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Here’s What Really Happens to Your Used Clothes

How what you donate in the United States gets smuggled into Mexico.

Priscilla Hernandez and her boyfriend Eru Hernandez Campos at their used clothing stall in Tijuana’s Pípila market.

On Saturday mornings, Priscilla Lupercio Hernandez wakes up at 6 and journeys from her neighborhood in Tijuana, Mexico to shop on “the other side,” as those in the city refer to the United States.

Her destination is the Goodwill Outlet and Donation Center in San Ysidro, California, about a mile from PedWest, the newly renovated pedestrian entrance at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which separates the Mexican state of Baja California from the American region of Southern California.

Set back from the road by a U-shaped driveway, the Goodwill complex is made up of three buildings. Priscilla heads to the warehouse on the left; there is already a line of Mexican shoppers outside and she joins them. At 7:45, a Goodwill staffer hands out tickets to enter.

The warehouse is lined with rows of black and blue plastic bins the size of small dumpsters, each filled with discounted clothing, shoes, and accessories that have gone unsold for four weeks in the chain’s thrift stores and then another four at its clearance centers. Here, near the end of the nonprofit’s supply chain, the prices are exceedingly cheap: A standard article goes for $1 a piece, while the nicer items cost $3–$5.

But at 10:30 a.m. and again at 1 p.m, when whole bins are offered up for auction, those prices are slashed even more dramatically. Large containers of shoes start at $95 per bin, while those of used clothing start at $60, even as the original tags on individual items show prices well north of $100. Sometimes the bidding pushes prices as high as $400 per bin, though that still represents a huge discount. According to one employee, Goodwill sees between $20,000 and $30,000 in sales at the twice-daily auctions.

Many items sold at Tijuana markets are purchased in the US, often in bulk at places like Goodwill.

Goodwill is both a sign of America’s clothing gluttony, and one of its potential solutions. American consumers throws away an average of 82 pounds of clothing a year each, and the country collectively sends a total of 21 billion pounds to landfills. Nonprofits like Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army aim to decrease that number, not primarily by giving donated clothing directly to the homeless and other vulnerable populations (a common misconception), but instead by reselling it at company thrift stores and then using the proceeds for job training, disaster relief, and other social services. But even so, of the 4.7 billion pounds of clothing that Americans donate every year, only 10 percent of it is fit for resale at US thrift stores, according to anti-poverty nonprofit One.

The rest is sold to commercial used clothing dealers and textile recyclers at bulk prices, who in turn export it — 1.6 billion pounds annually with a value of more than $550 million — for resale or recycling around the world, making the United States the world’s largest exporter of used clothing.

Meanwhile, the garments that do make it into Goodwill have about a month in retail and another at a clearance center to find a second life in the United States. Failing this, they too find their way into the hands of used clothing dealers, like Priscilla, here at this southern edge of America.

The 1,954-mile-long US-Mexico border is the most heavily crossed international land border in the world, with more than 350 million legal crossings taking place every year. The San Ysidro Port of Entry is its westernmost access point, connecting the major metropolises of Tijuana and San Diego, with a combined population of nearly 4.9 million people. With an average of 120,000 passenger vehicles, 6,000 trucks, and 63,000 pedestrians crossing daily in both directions, San Ysidro is also the border’s busiest crossing point.

Though the wall that Donald Trump wants to build has already stood, in some form, between Baja and Southern California since 1986, the border itself is — and always has been — somewhat porous. Extended families live on either side, and some residents cross weekly, or even daily, to work, study, shop, and socialize.

A border wall cuts across Tijuana and juts straight out into the sea. San Diego can be seen in the distance.

Until the late 1990s, this was fairly easy: Mexican border residents with proof of a job in Mexico and one year’s residency in a border town could enter the United States with an I-187 border crossing card, which the Immigration and Naturalization Service described as being “for the convenience of our Mexican neighbors for such activities as shopping or visiting relatives within the international frontier area of the United States.” Obtainable at any crossing point, these documents allowed freedom of movement for 72 hours after entry within 25 miles of the border.

