MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And speaking of the U.S. as paradise, that is not how locals describe the border town of Nogales, Arizona. They say the downtown has become a ghost town. A number of factors, including the recession and stricter immigration policies, have thrown shops and restaurants into a struggle to survive.
From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd reports.
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PETER O'DOWD: Just after the morning rush at this McDonald's in Nogales, Arizona, a few people linger in the dining room. Two years ago, when Gael Sylvia Pullen first bought the franchise, she says it was full of Spanish-speaking customers. This business, like so many others within sight of the international line, depends on Mexico.
Ms. GAEL SYLVIA PULLEN (McDonald's Restaurant Franchise Owner): And the fact of the matter is that there is between 24 and 30,000 people on this side of the border, there's 200-plus thousand on the Mexico side. That's our customer base.
O'DOWD: It's a customer base that's increasingly difficult to reach. In Arizona, legal border crossings in both directions have dropped by about one million people a year since 2003. That's partly because just moving across the line has become an inconvenience. Agents on both sides have tightened inspections, but staffing is short and lines of cars clog the ports. This global recession is the latest blow.
Ms. PULLEN: Someone once described it to me, specifically my accountant, as us being in the middle of a perfect economic storm.
O'DOWD: It's a similar story along the border from Tijuana to Juarez, according to Gordon Hanson. He studies border economies at the University of California, San Diego.
Professor GORDON HANSON (Director, Center on Pacific Economies): The economic downturn that the United States has been experiencing for the last 18 months has hit international trade and international commerce particularly hard.
O'DOWD: Hanson says Mexican citizens who live in border towns bear the brunt of a U.S. recession. Large American factories that operate on the Mexican side make fewer seatbelts and televisions and slash jobs in a downturn. With less money to spend and more security hassles to cross into the U.S., Hanson says people on the Mexican side prefer to stay home.
Prof. HANSON: What increased security presence on the border does by increasing wait times is throw sand into the wheels of commerce. It's going to slow everything down.
O'DOWD: That compounds an even larger problem. Trade has already slowed to a crawl in Nogales. Each winter, about half of America's fresh produce from Mexico comes through the Mariposa Port. Three decades ago, the port was designed to process 400 trucks a day, four times that many limp through it now. At peak times, trucks sometimes idle at the border for 10 hours waiting to cross, costing produce companies and local governments an estimated several hundred million dollars annually in lost revenue and sales tax.
But there may be a fix in sight. Last month, officials from both Mexico and the U.S., along with a military band, were in Nogales to celebrate a new port expansion.
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O'DOWD: The $200 million federal stimulus project will nearly triple Mariposa's capacity.
Economist, Gordon Hanson.
Prof. HANSON: Improving border infrastructure is not a bridge to nowhere. And you've had mayors along the border on both sides, in Mexico and the United States, pleading with their state and federal governments for more investment in infrastructure that helps trade happen.
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ODOWD: Better ports may not come in time for everyone. Just a few feet from the border, cars rush by and music filters out of clothing stores and perfume shops. But inside, its quiet. Ernesto Chavez(ph) stands alone in his cluttered stationary shop where business, dependent on Mexican visitors, has fallen 50 percent in the past year.
Mr. ERNESTO CHAVEZ (Shop Owner): Ill tell you what: Ive been here in this store for 49 years, but never, ever have I seen it the way it is right now.
ODOWD: I asked Chavez if hes looking forward to the port expansion, if it will boost sales when Mariposa opens in 2014. The 74-year-old Mexican native shrugs. By then, he says, it could be too late.
For NPR News, Im Peter ODowd.
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