“Essential” Crossings in the Arizona-Sonora Border Region During the 2020 Pandemic

May 10, 2021


To assess the impact of pandemic-related restrictions on border crossings, 2020 monthly data are compared with: 2011, the year of the highest number of crossings; 2009, the year after the Great Recession; and 2019, the year preceding the pandemic

Measures imposed to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic inadvertently introduced a new subcategory of documented border crossers deemed “essential,” allowing only those who fit this definition to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. “Essential“ travelers entering the U.S., are defined as including individuals traveling for medical purposes; to attend educational institutions; for work in the U.S.; for emergency response and public health purposes; engaged in lawful cross-border trade such as truck drivers; engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel, or engaged in military-related travel or operations.[1]  Excluded from the “essential” category are those travelers whose purpose for traveling  is tourism, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events in the U.S.[2] Shopping trips and routine family visits are also prohibited as they do not fit the definition of being “essential.”[3]  

Although the number of border crossings through Arizona’s border ports-of-entry has dwindled in last decade, the pandemic-related restrictions brought the number of crossings to the lowest level seen in more than forty years. People cross the border as pedestrians, in cars as drivers and passengers, and by bus. Which of the three modes had been affected most, and which of Arizona’s six ports-of-entry had experienced the largest declines in months following the pandemic-induced restrictions on travel?

Border Crossings – an Essential Link for Economies of Arizona Border Cities

Residents in the U.S.-Mexico border region would argue that all border crossings have always been essential. Since the early days when twin cities started developing around official international border ports-of-entry, crossings were very much local in character. Crossing the border for a better paying job (or any job opportunity), for less expensive or special food items, for less expensive and more versatile consumer products, for a more attractive entertainment, or simply for visiting friends and family on the other side – has always been part of life along the border. Opportunities to combine assets on both sides of the border through daily, weekly, or monthly crossings, for many border residents was not only a way of life, but an essential coping mechanism of survival in the border region.

By 1970s, cross-border shopping became one of the strongest economic ties between twin cities in the Arizona-Sonora border region. As documented in the first of University of Arizona study in 1978, all Arizona’s border communities were heavily dependent on Mexican shoppers.[4] Their spending in department and grocery stores sustained large number of local jobs and contributed substantially to local tax revenues. Subsequent studies in 1992, 2001, and 2008,[5] confirmed the economic importance of Mexican visitor spending not only to border communities, but to Arizona’s economy outside the border zone, most notably Tucson and Pima County. The rising number of border crossings at the turn of the century was largely associated with the expansion of the maquiladora industry in Sonora and increasing trade under the NAFTA since 1994.

The Last Decade: A New Pattern Emerges

The 2008 study of Mexican visitors to Arizona glimpsed of the end of the era of high volumes of border crossings from Mexico to Arizona before the number of crossings started to decline. Even after resuming an upward trend in the second decade, border crossings never reached high levels recorded at the turn of the century, in 2002.

As shown in Figure 1, several sudden declines in number of border crossings are associated with specific events. For example, following the 9/11/2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the border crossing procedures became more rigorous, thus making it more difficult to obtain permit, while creating longer wait times to cross the border. The overall decline in 2001 was 7.1% from year ago. Next year, however, the number of border crossings not only resumed but reached the historically highest level of 36.8 million crossings. Another noticeable decline occurred around 2010 (when crossings fell to more than 38% below the highest peak in 2002) was associated with the Great Recession of 2008-2009, which caused shrinkage of jobs on both sides of the border, but especially in maquiladora operations south of the border. The loss of jobs and associated incomes reduced border crossings for work purposes and for cross-border shopping. Arizona’s infamous immigration enforcement law known as SB 1070, introduced in 2010, also had negative impact on border crossings as many residents of Sonora felt unwelcomed in Arizona.[6]

Although in last few years border crossings started slowly on an upward trend, reaching 25.4 million in 2017, the number of crossings in the last decade was significantly lower than thirty-forty years ago. A combination of factors might have contributed to this pattern of the last decade: more rigorous and costly procedures for obtaining crossing permit; longer wait times at the border; availability of American goods in Mexico, as well as growing popularity of on-line shopping. An increase in air travel between Hermosillo and Phoenix, as noted in 2008 study, might have also reduced land crossings that would have previously done by car. The fluctuations in peso-dollar exchange rates have also shown to affect border crossings, although in two-way mode; declining purchasing power of Mexican peso versus U.S. dollar discourages Mexican shoppers from spending in Arizona, while at the same time makes products and services south for the border more attractive for American and Canadian shoppers.[7]

