Restrictions on Border Traffic More Successful on Canadian Border than on Mexican Border

By David North and Kathleen Sharkey on May 28, 2020

Topic Page: Covid-19 and Immigration

The Trump administration's restrictions on non-essential border crossings, set in place in late March, have been much more successful on the northern land border than on the southern one, or so some statistical straws in the wind seem to indicate.

Using a methodology CIS created (which is described below), 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.

Given the effective date of March 21, in a month with 31 days, one might have expected that drop-off rate might be somewhere in the 33 percent range, assuming full sets of arrivals during the first two-thirds of the month, and next to none in the last 10 days. Something close to that happened at the southern border, but the reduction on the northern border was much sharper.

The irony is that the total flows of crossers are much heavier on the southern border than on the northern one, and both the health concerns and the labor market impacts are, similarly, more significant at the Mexican as opposed to the Canadian border.

These observations rest on a non-immigration data source, the monthly tallies of cars, trucks, buses, some trains, and, importantly, people, entering the United States on the two borders as documented by the U.S. Department of Transportation. We were unable to secure (usually unpublished) monthly or daily data from the Department of Homeland Security on these movements, but will write about them if they pop up in the future.

Let's provide first some data, and then some possible explanations.

Table 1 shows the DOT data on the actual movements of people and vehicles entering the United States from Mexico and Canada, through the five largest land ports of entry at each border, for the month of March 2020.

Table 1. Arrivals at the U.S. at 10 Busiest
Land Ports of Entry, March 2020

of Entry
in Cars
Pedestrians Bus
Total for
Port of Entry
San Ysidro, Calif. 1,621,349 541,519 4,699 0 2,167,567
El Paso, Texas 771,902 360,236 16,346 560 1,149,044
Laredo, Texas 588,935 220,385 55,516 0 864,836
Otay Mesa, Calif. 563,767 199,460 239 30 763,496
Hidalgo, Texas 480,520 243,614 28,108 0 752,242
Total for Five
Southern Ports
4,026,473 1,565,214 104,908 590 5,697,185
Falls, N.Y.
290,060 4,562 5,995 589 301,206
Detroit, Mich. 281,020 0 2,305 447 283,772
Blaine, Wash. 198,460 0 3,977 1,776 204,213
Port Huron, Mich. 92,311 0 470 109 92,890
Rouses, N.Y.
69,922 118 5,962 783 76,785
Total for Five
Northern Ports
931,773 4,680 18,709 3,704 958,866

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation data on all persons (citizens and aliens)
entering the U.S. at these locations.

The first thing to note is the differential volume, with about six times as much traffic through the southern ports as compared to the northern ones, with the rounded tallies for the former at 5.7 million and fewer than one million for the latter. Note also the 1.6 million pedestrians at the southern ports, and all of 4,680 at the northern ones. We border a first-world nation in one direction and a third-world one in the other.

Table 1 shows what actually happened during the month of March. Moving from west to east, at the Mexican border we have San Ysidro (the world's busiest land port of entry), which is just south of San Diego; six miles to the East is Otay Mesa. El Paso is at the western end of Texas, and Laredo and Hidalgo are both in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Similarly, on the northern frontier, the ports are Blaine, Wash.; Port Huron and Detroit, Mich., about 60 miles apart; then Buffalo, and finally Champlain Point, N.Y., near Vermont.

Table 2 shows the difference, port by port, between what might have been expected, in terms of traffic, and what actually happened.

It is worth noting that the range in difference among the ports did not overlap between the two borders. The range in the South was from the least impacted (Hidalgo, 16.4 percent) to the most, El Paso, at 50.8 percent.

The range in the north was smaller, from the least impacted, Detroit, at 53.9 percent, to 70.8 percent at Blaine.

We do not have an explanation for the low score for Hidalgo (which lies about 10 miles south of McAllen, Texas), but we do for Blaine's high reduction rate; America's first "hot spot" in terms of the virus was in the State of Washington. We suspect that people from Canada, which has handled the pandemic better than we have, were reluctant to venture into the State of Washington.

