In much of America, life has slowly slipped back into some semblance of normalcy after COVID-19 changed the world. And unless you live in a border town, you might not know about a strange holdover that’s devastating thousands of businesses. Amid the border crisis where record numbers of illegal immigrants are seemingly greeted with open arms, legal travelers from Mexico are restricted— if they want to come by car or on foot. Today, how that's costing the U.S. billions.
For 12 years, David Chung has owned this shop in Laredo, Texas just a few blocks from the Mexican border.
Sharyl: How many employees did you have before Covid hit and what's the status now?
David Chung: Before Covid hit, I had three full-time employees and one part-time on the weekends. Now I have no employees, just me and my wife. Some days I come to work by myself, I tell her just to stay home because all day there's hardly any business.
While many American businesses are on the road to recovery they’re still stuck in neutral in border towns, like Laredo. That’s because the Mexican tourists these businesses have relied on for years are still forbidden.
Sharyl (On-Camera): While illegal crossers are coming in and accepted by the thousands, legal shoppers from Mexico are considered non-essential travelers and banned under COVID restrictions since March of 2020.
Sharyl: Can you tell me what's happened to the business since the non-essential traffic has been closed from Mexico?
Chung: So we stayed closed for about six months until September. But, we reopened, but there was hardly any business because we were dependent on a lot of the businesses from Mexico because this is border and all of that was gone.
From here in Texas through New Mexico and Arizona, to California, thousands of businesses have shut down. Losses in U.S. border communities are estimated at $10 billion. Fewer sales, less income, less sales taxes for local government.
Rep. Henry Cuellar: It’s a ghost town.
Congressman Henry Cuellar represents Laredo. We met up in the struggling downtown section where he told me he can’t figure out why Mexican tourists can freely fly into the U.S., but aren’t allowed to drive or walk across the port of entry just a few blocks from here.
Rep. Cuellar: Homeland puts a blame on CDC, CDC puts a blame on Homeland.
Kush Samtani has operated his business, Special Electronics, in downtown Laredo since 1989, relying primarily on Mexican customers.
Kush Samtani: You know, there's nothing here. I mean, we're all bleeding and the borders have to open up so people can get back into business.
His shop used to bring in six figures a day, he says, but now he’s losing upwards of $10,000 a month, and won’t bring in a dollar today.
Sharyl: What was the shop like? You know, when it was busy and things were more normal and what is it like now?
Samtani: We'd had lines outside the door, people to pay. And it was full in here and people were buying TVs, electronics, and perfumes.
Sharyl: I believe air traffic is allowed to and from Mexico without these restrictions, but people can't drive across or walk across here?
Samtani: I know that's crazy. I noticed a lot of illegals crossing, but customers can't cross, which doesn't make sense.
Rep. Cuellar: Well there are contradictions along the border. Why is it that you can have a Mexican flying to the U.S. but then, and Mexican cannot drive across. I've asked them, “Why is it that undocumented people can come in, and why is it people can’t come in?” I've asked CDC the same question, their leadership, and they're basically are telling me the same thing that “it's complicated at the border." It's not complicated for us. We understand.
Questions about the policy and apparent contradictions heightened last month as thousands of Haitians stormed the border crossing illegally, with no vaccine requirements or COVID testing.
Saenz: We’ve been hurting. I mean, our downtown area is desolate. I mean, it's dead. Just about over 120 storefronts have actually closed.
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz says he has a novel idea that could help solve all concerns. Allow Mexican shoppers back in and offer them vaccines.
Mayor Saenz: Open up to nonessential so they can come into the U.S. and get vaccinated. And when they're here, that may help our economy too, by shopping or staying at our hotels and restaurants and so on. So it's encouraging, to hopefully invite these people and take care of their health needs, but also they could help us in economically as well.
Meantime, Chung says he’s not even making enough money to cover utilities at his shop.
Sharyl: How long do you think you can hang on without significant help or change?
Chung: Maybe another couple of months. At the time where I have to make a decision.
Just this past week, the Biden administration announced a reversal. Under pressure, and with the U.S. economy continuing to show strain, vaccinated travelers coming by land or ferry will finally be allowed back into the U.S. starting in November.
Rep. Cuellar: I think what got them convinced, uh, is just pressure, pressure, pressure. They had to understand that this was important to our economy. How do you lose $19 billion from the Mexicans that were coming over and shopping? And just yesterday I was downtown. It's so sad. So sad to see so many businesses that closed up, but this Christmas, as you know, October, November, December, and January are so important for the border economies. This is going to be a very, very good Christmas.
It's a year and a half too late for some but could be in time to save other businesses.
Samtani is holding out hope.
Samtani: We need our tourists, you know, we are a border front city. We're the gateway to Mexico. We need our tourists to come here and shop.
Sharyl (on-camera): The shop owners say the fourth quarter is typically the best for business, and that the border can open ahead of the holiday season they say, some businesses will be able to recover a decent portion of their losses.