They did not, however, grant the right to work or study in the United States. Both then and now, to legally work in the United States, either seasonally or permanently, requires a separate, more involved process, with border residents receiving no preference over Mexicans from elsewhere within the country.

Today, it’s hard to imagine any US government representative using such neighborly language on immigration; the privilege of crossing is much more restricted now. While all Americans can travel to Mexico with just their passports, receiving a visitor permit upon arrival, the same is not true for Mexicans, as any cursory perusal of American news (or President Trump’s tweets) will tell you. This has been the case since at least the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, which increased border patrols and criminalized and sanctioned employers who hire undocumented workers, including those from Mexico.

Indeed, according to research by Tito Alegría Olazábal, the director of urban and environmental studies at the College of the Northern Frontier, an estimated 55 percent of Tijuanenses do not meet the qualifications required to receive an American entry visa, especially in demonstrating the “sufficient social, economic, and other ties to their home country to compel the applicant to return” to Mexico and not seek employment north of the border.

But the economic and social integration of the border continues, at least for those that can move freely back and forth. In recent years, real estate developers have marketed Tijuana as a more affordable place to live for San Diegans, a kind of cross-border Brooklyn. And since at least 2013, the San Diego mayor’s office has had a municipal diplomat with the title of “binational affairs director” on its payroll, splitting time between San Diego and Baja California.

These connections have a historical precedent. Since the founding of border towns in the 1800s, both American and Mexican communities have benefited from visitors — and commerce — from the other side. During the American Civil War, the Confederacy smuggled cotton through Mexican ports to markets in Europe to get around the Union’s naval blockades, and during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, American merchants supplied Mexican troops with arms. In peacetime, meanwhile, American general stores sold farm equipment for Mexican agriculture, and department stores kept Mexican consumers clothed in the latest northern fashions.

Then, with World War II and the ensuing agricultural labor shortages in California, the United States and Mexico signed the Bracero Program agreements, which supplied over 4.5 million Mexican laborers with work in the United States. During this period, many migrated from the southern states of Mexico, making Tijuana their permanent home. In 1965, after the Bracero Program came to an end and left many in Tijuana out of work, the Mexican government started the maquiladora program to industrialize the border and provide jobs. The program allows duty-free importation of raw materials, supplies, and machinery into Mexico in order to produce products for international export. This attracted companies like Samsung and Nike to open factories in border towns, providing low-wage jobs to Mexican workers who would, in turn, continue to spend some of their paychecks in America.

Traffic builds on the US side of the border, heading into Mexico. The Tijuana border is one of the busiest land crossings in the world.

To this day, the maquiladora industry, made up of the factories producing for export, remains the largest in Tijuana and Mexican shoppers continue to have a large impact on Southern California, contributing $6 billion to San Diego’s economy in 2008. For the state of California, exports to Mexico totaled $25.3 billion in sales in 2016, 15 percent of the state’s value of total exports, contributing to the creation of more than 550,000 California jobs, including in the finance, service, and manufacturing sectors. Mexico is the top export market for California, as well as the border states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Last year, several representatives of the CaliBaja Mega-Region Initiative and the Smart Border Coalition, made up of prominent civic and business leaders who advocate for a more integrated regional economy, explained the importance of trans-border trade in an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “From a purely commercial perspective,” they wrote, “our borders are America’s cash registers.”

We think of borders as clean, finite lines on a map, when in fact they are messy. Borders are the meeting, and often clashing, points of not only distinct geographies but also distinct cultures, values, laws, and even basic definitions. What is clearly one thing on one side can become something else entirely once crossed — and also, temporarily, change in the act of crossing.

Such is the case with used clothes. In the United States, they are discarded goods; once they are in Mexico, they are in-demand commodities. While in transit, they are contraband.

