Why More Traffic From Mexico than Canada in the Face of Wuhan Coronavirus Restrictions?

Postulations based on anecdote and observation, with a few statistics thrown in

By Andrew R. Arthur on June 1, 2020

Topic Page: Covid-19 and Immigration

My colleagues David North and Kathleen Sharkey published a post on Thursday comparing northbound traffic from Mexico and southbound traffic from Canada following the Trump administration's placing of restrictions on non-essential border crossings, which were promulgated on March 20. The statistics therein are eye-opening, and best summarized by the title: "Restrictions on Border Traffic More Successful on Canadian Border than on Mexican Border". I have theories — based on postulation and observation with a few statistics thrown in — that may explain the differences.

By way of background, on March 20, the White House announced that it had reached a "mutual agreement" with Mexico and Canada to restrict all "non-essential travel" across our respective borders with each in response to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. Pursuant to that agreement "[t]rade and business travel" between the two countries will continue, although as I have previously explained, It is not entirely clear what the administration means by "business travel".

The White House announcement states that these restrictions will not apply to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (who would be exempted by law in most cases anyway) as well as to "individuals with valid travel documents". This latter category would logically include all Border Crosser Card (BCC) holders as well as every other foreign national with a valid passport and visa. Most of that travel would not fall within the classification of "essential travel", however, and it remains unclear how U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is applying these restrictions.

As North and Sharkey explain:

Using a methodology CIS created ... we estimate that the flow of border-crossers, with all kinds of migration credentials, dropped by 62.8 percent below expected levels in the five biggest land ports of entry at the Northern border, but fell by only 37.0 percent in the five largest ports of entry at the Mexican border.

The two Southwest border cities that I have most recently visited were Yuma, Ariz., and Laredo, Texas, so I will use them for purposes of analysis.

Yuma is technically a "border town", in that it sits just a few miles from the U.S. border, but land entry between Yuma and its sister city across the line (San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora) is through San Luis, Ariz. (essentially a Yuma suburb). The American side of the border describes itself as "America's Winter Salad Bowl", with good reason. Driving through the area, one sees acres and acres of various sorts of lettuces and a few other vegetables, and a number of date orchards.

Daily, laborers from Mexico line up to cross through the ports of entry to awaiting buses, which take them to the fields. One report (from February 2017) indicated that "8,000 to 10,000 Mexicans ... cross the border every day [at San Luis] during the winter" to work in agriculture.

There are also a number of students who cross daily (some of whom drive themselves) to attend school on the U.S. side of the border. Tucson.com reported in May 2018 that teachers and administrators estimate thousands of children live in Mexican border towns but "attend schools in Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico."

The schools are closed down, so that pedestrian (and limited vehicular traffic) would be diminished accordingly, but the tending and harvesting of crops would be considered essential under the "Advisory Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID–19 Response" from the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), so those thousands of workers likely continue their daily trek north.

Southbound traffic through the port largely consisted (when I was there) of locals and "snowbirds" — the latter individuals (many Canadian) who "winter" in the warm region — who were heading to Mexico for medical, dental, and optical care; medication; and for general tourism (the food is good, but there is not much to see). Much of that traffic has likely been slowed, as Canadians (in particular) are less able to enter the United States to begin with, and many likely do not want to risk transmission in the close streets or medical clinics of San Luis Rio Colorado.

Yuma is not exactly a coronavirus hotbed, but it is not precisely disease-free, either. According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been only 936 confirmed cases of Wuhan coronavirus in Yuma County (the CDC lists only 822, for a rate of 384 per 100,000), but just 14 deaths.

The Mexican side is not doing that badly, either — assuming you believe the statistics. The sprawling state of Sonora has 1,650 confirmed cases (about twice the number of Wyoming, out of a population of three million — 55 cases per 100,000), and has suffered 91 deaths (nine more than Idaho). There is likely, however, some undercount, and in particular of those who have had the illness but who have gone untreated.

Laredo, is America's second largest port of entry for incoming trade, and its largest land port for such trade. The Texas State Comptroller explains:

Of Texas' total international trade, $408 billion, or 55.2 percent, traveled across the state's border crossings with Mexico, with the Laredo port of entry accounting for 57.6 percent of land port trade, or about $234.7 billion.

The port itself consists of four bridges and a rail line, and one of the bridges is a major pedestrian entry bringing travelers from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, into the downtown. Some of those pedestrians are coming for school, but from my observations, most were shoppers heading toward the major outlet mall on the U.S. side, or the various small shops in the downtown plaza and surrounding area.

Plasma donation also appeared to be a big draw for Mexican nationals crossing into the city, which has five plasma donation centers. Notably, CISA includes "source plasma and blood donation" on its essential critical workforce list.

The Washington Post reported in April: "Federal authorities ... have restricted border crossings to essential travelers, which includes U.S. citizens and anyone going to school, for medical treatment, or to work in Texas." Not surprisingly, at that time, pedestrian traffic in Laredo had fallen by 50 percent, while truck traffic was only down by 7 percent.

