Abutting the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean, the San Diego-Tijuana metropolitan area boasts a combined population of some 5 million people, making it by far the largest urban conglomeration on the United States-Mexico border. Home to 40% of the population along the 3145-kilometre frontier, it also ranks as one of the busiest land crossings in the world, with 135,000 people traversing on average daily.
The largest city in the Mexican state of Baja California, Tijuana, became a flashpoint late in 2018 when thousands of Central American migrants arrived on its streets, desperately seeking a passage to the US. With most of the waves of would-be immigrants, dubbed ‘caravans’, originating in Honduras or El Salvador, they opted for a longer route to the US through Tijuana rather than taking the more direct – though far riskier – path through the state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas and where drug cartel wars rage.
Greeted by the aggressive rhetoric of US president Donald Trump, the situation of the migrants reached a flashpoint on November 25, when US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) fully closed the San Ysidro port of entry (just south of San Diego) to vehicles for six hours after scuffles broke out in which migrants attempted to breach the frontier and CBP agents responded with tear gas and pepper ball guns.
“It has a big impact on the city, economically,” says Zulia Orozco, a doctoral candidate in urban studies at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who lives in Tijuana. “We have many US citizens who cross the border from Tijuana on a daily basis. We live on tourism and have a historically close relationship with San Diego.”
A celebrated destination for US citizens seeking some rest and relaxation, there is more to Tijuana and Baja California than tourism. Between 2012 and 2016, FDI in the state totalled $5.6bn, 63% of which came from the US. Underlining its status as a medical device manufacturing hub, 97 firms including BD, WelchAllyn and Thermo Fisher employ about 21,000 people in the area. Tijuana also ranks second in the world for medical tourism, thanks to US citizens availing themselves of lower cost health services available south of the border.
“Though hard numbers are difficult to come by, the biggest [negative] impact appears to have been in the tourism sector – hotels, restaurants and so on – and in medical tourism,” says Cassius Wilkinson, a politics and public security analyst with Mexico City-based political risk consultancy Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis. “Doctors in Tijuana are complaining [that because of the] long waiting times going back to the US, people aren’t coming.”
Tijuana has gone some way in recent years to move beyond its colourful and sometimes violent history. For years the city served as a stronghold for the notorious Tijuana Cartel, originally led by the Arellano Félix brothers. The cartel, still active though diminished, is currently believed to be led by a surviving sister.
These days, however, Tijuana is thought to be more about business than bullets. A 2017 study by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation cited Tijuana’s “quality universities [including one of the main campuses of the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California] and attractive cost of doing business” as well as the growth in industries focused on “semiconductors, aerospace, electrical equipment, and audiovisual and communications equipment” as some of its perks.