Importing used clothing for sale without the proper import license from Mexico’s Secretariat of Economy is prohibited, but it’s believed no one actually has the license. Very few (perhaps even none) apply for it, as applicants are required to submit information such as country of origin and fabric classification, as well as detailed financial documentation, none of which most informal traders have. This effectively renders the entire practice illegal.

The official argument that the Mexican government provides for this de facto “ban” focuses on used clothing as a public health and sanitation issue. But the real reason is economic, says Melissa Gauthier, a Canadian anthropologist who spent a year and a half studying the used clothing trade on the US-Mexico border. Gauthier points out that in the original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which progressively eliminated nearly all tariffs on imports and exports between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, facilitating trade between the three neighbors, used clothing was one of the few exceptions of items that could not move freely.

Used clothing makes its way to Mexico from the US via the ant trade.

This, Gauthier stresses, was a result of Mexican, rather than American, interests and, more specifically, the influence of the powerful Mexican textile manufacturing lobby.

Mario Escobedo Carignan, the president of Tijuana’s Chamber of Commerce, explains that the private sector disapproves of the used clothing trade because it “unfairly competes with legitimate businesses.” He adds that bringing used clothing into the country “shouldn’t even be called importing, because it’s contraband.”

Yet the very economic protectionism that Escobedo and the textile industry advocate for has helped drive demand for Mexico’s informal economy — the untaxed and, often, unregulated portion — which analysts estimate employs up to 60 percent of the country’s workers and accounts for up to half of its gross domestic product. After all, the vast majority of Mexico’s textile industry is focused on export, says Gauthier, leaving few options for Mexican consumers to buy inexpensive fashion.

This is because Mexico’s protectionism of its clothing makers isn’t just targeted at the used clothing trade. When China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, the Mexican government imposed tariffs of up to 1,000 percent on Chinese goods, which ultimately decreased to 20 percent by 2011. And it wasn’t until 2012 that “affordable” fast fashion brands like H&M, Forever 21, and Gap arrived in the country. Even then, they were still out of reach of most shoppers both because of their location (only in Mexico City) and prices (for example, 69 pesos or $5.30 for a pair of boxer briefs, far too expensive for 2012’s annual household per capita income of $3,358.29.)

So along with American guns (much easier to buy in the US given its lax gun laws), California weed (higher-quality than Mexican marijuana, following legalization), and auto parts (legal, but often undeclared to avoid paying high customs duties), secondhand clothing cannot just cross the border; it must be smuggled.

Forced underground, the used clothing trade thrives as one of the “weapons of the weak,” as anthropologist Gauthier describes “the things that people do to just survive under conditions of economic exploitation.”

All along the border, this is done through ant trading, a process by which small volumes of contraband are brought over the border to avoid suspicion or, at the very least, mitigate the risk of confiscation if caught.

Here’s how the used clothing ant trade works in Tijuana:

It starts out at stores like Goodwill, as well as at clothing wholesalers, flea markets, and even garage sales, which offer prices by the piece, pound, or in prepackaged bins or pallets. After paying for the goods, traders can either cross the clothing into Mexico themselves, or pay a designated crosser known as a pasador to do it for them; the going rate for a pasador is $40 per 36-gallon plastic bag. Once on the other side, the buyers are reunited with their goods, which they can then sell to Mexican customers.

The pasadores sometimes declare the goods, but if so, they might intentionally miscategorize the purpose of the used clothing, since secondhand textiles imported as raw materials for manufacturing is allowed, when declared. This is what Escobedo, of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce, calls “documented contraband.” But more often than not, they do not declare at all.

A shop owner and her family sell used children’s clothing at Pípila market in Tijuana.

Many of the professional pasadores have personal relationships with customs officers who facilitate the crossing; for the smaller-scale ant traders, it’s a game of chance. Mexican customs typically select 1 in 10 cars for secondary inspection, and if an ant trader is stopped and confronted, he or she has the choice of paying a fine and keeping his or her goods, or surrendering the merchandise altogether.

