Changing Dynamics of Personal Crossings at Arizona Border Ports

Changing Dynamics of Personal Crossings at Arizona Border Ports
May 17, 2018
Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, Ph.D., Senior Regional Scientist and Associate Professor of Geography and Regional Development

Each day in 2017, the six Arizona border ports facilitated close to 70,000 crossings of people coming in passenger vehicles or on foot from Mexico. As described on the AZMEX page ( ), the dynamics of personal vehicle passenger and pedestrian crossings reflects the regional significance of border ports of entry for personal transportation, tourism, and trade. Systematic data are being collected and made available only for the northbound entries, i.e., vehicles and persons entering the U.S. from Mexico. [1] The recorded crossings include but do not differentiate between various categories of crossers such as Mexican shoppers, Mexican employees in U.S. border towns, American commuters to and from Maquiladoras south of the border, or returning American and Canadian tourists. Researchers and practitioners nostalgically remember time when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) provided data on border crossings at least for two categories, U.S. citizens and aliens. According to the latest data available for 2007-2008, aliens accounted for about 74% of all crossings through Arizona border ports of entry.

Past estimates of economic impacts of Mexican visitors on Arizona’s economy

Eller College’s Economic and Business Research Center in last 40 years conducted a series of studies of the economic impact of Mexican visitors. [2] The “alien” category was used to assess the share of Mexican nationals in total crossings, and in combination with detailed spending surveys, produced estimates of economic impact of Mexican visitors on border cities and state at large. The first study of 1978 estimated that these visitors spent directly more than $313 million in goods and services in the state, and that most of the impact (above 80%) was realized in the three border counties of Arizona - Santa Cruz, Yuma, and Cochise. The subsequent updates of 1991, 2001, and 2007-2008, showed increasing amounts of direct spending of $688.3 million, $857.4 million, and $2,688.7 million, respectively. The results also suggested a continuous shift in geographical distribution of direct spending away from border counties to Tucson and Phoenix metro areas. Phoenix benefited not only from more people driving longer distances, but also from air passengers and more distant origins outside Sonora. Sonora has traditionally been the main origin of border crossings to Arizona.

Vehicle passengers – the largest category of border crossings

Note that the data refers to “crossings,” not “crossers,” meaning that the actual number of persons crossing the border is smaller including those who made multiple crossings, such as daily or weekly commuters, and those who crossed the border only once during the entire year. Of 25.2 million crossings through all six Arizona’s border ports of entry in 2017, 18.1 million or 72% were passengers in personal vehicles. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Border crossings by car and on foot, from Mexico to Arizona

Border crossings by car and on foot, from Mexico to Arizona

Source: AZMEX, Economic & Business Research Center

While majority of border crossings are done by car as was the case two decades ago, the number of crossings by car since 2000 has profoundly decreased. The number of crossings reached the lowest point in 2011, and although there has been some upward trend in last few years, the number of crossings in 2017 was almost a third lower than in 2000. Number of pedestrian crossings also declined, albeit at a smaller rate, about 16.6%.

Nogales – the busiest vehicle passenger crossings in Arizona

Of 18.1 million vehicle passengers that entered Arizona in 2017, 7.6 million or 42% took place at at the Nogales port of entry. Another 5.7 million or 32% of the total entered Arizona through San Luis port, while Douglas port was a distant third with 3.2 million crossings or 17.6% share. Less than 10% of car passengers entered Arizona through one of the remaining three smallest ports of entry - Lukeville, Naco, and Sasabe. While all ports experienced decline in volumes of car passenger crossings, Nogales and San Luis are recovering at somewhat higher rate than Douglas. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Personal vehicle passenger crossings through Arizona BPOE

  Personal vehicle passenger crossings through Arizona BPOE

Source: AZMEX, Economic & Business Research Center

Pedestrian crossings less affected than vehicle passenger crossings

Although the number of crossings of both vehicle passengers and pedestrians declined since 2000, pedestrian traffic seems to be less affected than crossings by car. Even when the number of pedestrian crossings fell below the 2000 level, the largest decline in 2014 was still less than 25% compared to the deepest fall in number of vehicle passenger crossings of more than 50% in 2011. (Figure 3)