Interestingly, the paper reported that the Mexican authorities on the other side of the Rio Grande have been particularly vigilant about in-bound travelers:

Across the border in Nuevo Laredo, customs officers are taking more aggressive steps to slow down foot traffic into Mexico. They are asking travelers from the United States to justify their trips in detail and are using forehead thermometers to screen for coronavirus symptoms.

The Post continued:

The health crisis has shut down U.S. auto manufacturing plants in Mexico, shifting demand toward medical supplies and food. Everything from toilet paper to brand-name household disinfectants such as Clorox are being loaded onto about 14,000 trucks a day crossing Laredo's ports of entry.

"Transportation and Logistics" has its own category on the CISA essential critical infrastructure list, which specifically identifies:

Employees supporting or enabling transportation functions, including truck drivers, bus drivers, dispatchers, maintenance and repair technicians, warehouse workers, truck stop and rest area workers ... intermodal transportation personnel, and workers who maintain and inspect infrastructure (including those that require cross-jurisdiction travel).

Although there is great concern about the Wuhan coronavirus in Laredo, Johns Hopkins reports that there have only been 524 confirmed cases of the illness and 19 deaths in Webb County (population 276,652, which includes Laredo, for a rate of infection of 189 per 100,000), and 1,441 confirmed cases in Tamaulipas with 97 deaths. Again, the state of Tamaulipas, with a population of 3.62 million, is massive, stretching from Nuevo Laredo along the Rio Grande to just north of the Gulf city of Tampico, with a reported infection rate of less than 40 per 100,000 — although the caveats above about undercounting likely apply to those statistics, as well.

By comparison, none of the ports of entry along the northern border of the United States are really that close to population centers, with one significant exception—the border cities of Detroit, Mich., and Windsor, Ontario, serviced by the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge.

On March 18, Crain's Detroit Business reported that the "Windsor-Detroit border crossing [would be] closing to nonessential travel", explaining:

The Canadian government has deemed health care professionals essential workers who can continue crossing the Ambassador Bridge or Detroit-Windsor tunnel daily to work in Southeast Michigan hospitals.

Other essential workers allowed [to] enter at the international border crossings in Detroit, Port Huron and Sault Ste. Marie include truck drivers, critical infrastructure workers and crew on planes, trains and marine vessels, according to the Canadian government's travel advisory.

At least 6,000 Ontario residents cross the Windsor-Detroit border daily for work, including 1,300 Canadians who work in Southeast Michigan hospitals and at least 300 who work in ambulatory care, according to a 2017 report from the Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corp.

Those are hardly large numbers of workers compared to those cities' southern neighbors. And Michigan does have a large number of Wuhan coronavirus cases: According to the CDC, there have been 56,014 cases of the disease in the state, with 5,372 deaths. Wayne County, which includes Detroit, has suffered 20,059 cases (for a rate of 1,147 cases per 100,000) and 2,410 deaths. Windsor and Essex County, Ontario (which includes the City of Windsor), has had 950 confirmed cases of the disease, with 63 deaths, in a population of 393,402 (a rate of 241 cases per 100,000).

Again, those sister cities are the exception, not the rule, on the Canadian border. Nothing against Blaine, Wash.; Sweetgrass, Mont.; or even Derby Line, Vt. There just not is a lot of there there, although Derby Line basically blends into Stanstead, Quebec ("'It's in stark contrast to the southern [U.S.] border, which has a wall, which has a virtually military checkpoint. ... But we use flower pots,' said local hobbyist historian Scott Wheeler."). And, I seriously doubt that there are many green card holders or U.S. citizens living in Canada who cross daily to go to school, or even that many Canadian landed immigrants or citizens who are living in the United States doing the same.

Small towns on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border are usually little more than rest stops and road-side attractions on travelers' way to larger metropolises into the interior of the respective countries. Seattle to Vancouver is a more than two-and-a-half hour drive (albeit a scenic one), and even the port of Buffalo, N.Y., is more than an hour's drive from the closest Canadian city of any size (Hamilton, Ontario), and almost two hours from Toronto.

Put more simply, while there is a great deal of commerce back and forth over the Canadian border, there are few if any casual visitors, and just slightly more day-trippers. Plus, given the outbreaks of the Wuhan coronavirus in Washington State (20,764 with 1,106 deaths) and New York State (165,682, with 8,023 deaths), I seriously doubt most Canadians want to risk it.

In normal times, by contrast, going from Juárez to El Paso is as common as a weekly grocery run. And the dependency of cities on either side of the Southwest border with each other is significant — coronavirus or no coronavirus. El Paso is not named "El Paso" for nothing. Plus, you can hardly mention Brownsville without Matamoros, McAllen without Reynosa, Del Rio without Ciudad Acuña, San Diego without Tijuana. Mexicali and Calexico are mirror-opposite portmanteaus, and both Sonora and Arizona have a "Nogales".

Again, these are just postulations based on anecdote and observation, with a few statistics thrown in for context. Canada and the United States can weather through the current pandemic in a businesslike way. On the Southwest border, however, it is just as businesslike, but a lot more personal, too.