But this is just the basic business model; there are a number of modifications that creative ant traders have made all across the country. In other places on the border, like the Texas-Mexico conurbations of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, and McAllen and Reynosa, for example, it is more common for large-scale commercial wholesalers to operate. There, they declare their goods, though again, they sometimes purposely miscategorize them to get around the ban.

Of course, the ant trade doesn’t just consist of used clothing. Anything small enough to be crossed in small quantities or that can be easily broken down can be smuggled, ant-style.

After Priscilla Hernandez’s weekly shopping trips to Goodwill, she sells at a “market on wheels,” as the open-air street markets are known, due to how these markets got their start: with sellers hawking wares directly out of the backs of their vans or trucks.

Each neighborhood in Tijuana has at least one, if not more, of these markets, selling everything from produce to art to makeup to kitchen appliances.

On a Sunday morning, Priscilla and are at their used clothing stall in Pípila market. For 50 pesos ($2.65) a day, they rent three stalls’ worth of space. Every Saturday and Sunday, when Priscilla is not sourcing new merchandise at Goodwill, the two of them work together, arriving at 6 in the morning to set up and staying until 2 in the afternoon or later. Sometimes Eru sets up during the week as well, while his girlfriend is in class.

They specialize in used clothing, all of which Priscilla personally purchases at Goodwill and transports, suitcase by suitcase, across the border, sometimes by foot or, when she’s lucky, in her mother’s car.

Several other members of Priscilla’s family are also in the used clothing business. This began two generations ago, she tells me, though at the beginning her relatives peddled new items — mostly women’s underwear — rather than used clothing. They now sell a mix of both new and used. At Priscilla and Eru’s store, prices range from 10 pesos (about $0.53) for the cheapest items, usually baby clothing, to 100 pesos (about $5), for the most expensive, usually men’s.

“But the people here don’t think that’s cheap,” Eru says of the prices. “Two, 3, 5 pesos — that would be cheap.”

Mexico’s countrywide minimum wage is 88 pesos per day (around $4.70), and median monthly salaries are about 13,239 pesos ($750). In Tijuana, the salaries tend to be higher, thanks to the maquiladora industry. According to Tijuana’s Economic Development Corporation, average wages at the maquiladoras are between $2.85 and $4.60 per hour. But even with pay rates that surpass the national average, it can be hard to get by.

Priscilla with the wares she sourced from Goodwill and brought into Mexico.

That’s where the markets on wheels come in. They provide more choice for consumers, while also serving as a way for Mexicans to earn additional income, according to Gauthier.

Maquiladora workers “rely on the secondhand clothing economy, because this is the best of what they can afford,” says Gaulthier. And when jobs in the formal sector contract, as they did all along the border in the wake of September 11th and again in 2008, with the convergence of the global financial crisis and Mexico’s increased drug-related violence — factory jobs are especially vulnerable to shocks in the global economy — newly unemployed maquiladora workers turn to the informal economy for income.

Isabel Mora is another Tijuanense used clothing seller, but in Camino Verde, which has been called “the most dangerous neighborhood in Mexico” for its high murder rate. Mora has sold used clothing in Camino Verde’s local street market for the past decade.

Like Priscilla, she came into the trade via her family, who began selling when they arrived in Tijuana from the state of Guerrero 11 years ago.

But unlike Priscilla and many other sellers, Isabel does not source her clothing from the United States. Instead, every Tuesday, she collects donations from the homes of Tijuana’s upper class, whom she cleans for. Sometimes Isabel buys super discounted items from other sellers for 5 pesos, which she later resells for 15–20 pesos, a still-affordable markup of 200 to 300 percent. She has also found a number of Facebook groups that have been helpful in sourcing goods, including one called “Everything Given Away Tijuana,” in which local residents post items that they no longer want.

Whatever she can’t sell at the end of the day, she first tries to discount and, if it still doesn’t sell, donates to another, needier seller, who will start the whole cycle anew. In Mexico’s most dangerous neighborhood, Isabel and her fellow sellers have built their own recycling-based, peer-to-peer economy.