Figure 3. Trends in passenger and pedestrian crossings (2000=100)

  Trends in passenger and pedestrian crossings (2000=100)

Source: AZMEX, Economic & Business Research Center

Nogales still No. 1 for pedestrian crossings, but San Luis and Douglas increased their share

Nogales port of entry is still the major Arizona gateway for pedestrian border crossings from Mexico, although the volume in 2017 is less than half of what it was in 2005 through 2008. Despite some increase since the lowest levels in 2013 and 2014, the number of pedestrian crossings in 2017 was still lower than in 2000. Pedestrian traffic at San Louis port has kept more steady in the same period, and unlike Nogales’ experience, the 2017 levels were almost as high as in 2000. Interestingly, the port of Douglas was the only port of entry in Arizona with 2017 crossings exceeding those in 2000. (Figure 4)

Figure 4. Pedestrian crossings through Arizona BPOE

Pedestrian crossings through Arizona BPOE

Source: AZMEX, Economic & Business Research Center

Factors impacting personal border crossings

For most of the late 20 th century, personal cross-border trips in the U.S.-Mexico border region were influenced to a large extent by the Mexican peso-U.S. dollar exchange rate, real and perceived differences in availability, quality, and prices in goods and services on either side of the border, employment opportunities, and familial ties. The expansion of Maquiladora sector south of the border contributed to cross-border shopping trips north of the border, whereas the less expensive dental services and pharmaceutical products lured American and Canadian visitors to Mexican cities south of the border.

The 21 st century brought unprecedented challenges to the established pattern. First, in the aftermath of terrorist attracts of 9/11/2001 the U.S. government imposed stricter control in cross-border procedures including new documentation for entrance in the U.S. In addition to fees for newly required border cards/passports, cross-border trips seem to be discouraged by increased wait time due to stricter border crossing procedure. However, trend lines shown in charts, suggest that the biggest decline in personal border crossings during 2009-2012 coincided with the Great Recession and post-recession recovery affecting economies on both sides of the border. Two additional factors appear to impact the volume of crossers. The declining value of Mexican peso against U.S. dollar from about 10.7 pesos/per dollar in September of 2008 to 19 pesos/per dollar in December 2017 discourages crossings of Mexican visitors to Arizona. On the other side, security issues, real or perceived, discourage American and Canadian crossers to Mexico.

How does Nogales compare?

El Paso, Texas is one of the busiest border crossings for pedestrians and vehicle passengers. Each day in 2017 on average, El Paso port of entry facilitated close to 19,000 pedestrian crossings and more than 60,000 vehicle passenger crossings, approximately twice as many pedestrian and three times as many vehicle passengers as at Nogales port of entry. A comparison of year-to year changes reveals that with the exception of 2002 and 2009, Nogales’ crossings pretty much resemble annual fluctuations at El Paso port of entry. (Figure 5)

Figure 5.  All Personal Crossings through Nogales and El Paso (Year-to-Year Changes)

All Personal Crossings through Nogales and El Paso (Year-to-Year Changes)

Source: AZMEX, Economic & Business Research Center

El Paso port of entry experienced a bigger drop in personal crossings in 2002, while crossings through the Nogales port were more affected in 2009. Since the Great Recession, however, trend lines are very similar suggesting common factors at work.


[1] Border crossing data presented are from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). BTS releases border crossings as monthly data series, however, they release these data three months at a time each quarter. EBRC inspects all data released from public sources for accuracy and consistency, and calculates annual totals. In order to improve the consistency and accuracy EBRC has made and continues incorporate the following estimates and corrections to this data set. This means the data presented here may not always match data on the BTS website.

[2] De Gennaro, N. and R.J. Ritchey, The economic impact of Mexican visitors to Arizona, 1978; Hopkins, R.G., The economic impact of Mexican visitors to Arizona, 1992; Charney, A.H. and V. Pavlakovich-Kochi, The economic impacts of Mexican visitors to Arizona, 2001; and Pavlakovich-Kochi, V. and A.H. Charney, Mexican visitors to Arizona: Visitor characteristics and economic impacts, 2007-08.