NOGALES, Ariz. – Martha Isabel and Guadalupe Velasquez had spent two hours waiting to cross over a pedestrian bridge from Mexico to Nogales, Arizona. Once they emerged from the long line, their money didn't go as far as they would have liked because of an alarmingly high exchange rate.
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"It's difficult because it comes out the same as buying in Mexico because the dollar is so expensive," Martha Isabel said. "But still, some stuff is cheaper."
The exchange rate and long security lines have caused stores and the tax revenues in border towns of Nogales and Douglas to take a hit this holiday season, typically a busy time as Mexican nationals buy popular toys and electronics that are much cheaper to buy in the U.S.
Fewer people are making the trip this year, deterred by the lines and the high exchange rate of up to $14.70 pesos per dollar. The lines are often long because every person is screened as they come in, and, despite fewer shoppers this year, thousands of people still cross into Nogales daily.
"This is a bit of a new situation and something that we haven't seen in quite some time," said Luis Ramirez, a border liaison for the Arizona-Mexico Commission, which advocates for cross-border trading.
The fortunes of the border towns are deeply tied to Mexican shoppers. In Douglas, 65 percent of the city's revenue comes from sales tax, and a vast majority of that money comes from Mexican shoppers, Mayor Danny Ortega said.
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In downtown Nogales, dozens of stores line Morley Avenue, selling clothing, toys, electronics and more, usually at discount rates and often in mass. Sales people standing on sidewalks advertise their stores in Spanish, and large signs show the low prices shoppers can find — less than $5.99 for a turtleneck shirt, for example. The stores are feet away from the pedestrian crossing.
At his 2,000-square-foot clothing and shoe store, Alfredo Enriquez said he often hears from frustrated customers who waited hours in line at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry to cross into the U.S. He usually hires about eight people during the holidays, but this year he can keep only two people on staff.
"This is something very critical. At the end of this month I'm gonna have to close," Enriquez said.
Victor Brabble, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the agency is cognizant of the importance of international travel and strives to keep wait times short.
The agency recently released a mobile application that allows travelers to see wait times at crossings along the Mexican border. In Nogales, the agency has installed kiosks at some ports that allow crossers to scan their passports or permits before they encounter an officer. The kiosks expedite the crossing process, Brabble says.
"In times when wait times may get to the point where they're considered excessive, CBP does implement mitigating measures such as opening more vehicle lanes or pedestrian crossings to help increase the flow of traffic," Brabble said.
Bruce Bracker, the chairman of The Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority, says the group has been working with CBP for many years to expand ports of entry. The government recently completed a $244 million expansion at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, about four miles from downtown. The port now has a dozen car lanes, a bus lane and the capacity to process more than 4,000 trucks a day.
But he says more agents are needed to handle the flow.
At Orange, one of the four stores in Nogales owned by Fernando Ornelas, saleswomen were standing around looking for customers to draw in. Every item in the women's clothing store was on sale for $10, but few shoppers were biting.
"This store should be exploding with customers," Ornelas said. "I'm hopeful, but I should have hired less people. There's no point."