The ant trade is, above all, a sophisticated supply chain, and many of the key players converge at the San Ysidro Goodwill.

One of them, a man dressed in a leather jacket with a gold chain around his beefy neck and a slightly menacing scowl, is unwilling to speak on the record. Crossing used goods without a license is, after all, illegal by Mexican law, though perhaps his reticence is just as influenced by the protectiveness that the actors in this business have for their contacts and trade secrets.

One woman I speak to by phone, a friend of a friend who imported high-end quinceañera dresses for Tijuana’s middle- and upper-class residents, says little more than that her dresses come from a warehouse in a tony San Diego suburb. “Tell your friend I’m sorry I can’t answer her questions,” she later tells the woman that connected us. “It’s not that I don’t trust her, but I don’t trust this information in the public.”

Informal economies work based on a complex social web of relationships, often going back decades and generations. Gauthier says that it was only in showing up, day after day, at a textile wholesale business in El Paso, Texas, where she sorted through pallets of used clothing and helped decide their final destination based on quality and style, that she came to earn her sources’ trust in the course of her year and a half of anthropological fieldwork.

Irvin carries a bag of secondhand clothing he bought in an auction at the Goodwill in San Ysidro, California. He and his sister came to shop for their mother, who runs a secondhand clothing stand in Tijuana.

There is a backlot a few blocks down from the Goodwill in San Ysidro with a metal wire gate that sits open during the day. Along the stretch of road leading up to it are a series of strip malls catering to Mexican shoppers, both those buying for the ant trade and those buying for themselves. There are discount groceries, dollar stores, auto shops, duty-free stores, and wholesalers with names like “Factory 2 U.” Even the street name — Border Village Road — hints at its purpose.

A sign at the front of the backlot explicitly advertises used clothing. Inside is a wholesale business where clothes, sourced from across the United States, are sold by the pallet. Garments are everywhere. Near the entrance, they sit in a large pile, already sorted through and discarded, standing more than 5 feet tall. Deeper inside the lot, in a partially covered area with numerous tables, clothes are still being evaluated by buyers. More items are stuffed into bags, which in turn are stuffed into large white vans ready to cross into Mexico. Between the vehicles waiting to be loaded, stray garments have been flattened into the concrete.

According to a man who works for the pallet business, a shipment from Washington state had been received that morning but now, under the late afternoon sun, just two pallets of clothing remain.

Buying by pallet is risky. Sold by the pound, pallets, which often weigh over a thousand pounds each, have the best goods visible on the exterior, while the interiors are sometimes filled with damaged items that prove to be unsellable.

I ask the man whether his business also helps buyers to cross and, if so, how they deal with customs. Can they guarantee, for example, that nothing is confiscated?

His colleague responds that their services guarantee that it is “100 percent safe” to cross the used clothing. The only disruption would be “if there was some kind of operation going on with SAT,” referring to Mexico’s Tax Administration Service, but that “would come directly from Mexico City.” He seems to want to emphasize the personal connections that they have with customs officers.

“If there’s something serious going on,” the colleague continues, customs “gives us a heads up, so we’re talking about 98 percent security that it’ll cross.”

The odds have already shifted in our short conversation, but the sales pitch continues. It will cost $70 to cross a single bag (much higher than the going rate of $40), $350 for a sedan filled up to the windows, $500 for an SUV, and $900 for a large unmarked van.

The men are remarkably open about their complicity with Mexican customs officers at the border. But perhaps it should not come as a surprise; it is either that people are either unwilling to speak at all or, when they do, it is impossible to talk about the ant trade without bringing up the role of la aduana, Mexican customs.

Suheil, Ismael, Valere, and Vanessa with the clothing they bought at Goodwill. The family runs a secondhand clothing stand in Tijuana.
Araceli will cross back to Tijuana on foot and sell the clothes she bought at Goodwill in one of the city’s many markets.

