The county is bracing for a 5% drop in assessed valuation, which means a reduction in property tax revenue to pay for schools and local governments, on top of cuts in state and federal allotments.
Boosters also hope that new Indian casinos will provide recession-proof employment, as the construction of two prisons did in the 1990s.
The Manzanita band of Kumeyaay Indians is seeking approval for an off-reservation casino in Calexico. In February, the Quechan tribe opened a casino and resort in Winterhaven on the valley's eastern edge, two miles from Yuma, Ariz., bringing 1,000 slot machines and 600 jobs. The grand opening was highlighted by the Flying Elvi from Las Vegas, a parachute team whose members dress like Elvis Presley.
But help seems far off to the unemployed.
Corina Garcia, 34, who learned on Christmas Eve that she would lose her job as a department supervisor when Mervyns closed, is back living with her parents and has interviewed with most of the valley's big-box retailers.
"I'm just not getting any response," she said.
Balbastro has spoken with employers but found many are offering only part-time work with no benefits. "I just hope I don't get sick enough to require a doctor because I have no insurance," she said.
Arispe misses being able to reward his son with a nice toy. "Used to be $30, no problem," he said. "Now it's a 99-cent Hot Wheels. If I pay more, my wife chews me out because it's not in the budget."
Still, Hildy Carrillo-Rivera, former crusading editor of the defunct Calexico Chronicle and now executive director of the city's Chamber of Commerce, believes Arispe and the others will eventually find work.
She has seen the valley rebound before: from the whitefly infestation in the 1990s, from the inflationary 1980s, from multiple devaluations of the Mexican peso.
"Imperial Valley has always been at the bottom of the bottom," she said. "We're used to fighting our way out of troubles. Now the whole nation is joining us. We'll dig our way out together."