Cali Baja, the mega-region between the US and Mexico that generates millions of dollars and jobs

Ester Villalobos is 27 years old and is the mother of a 6-year-old girl.

He lives in Tijuana, Mexico, but works in San Ysidro, a border town of San Diego, United States.

“Every morning and afternoon I cross with my motorcycle”tells BBC Mundo of a hot noon in March in front of his work a few meters from San Ysidro Boulevard, the main street of this city that is home to small family businesses, exchange houses and pawnbrokers that serve customers from both sides of the border. .

“Sometimes I spend 40 minutes on the line, other 5 hours,” he says.

The line It is what the locals call the border crossing of the San Ysidro International Garita, the westernmost between Mexico and the United States and where it is estimated that almost 100,000 people cross daily, 60,000 of them to work.

It is the busiest intersection in the country.

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The San Ysidro International Port of Entry is the westernmost border crossing between the United States and Mexico.

The border between the United States and Mexico is often in the news because of the wall that divides it and because of the migrants who try to cross it. But at the western end of those almost 3,200 kilometers, there is also a community that is in constant interaction.

“It’s a floating city”define David Shirkhead of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego (USDC), California.

“Thousands of people cross to shop, go to school, work… it is a small city that crosses the border every day because it is a single economy that exchanges consumers, workers and investors,” he adds.

The region of Cali Baja


“We are a binational and inseparable region. We have the best of Mexico and the best of the United States on the same corner,” says Jason Wells, who grew up in Chicago almost 50 years ago, but has lived between Tijuana and San Diego for almost the last 30.

Wells, who is in charge of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, crosses several times a week to Tijuana to shop, for medical appointments, to take the dogs to the vet or simply to eat some birria tacos (lamb meat). with a chili sauce and spices), typical of the Mexican city.

Jason Wells, Executive Director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce

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Jason Wells is the executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, in the US, and he crosses weekly to Mexico to shop.

But beyond the benefits of the exchange rate between the dollar and the Mexican peso for those who earn in US currency, at the macroeconomic level this border area has a particular component.

Works like a binational integrated economic region inhabited by aeithers 7 million people and although a line divides them, both sides say they have been working together for decades to go out and compete globally as a unit under the name of Cali Baja.

What is Cali Baja?

Cali Baja arises from the merger between the names of the state of California (USA) and the state of Baja California (Mexico).

The region is made up of the counties of San Diego and Imperial Valley on the US side and five municipalities of Baja California on the Mexican side: Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Playas de Rosarito and Ensenada.

Cali Baja has a regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $250 billion and cross-border trade flows estimated at $70 billion, says the 2022 report The Cali Baja Regional Economy (“The regional economy of Cali Baja”), from the USDC.

Sign: "Welcome to San Ysidro"

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The main industries are audiovisual manufacturing, medical equipment, the production of furniture, tools, semiconductors and other electronic components, musical instruments, and the aerospace industry.

The region also has large agricultural areas, a tourist industry, and important ports for trade with Asia and other parts of the world.

As Professor Shirk explains, Cali Baja benefits, on the one hand, from the production capacity and wage competitiveness offered by Mexico and, on the other, from the efficient administration of supply chains for export and the ability to sell from the United States.

The combination of the two economies is something special and it is not easily found”, he analyzes.

In figures

Cali Baja does not have regional investment and export measurements, but there are figures from both sides of the border that give an idea of ​​its impact.

People with suitcases line up to enter the US from Mexico.

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The San Ysidro border crossing is the busiest in the United States. It is estimated that some 100,000 people cross it daily.

The top eight clusters in the binational manufacturing industry account for roughly 52,000 jobs in San Diego and the Imperial Valley and 177,500 jobs in Baja California, the USDC report says, using 2018 data.

Collectively, these industries generated 7% of the region’s GDP.

The area of ​​San Diego and Imperial Valley contributed an added value (that is, the additional utility acquired by goods and services after being transformed in the production process) of $14.9 billion dollars, this meant about $287,500 per worker.

While in the Baja California area, the added value generated was $2,200 million dollars, representing $12,250 per employee.

On the other hand, foreign direct investment in Baja California in 2020 was $1,106 million dollars, according to data from the Mexican Ministry of Economy.

In addition, venture capital flowing into San Diego has risen sharply in recent years, topping $2 billion a quarter in mid-2021, primarily in biotech and pharmaceuticals.