Efren Sandoval, an academic and border expert who focuses on the part of the border between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, explains that Mexican customs agents can’t be understood merely as agents of the state, but instead, must be seen as both state representatives and active participants in the communities where they operate. So customs might look like any other government bureaucracy anywhere else in the world, but as with most other sectors in Mexico, it combines characteristics of the formal and the informal, and “still generate revenues through contraband.” In other words, they let the contraband goods through for a kickback.

Sandoval recounts a conversation that he had with one agent who told him, “My job includes the responsibility of collecting a certain amount of money via bribes, and to report and send this up my command,” essentially bureaucratizing bribes for the ant trade as part and parcel of the Mexican state.

Neither the customs office in Tijuana nor the main office in Mexico City returned requests for comment.

The street markets are not the only places where discarded American garments make their way into the hands of Mexican consumers. Increasingly, the shopping itself is done online.

Abram Fiux is a full-time entrepreneur in the informal economy. He depends on his customers’ appetite for “novel” (i.e., foreign) goods, but he eschews the fixed schedules and tedium of the markets for the flexibility of Facebook Marketplace, a feature of the platform launched in 2016 that allows vendors to sell directly on Facebook. Abram has figured out how to apply the millennial values of freelancing and virtual work to the smuggled clothing trade. Isabel Mora may use Facebook to source her wares, but Abram has made the social media network the actual location of his business.

His specialties are brands like Fox Racing, a motorcycle and extreme sports apparel company, and Ed Hardy, but, he says, it’s less about labels these days and more about things that are hard to find in Tijuana. He sells his goods at a 15–20 percent markup.

Abram’s merchandise is new, rather than secondhand, but he’s an ant trader too. He orders both from clothing wholesalers in Los Angeles and from China via eBay, and all of it is delivered to his aunt’s address in Southern California. He doesn’t declare anything when he returns with the merchandise to Mexico.

Every 20 minutes during his work day, he posts new items for sale on Facebook Marketplace and then publicizes the links in about 30 different Facebook groups dedicated to online shopping in Tijuana. When someone wants to buy, he or she contacts Abram through Facebook Messenger, they set up a meeting at a central spot on one of the regular bus lines, and do the exchange in person, usually later that day. “Facebook has revolutionized my business,” Abram says.

Like many border-crossers, Abram is a dual US-Mexican citizen, making his shopping excursions much easier. Once a week, usually when he needs to fill up his gas tank with higher-quality yet more affordable American fuel, he drives north and picks up his merchandise.

If Abram were ever stopped, he would have the option of paying a fine of roughly 15 percent of his goods’ value — as Mexican customs officers determine the value — and getting to keep his merchandise, but he’d prefer to skip the fine and surrender his goods. After all, he buys them at drastically discounted wholesale prices, whereas customs would calculate his fees based on market prices. Thus far, though, he’s been lucky. He’s never been stopped in secondary inspection.

Mabel Mejía, a 25-year-old Mexican-American college student, also uses Facebook for her clothing business, but mainly to advertise. On weekends, she sells vintage ’70s and ’80s-style clothing at a pop-up store playfully named Sun of a Beach in Pasaje Rodríguez, a previously dilapidated covered alleyway in downtown Tijuana that reopened in 2010 and has become a popular hangout for the city’s young, hip residents.

Mabel Mejía sets up her secondhand clothing shop in Pasaje Rodríguez.

During the week, Mabel lives in San Bernardino, a two-hour drive from Tijuana, and attends college at the Cal State campus there. Every Thursday night, she makes her drive down to Tijuana, bringing with her vintage finds from flea markets along the way. She doesn’t socialize in San Bernardino, she tells me. Her whole life is here in Tijuana.

She does, however, prefer hunting for products to resell up north, where the flea markets have items that are fairly well-preserved and better reflect her shop’s preferred aesthetic. The decreasing value of the peso has lowered her margins, so she also shops in Tijuana’s street markets, where she’ll fill up a large trash bag for 400 pesos ($21). It’s cheaper than buying in California, but it takes her longer to find items that will sell, so she considers it a somewhat even trade-off.