Table 2. Difference Between Expected
March 2020 Arrivals (Without New Rule)
and Actual Arrivals

of Entry
March 2020
Arrivals Without
New Rule
March 2020
San Ysidro, Calif. 3,393,049 2,167,567 -1,225,482 -36.10%
El Paso, Texas 2,336,858 1,149,044 -1,187,814 -50.80%
Laredo, Texas 1,257,613 864,836 -392,777 -31.70%
Otay Mesa, Calif. 1,149,798 763,496 -386,302 -33.60%
Hidalgo, Texas 899,559 752,242 -147,317 -16.40%
Total for Five
Southern Ports
9,036,877 5,697,185 -3,339,692 -37.00%
Buffalo, N.Y. 843,057 301,206 -541,851 -64.30%
Detroit, Mich. 615,965 283,772 -332,193 -53.90%
Blaine, Wash. 698,654 204,213 -494,441 -70.80%
Port Huron, Mich. 222,240 92,890 -129,350 -58.20%
Rouses, N.Y.
194,382 76,785 -117,597 -60.40%
Total for Five
Northern Ports
2,574,298 958,866 -1,615,432 -62.80%

Source: Estimates made by the Center for Immigration Studies,
based on U.S. Department of Transportation data.

This brings us to this question: Why were the reduction rates so much higher in one direction than in the other, with the U.S. strictures, at least formally, seeming to be the same for both frontiers? And there was a major difference. It was about five-eighths on the northern border and only three-eighths on the southern border.

There would seem to be three possible sets of variables, in probably this order:

  1. The attitudes of the people at the two borders;
  2. The formal postures of the Canadian and Mexican governments; and
  3. Perhaps some variations in the rigor of U.S. policies, port to port.

It would seem that Canadians feared entering the United States at this time more than Mexicans did. I also suspect that the daily shopping that goes both ways at the southern border is much more significant there than it is at the northern one. While doing a study of labor markets at the two borders decades ago for the Labor Department, I noted a complex set of shopping practices at the southern border, with people driving (or walking) south for relatively low-tech products (baked goods, clothes, and auto body repairs) while others went North for gasoline (it was then more pure on our side of the line), and for meat.

Some of these forces played out in my own family, as my daughter-in-law has an aged father (95) in Canada; she and my son were going to visit him in later March but did not go for fear of the border closing. They figured that they (although U.S. citizens) might not be able to cross back into the United States and thus be stuck in Canada. The Trump ruling allows citizen crossings back to the United States, but they did not know that at the time.

A second possible explanation would be that the much different postures of the Mexican and the Canadian governments on the virus influenced people's thinking. Canada moved more quickly to lockdowns than we did, while the Mexican government (like the one in Brazil) did little to contain the virus.

A third, at least theoretical, possibility is that actual U.S. policy varied either regionally or locally. We do not have a good feel for that.

We will report again on these movements as more data becomes available.

Our Estimation Technique. We assumed that we could roughly estimate the level of March 2020 arrivals had there been no restrictive rule. We could do this by assuming that the projected arrivals in March 2020 would relate to the actual arrivals in February 2020, about the way the arrivals in March 2019 related to the arrivals in February 2019.

However, we knew that, generally, there would be more March than February arrivals at the southern border, anyway, as the spring approached. And we were aware of another complication: February had 28 days in 2019 and 29 days in 2020.

Bearing all that in mind, and working with data from the largest land port of them all, San Ysidro, just south of San Diego, we did a multi-step trial run with the following results.

Table 3. Trial Run for the San Ysidro Port of Entry

Step Concept Number
or Ratio
1 Total crossers, February 2019 2,485,565
2 Average daily, February 2019 88,770
3 Total crossers, March 2019 2,983,558
4 Average daily, March 2019 96,244
5 Ratio of steps 2/4 (the February/March ratio) 100:108
6 Total actual crossers, February 2020 2,927,661
7 Average daily, February 2020 100,954
8 Using ratio above, expected daily, March 2020 109,453
9 Expected March arrivals 3,393,049
10 Actual March arrivals 2,167,567
12 Apparent shortfall, March 2020 1,225,482

We then used this model for all of the five biggest ports of entry on the two frontiers. There do not seem to be border-wide data on arrivals and, besides, we were interested in port-by-port differences.

Getting back to San Ysidro, we found a reduction of 36.1 percent from expectations for March 2020, despite the new rulings being in effect for only about a third of the month.