Border town businesses struggle to survive during cross-border travel shutdown

Posted at 2:18 PM, Jun 26, 2020

SAN YSIDRO, Calif. -- A quick conversation with a customer is now a rare interaction for border town business owner Sunil Gakhreja.

“There is no business. You’ve been in here for 20 minutes and no one’s come in, no one’s even crossed by in front of us,” said Gakhreja.

The Department of Homeland Security banned all non-essential travel between the United States and Mexico because of COVID-19.

For business owners in the small border town of San Ysidro, about 20 minutes south of San Diego, this closure is suffocating their livelihood.

“When they close the border, economically, it affects us a lot. That’s our main bread and butter,” said Gakhreja.

The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce said 95% of the customers in the stores cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. to shop.

The chamber reports now that border crossings are restricted—businesses are losing $1.8 million per day.

Gakhreja is no exception. He was forced to lay off the entire staff at his perfume shop.

“It’s only me and my wife working. That’s how we can survive.”

The family’s entire livelihood hangs on the success of one strip mall on San Ysidro Boulevard. They just opened a pizza shop next door named for Gakhreja’s mother Maya.

It’s a tribute he’s desperately trying to keep alive.

“We put everything— our soul in there, our money, every single penny we have. I don’t want to let it go down, in any way,” he said.

Sunil has been in the United States for more than two decades after immigrating from India.

He said this city gave him the chance for a different life than he had growing up.

“This country has given me everything,” said Gakhreja. “I am here because of this community. This border town has given me everything: the ability to buy my house, to run my business, I couldn’t be more blessed, but I don’t want to give up my hope. I want to hold on to that last breath that we have.”

The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce is handing out PPE to help small businesses hold on. Packages of hand sanitizer, masks, face shields and gloves will go out to any business that needs it.

“Being safe, PPE, distancing ourselves, wearing our masks, that’s the way to protect ourselves,” said Jason Wells of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. “Not being xenophobic and doing things like closing the border.”

Gakrehja said this street on the border can’t wait too much longer.

“You’re going to lose jobs, people will go into depression, this is our American dream,” he said.

Gakrehja is just hoping lawmakers see one thing: in times of turmoil—keeping people apart can cause great pain.

“We have to understand we are a great nation, but at this time we need other people’s help too,” he said.

The border closure is extended until July 22, 2020. However, for the past several months, the deadline has been extended several times. Business owners fear that will continue to happen.