Mabel’s prices range from 30 to 250 pesos ($1.60–$13.40), and after paying 50 pesos ($2.70) to rent her space in the Pasaje Rodríguez alley where she sets up two garment racks, she can make between 1,500 and 1,800 pesos, or about $80–$100, a day. It’s less than what she’d earn at a minimum-wage job in San Bernardino, but she enjoys the thrill of the hunt, the flexibility this kind of job provides, and the opportunity to return home every weekend.

Her selling of vintage goods in Pasaje Rodríguez is part of a growing trend of the city’s creative class creating the city that they want, rather than looking, and often moving, elsewhere to find it or allowing the city to be defined by tourists.

Mabel scours secondhand stores on both sides of the border for vintage clothing to sell.

Gauthier remarks that this interest in vintage is “probably very unique to Tijuana,” at least among other secondhand clothing markets in the borderlands. Her research suggests that the few vintage items that did make it to market in Ciudad Juárez were the least likely to sell — though most of those styles had been sorted out long before they arrived on pallets for resale. Instead, most used clothing that sells well at secondhand Mexican markets follow current fashion trends.

Another Mexican fashion entrepreneur championing vintage is Amelia Stephania, who

runs a pop-up event called “I Have Nothing To Wear and Only Have 100 Pesitos,” which brings together thousands of people for its temporary markets where, as its name implies, everything is priced at under 100 pesos. She wants to encourage more people to shop in Mexico. “The exchange rate is getting higher and la linea [the queue to enter into the United States] is horrible,” she says. “I’m offering an option to avoid all of this.”

Katia Araujo, a self-taught designer who promotes Mexican-made fashion via the fashion collective that she founded, doesn’t think that cross-border shopping will ever completely go away. “It’s part of the frontier and border culture,” she says, though she does hope that more people will also buy Mexican-made in Tijuana. And right now, she says, “it is more common for people to shop here. It’s in style to be Mexican.”

Today, as NAFTA renegotiations drag on, there is a deep uncertainty in the border regions about what life, trade, and shopping will look like with either a renegotiated trade agreement, or without one at all.

While the the US, Mexico, and Canada have reached consensus on some of the less controversial items on the agenda, including digital trade, there is little progress on President Trump’s overtly America-first asks, which include requiring that more products moving duty-free between the three nations, like automobiles and apparel, have materials originating from the US; eliminating dispute resolution mechanisms that protect Mexico and Canada’s smaller economies; and introducing a “sunset clause” forcing the three nations to revisit the deal every five years, which would increase the risk of investing in cross-border business.

For Kenn Morris, the CEO of the Crossborder Group, which consults for businesses and government agencies on both sides of the border, “NAFTA is not just a trade agreement; it’s the bellwether of the US-Mexico relationship.”

And both the trade agreement and that relationship are particularly important in the San Diego–Tijuana metropolitan area. In 2015, San Diego exported $5.5 billion to Mexico, its top trading partner, while 80 percent of Tijuana’s exports and 50 percent of its imports come from or go to the other side.

The ant traders, meanwhile, aren’t worried — at least not when it comes to cross-border trading. After all, the very activity of smuggling depends on the inequity of the border and, if that inequity increases with a breakdown in free trade, their services will be in even higher demand.

Of course, their livelihoods will be affected in other ways if the export-oriented factories that provide so many of Tijuana’s jobs and economic growth shut down. The used clothing trade can only do so much to address the bigger economic issues should another downturn hit the city’s maquiladora industry.

Regardless of what happens with NAFTA, Priscilla and Eru, at least, have an exit plan. Priscilla is studying nursing and, when she graduates, the couple plans to move to Canada. There, they have heard, the economy is much better.

Eileen Guo is a journalist who covers communities on the fringes of globalization.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Heather Schwedel

Spanish adaptation by Julie Schwietert Collazo and Francisco Collazo


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