Workers in the maquiladora industry in Mexico in 2001.

Getty Images
Maquiladora industries emerged in Mexico in the middle of the last century as a way to encourage foreign investment.

And the region also benefits from the incentives offered by Mexico.

“When we go out to promote we offer all kinds of industry, but the one that has grown the most is maquiladora industry“, He says Kurt HonoldSecretary of Economy and Innovation of the state of Baja California, Mexico.

The maquiladora is a type of production line in Mexico, and especially in Tijuana, whose capitals are usually foreign. The company imports raw material without any tariff to manufacture a certain product and then exports it.

The maquiladoras emerged in the mid-20th century in Mexico as a way to encourage foreign investment and combat unemployment in the country, although this model has numerous criticisms of labor exploitation.

How Cali Baja was born

The organization CaliBaja Bi-national Mega-Region It began as an initiative of various businessmen and chambers of commerce from San Diego, Imperial Valley and Tijuana. Other actors joined later.

Tijuana, Mexico cartel.

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It was a marketing-economic strategy that began operating in 2010, but the idea of ​​a binational region had been developing and even being applied in fact since the 1980s by the maquiladora industries on the Mexican side and after the growth of the population of the southwestern United States after World War II.

“I don’t think twice about getting in my car and driving across the border to meet someone to do business with,” he says. Timothy KelleyPresident and CEO of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation in the United States.

“We are a unique region because we have binational opportunities to offer. We put together an organization to attract investment and we wanted to create an initiative so that at a national and global level, they know and look at the region in a different way and not as sub-regions”, adds Kelley, who is a founding member of CaliBaja Bi-national Mega-Region. .

“The people who live in this region are bicultural, binational and bilingual.. We want to make sure that it is understood that business can be done in both countries at the same time,” he emphasizes to BBC Mundo.

"We are a binational and inseparable region. We have the best of Mexico and the best of the United States in the same corner", Source: Jason Wells, Source description: Executive Director San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, California (USA) , Image: Jason Wells

On the other side of the border, they also highlight this special economic and social interdependence of their communities.

“If they get the flu, we also get the flu. We are the same, so we have decided to work together, especially in the economy, to go out and promote the region”, says Honold.

“In Cali Baja there are no borders. A line divides us, but we don’t see it,” he adds.

Tijuana Street.

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The truth is that the concept of Cali Baja became popular among economic circles on both sides of the border, although the activity is not directly associated with the organization that operates under that name.

“People use the word Cali Baja as part of the regional vernacular and that is good”analyze Christina Luhntrade policy advisor who was a founding member of the Cali Baja Bi-national Mega-Region organization.

There are several sectors in the long border between the US and Mexico where their communities also interact and relate economically in a binational manner, as in the case of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez; but they do not house as many people nor are their industries as interrelated as the fusion that exists in Cali Baja.


The Cali Baja region brings with it points for and against.

“There are positive and negative aspects. When you put them all together, the positives go up and the negatives go down,” says Kelley.

According to him, a fundamental advantage is the diversity both in the industries offered by the region and in the population that makes it up.

“Beyond the border, most people do not realize the importance of Mexico in our country,” says the American.

For the Secretary of Economy and Innovation of the state of Baja California, Kurt Honoldthe benefits of the binational region are multiple.

“We work together to solve problems because when a job is created in Mexico, another one is also created in California. The joining of forces helps us attract more investment on both sides of the border,” he says.

Kenya Zamarripa

Courtesy Kenya Zamarripa
Kenya Zamarripa is Executive Director of International Business for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and lives in Tijuana. “I am binational,” she says.

According to the sources consulted, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of this type of binational regional associations.

“When people asked me: ‘how will we know if this will be successful?’ I said: ‘ask me again in 50 years.’ Economic development is a long-term bet“, details Christina Luhn.

But some of those interviewed say that the clear example of success in Cali Baja is the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) binational bridge which opened in 2015.

It is an airport terminal located in the Otay Mesa area, east of San Ysidro, on the US side, which connects with an access bridge to the Tijuana International Airport. This makes the latter a geographically binational airport.

“Some build walls, others build bridges,” says Kenia Zamarripa, Executive Director of International Business at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, referring to the border wall between the United States and Mexico.

Border wall on the border between the United States and Mexico.

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The US-Mexico border wall has sections of several fences and others that are incomplete.

The tightening of immigration measures during the Donald Trump administration also had an effect in Cali Baja, although it had apparent positive streaks.