Figure 1. Annual border crossings through Arizona ports-of-entry, 1996-2020

Car Passengers Are the Largest Category of Persons Crossing the Border in Arizona

As shown in Figure 2, traveling in personal vehicle has been the dominant mode of border crossings accounting for about 70% of all crossings.  The largest number of vehicle passenger crossings was recorded in 2002, with 26.9 million crossings.  Since falling to the lowest point in 2011 (12.9 million crossings), car passenger crossings never reached more than 19 million annually. Pedestrian crossings on average comprise up to 30% of all crossings. More than 11.8 million pedestrian crossings were recorded in the peak year 2007 in the first decade, but in the last ten years, the number of pedestrian crossings stayed below 8 million a year. A relatively small number of crossers, never more than 380,000 annually as in the peak year 2006, came by bus. (In comparison with car passengers and pedestrians, the bus passenger crossing numbers are barely visible in Figure 2).

Figure 2. Annual border crossings through Arizona ports-of-entry, by type


Was car passenger decline offset by increases in pedestrian crossings? Anecdotal experience suggested that in times of stricter border crossing procedures or increasing wait times more crossers would decide to cross the border on foot and then pick up shuttle or taxi services to get to shopping or other destinations.  In Nogales, Arizona, one could get the impression that over the years both supply of shuttle and taxi services increased. There were also more and better organized parking lots for American and Canadian visitors to Mexico who preferred crossing the border on foot.[8] When plotted next to each other, as in Figure 3, annual increases in pedestrian crossings seem to correlate to some degree with declining number in passengers vehicle crossings, but may not be statistically significant.

Figure 3. Pedestrian and car passenger crossings through Arizona ports-of-entry


March and April 2020: A Drastic Disruption in Monthly Volume of Crossings

To better assess the impact of pandemic-related restrictions on border crossings, the 2020 monthly crossing patterns are compared with three selected years, shown in Figure 4; 2002, as the year of the highest number of border crossings, 2011, the year of recuperation after the Great Recession, and 2019, the year preceding the pandemic.

Figure 4. Monthly pattern of border crossings through Arizona ports-of-entry

Usually, the highest number of border crossings would be recorded in December, the most important shopping season of the year. The month of February would follow with the lowest number of crossings, partially due to the shortest number of days in a month. In March, the number of crossings would pick up again, more or less flattened until August, and rising in November and December.

January and February 2020 appear to follow the pattern of the previous year, in February even slightly surpassing the 2019 level. The first restrictions related to the pandemic were put in place in the second half of March 2020, bringing down the number of crossings in April to 555,389, and before an unprecedented 61.9% fall from the previous month. Not only were the crossings restricted by the application of a newly defined category of “essential” crossings; the lockdown of businesses reduced the need for border crossings.

From May on, border crossings started to slowly resume, but throughout the rest of the year never reached monthly volumes of the previous year.

“Lost” vs. “Essential” Border cCrossings

As vividly portrayed in the above charts, the reaction to pandemic caused profound disruptions in border crossings through Arizona ports-of-entry. From a perspective of looking at border crossings as a vital factor in economies and social fabrics of border communities, these drastic declines are associated with yet not fully assessed negative impacts on both sides of the border.  To help getting some grasp of how deep the losses might have been, the recorded “essential” crossings in 2020 are compared to levels in the previous year and the difference is identified as potential but unrealized crossings, in other words, lost crossings.

The next three charts, labeled Figure 5, 6, and 7, compare “essential” and “lost” border crossings of people arriving as car passengers, pedestrians, or bus passengers.

Bus passenger crossings in 2020 were most affected. In 2019, on a monthly basis there were between 16,158 (in October) and 21,186 crossings (in January). Following the first restrictions in 2020, the numbers fell by more than 80% in April and stayed low throughout the rest of the year, as shown in Figure 5

Figure 5. “Essential” and “lost” border crossings: bus passengers


Pedestrian crossings were reduced by more than 50% compared to 2019 levels. In the pre-pandemic year the number of pedestrian crossings varied on a monthly basis between 484,940 (in June) and 730,359 (in December); in the same months in 2020 the numbers dropped to 229,385 and 304,208, respectively. As shown in Figure 6, the “essential” crossings in 2020 accounted for less than 50% of 2019 levels. Aside from the restrictions on number of border crossings imposed by the definition of “essential,” it is also likely that certain number of would-be crossers abstained from crossing the border on foot to avoid waiting in line in close physical distance with other people. It is interesting to note that even under austere restrictions, between 6,000 and 10,000 people crossed the border daily on foot for the most essential reasons.[9]

