has subjected San Ysidro's economy to the buffeting effects of change far beyond its control, from peso devaluations and shifting gasoline costs in Mexico to border-control policies crafted in Washington.

The result, residents say, is a community that has learned to be resilient in the face of adversity.

"We're a special type of people. We're strong and we're fighters," said Gonzalez. "But you can fight [only] so much."

Even amid the concerns over the falling sales on San Ysidro Boulevard, developers and San Diego officials last week unveiled the first phase of a major shopping center a short drive away.

The project, called Las Americas, enjoyed brisk sales during its first weekend, according to the developers. The 68 new stores include well-known retailers such as Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic. Future plans include more stores, offices, a hotel and a footbridge over the border to downtown Tijuana.

Arian Collins, a spokesman for the city's economic development office, which is a partner in the project, said the current border conditions moved promoters to shift their early marketing efforts toward residents north of the border, instead of Tijuana. But on a recent evening, cars with Mexican license plates were sprinkled about the parking lot.

Collins said local officials remain optimistic that the drop in crossings will be brief--for the good of all of San Ysidro.

"It's hard to say how long the situation may last," he said. "It might last six months and turn right around. That's what we're hoping for."

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