“We had pebbles that made it a little harder for good people who arrived in Mexico and who were looking to cross into the United States to achieve the American dream,” analyzes Honold, from the Baja California government, who highlights that these migrants remained in the country by increasing labor capacity.


One of the difficulties that Cali Baja faces to promote its businesses is precisely the border that divides it.

Several of those interviewed agree on the claim to the federal governments to streamline the crossing of both pedestrians and cars and trucks at the five border crossings that Cali Baja has: four terrestrial (San Ysidro-Tijuana, Otay Mesa-Tijuana, Tecate-Tecate and Calexico-Mexicali) plus the CBX bridge.

“We need to have a good flow of people and goods to cross the border. This is going to benefit both Mexico and the United States,” says Kelley of the Imperial Valley.

Kurt Honold agrees with the demand for technology to speed up the crossing that is often congested: “Many of the workers are Americans or have their permission to work in the United States. That money they earn is spent on the Mexican side and vice versa.”

Cars crossing from the United States to Mexico at the San Ysidro International Port of Entry on March 15, 2022.

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Cars crossing from the United States to Mexico at the San Ysidro International Port of Entry on March 15, 2022.
Cars crossing the border from Mexico to the United States.

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Car crossing from Tijuana, Mexico, to the United States, on March 15, 2022.

Cali Baja also faces environmental problems with the pollution of the Tijuana River that usually harms the beaches of San Diego, often causing their closures.

“We work together to find a way to resolve it because they are binational, Calibajian issues that affect us both,” describes the Mexican official.

And from an academic point of view, David Shirk says that workers need to be trained.

“On the American side there is a tragic lack of people who speak Spanish. We do not invest in educating our Anglo students so that they can take advantage of the binational region,” she opines.

"Some build walls, others build bridges"", Source: Kenia Zamarripa, Source description: Executive Director of International Business of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, USA, Image: Kenia Zamarripa

Representatives from Cali Baja meet bimonthly to work on improving the region and also make annual trips to Mexico City and Washington to raise issues with federal governments that tend to be unique to that corner of the border.

It’s a cross-border community and it’s hard to understand. For example, in Washington they don’t understand that we are interdependent. Our first obstacle as a region is the lack of understanding of how border regions work”, analyzes the professor from the University of San Diego.

“Identity crisis”

Ester Villalobos says that she loves living in one country and working in the other.

“There is no rivalry between the people on the border. There is a lot of empathy,” she states.

Ester Villalobos with her motorcycle.

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Ester Villalobos crosses the border on her motorcycle every day. She created the WhatsApp group “Línea” to communicate daily how congested the pass is.

His boss, Mike Mattia, is American and does not speak Spanish, but he opted to open his franchise business for a package transport company in San Ysidro in November 2020, in the midst of the pandemic.

“I only hire local people”says and tells that three of his four employees live in Tijuana and cross the border daily to work.

“This is a special place, people here are very intelligent and skillful. The community understands the border and its needs,” she assures.

The high income and the difficulties in accessing housing in San Diego means that the majority of the inhabitants of this cross-border region live in Tijuana and work on the US side.

BBC Mundo walked across the border to find out how Cali Baja looks and lives on the other side of the line.

In that area of ​​the San Ysidro crossing, the high metal wall is incomplete and people line up to cross from one side to the other as if it were a line for the bank or the supermarket.

Pedestrian crossing from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Ysidro, United States.

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Pedestrian crossing from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Ysidro, United States, on March 15, 2022.

Miguel Marshall is a young man from San Diego who chose to live and invest in Tijuana. He says that he is the fifth generation of a binational family.

“My roots are from Tijuana. I have business here and I’m thinking of starting a business in San Diego”says Marshall who is an urban real estate developer and gastronomic entrepreneur who bets on Cali Baja.

“In Tijuana I am happy, we are a multi-region and the food is a fusion of both sides,” he describes.

Michael Marshall

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Miguel Marshall who is an urban real estate developer and gastronomic entrepreneur who bets on Cali Baja.

Kenya Zamarripa also lives in Tijuana and crosses to San Diego every week to work at the regional Chamber of Commerce in that city.

“We are a community divided in two by a line”details.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not quite Mexican, and not quite American. I was born in the US, but I feel like a migrant. There is an identity crisis,” she describes.

“But I like it that way, because I have both things from both sides.”

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