Figure 6. “Essential” and “lost” border crossings: pedestrians

Border crossings by car fell below 2019 levels, but slowly resumed by end of 2020. In April of the pandemic year the number of car passenger crossings dropped by 72% to 374,778 compared to 1,339,553 a year ago in the same month. As shown in Figure 7, it was not until September that the crossings started slowly to pick up, although still about 45% below 2019 levels. It is possible that a part of this upswing might have been due to some pedestrian crossers who turned to using car as a safer environment for traveling in the time of pandemic.

Figure 7. “Essential” and “lost” border crossings: car passengers

Nogales, Arizona’s major border port-of-entry, most affected

As shown in Figure 8, Nogales experienced the largest negative impacts of the pandemic-related restrictions on border crossings. Number of crossings in April 2020 fell almost 80% below the level in the same month a year ago. For the rest of 2020, monthly crossings were in the range between 55% and 70% of what they were a year ago.  In comparison with Nogales and Douglas, border crossings through San Luis port-of-entry recorded relatively lesser impacts; following the sharpest decline in April of 60%, border crossings were mostly around 40% of what they were a year ago.

Figure 8. “Lost” border crossings in 2020 as % of 2019 Crossings, by Major Port

March 2021: Still Below March Numbers a Year Ago

The restrictions to allow only “essential” border crossers were kept in power through March 2021. A total number of border crossings through all six Arizona ports-of-entry reached 864,062, surpassing number of monthly border crossings in each April, May, June, and July of 2020, but still represented only 60.8% of March 2020 volume, and barely 40.9% of March 2019. 

As shown in Figure 9, Nogales not only recorded the largest decline in border crossings since March 2020 compared to 2019, but the crossings fell below those through the second largest port, San Luis. The number of both car passenger and pedestrian crossings through San Luis during this period were above those for Nogales.

Figure 9. Border crossings March 2019 through March 2021 through major ports

Anticipated, but Not Yet Assessed, Negative Impacts of Drastically Reduced Border Crossings

While the border crossing statistics of the last decade had suggested that patterns of border crossings were changing, nobody could have anticipated the sudden and drastic impact of a pandemic. Historically, businesses in Arizona’s border communities that depended on Mexican visitor spending, have always been anxious about sudden peso devaluations that several times in the past caused devastating impacts, the last one being in 1994. But a pandemic? This certainly wasn’t on anybody’s mind.

There is no doubt that the reduction of 40 to 60% in border crossings had already caused a substantial dent in economic benefits to businesses and tax revenues on both sides of the border. And yet, in spite of drastic restrictions imposed on border crossings, the sheer number of “essentials” is a proof of highly intertwined economic links in the Arizona-Sonora border region.

[1] “COVID-19 Related Travel Restrictions across the U.S. Borders with Canada and Mexico,” Last updated March 18, 2021. https:// mx.usembassy.gov/travel-restrictions-fact-sheet

[2] Same as in endnote 1.

[3] “What crossings are prohibited now?” https://www.mexperience.com/mexico-land-border-restrictions-closure-covid-19, assessed 4/8/2021

[4] De Gennaro, N. and R.J. Richey, The economic impact of Mexican visitors to Arizona, The University of Arizona College of Business and Public Administration, Division of Economic and Business Research, prepared for Arizona Office of Tourism, 1978.

[5]Hopkins, R.G., The economic impact of Mexican visitors to Arizona, The University of Arizona College of Business and Public Administration, Division of Economic and Business Research, prepared for Arizona Office of Tourism, 1992;  Pavlakovich-Kochi, V. and A.H. Charney, Mexican visitors to Arizona: Visitor characteristics and economic impacts, 2007-08, The University of Arizona Eller College of Management, Economic and Business Research Center, prepared for Arizona Office of Tourism, 2008.

[6] “Arizona’s SB 1070: The legacy of Arizona’s immigration enforcement law,” Republic staff, 3/2/2020, www.arizonacentral.com

[7] This is one of the reasons while simple correlation between peso-dollar exchange rates and number of border crossings rarely shows statistical significance.

[8] Keep in mind that data on border crossings represent only northbound border crossing and include all crossers, i.e., Mexican nationals crossing into the U.S. and American and Canadian crossers returning to the U.S.

[9] Only northbound crossings are officially recorded.