The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘If you close the border, Eagle Pass will die.’ Residents fear a Trump border closure would be destructive to South Texas towns.

Cars coming from Piedras Negras, Mexico, wait to cross into Eagle Pass, Tex., on April 3. President Trump has said if nothing is done about the migrant crisis, he will shut down the border with Mexico. (Sergio Flores/For The Washington Post)
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EAGLE PASS, Tex. — Gabriel Bustamante Garza crosses in and out of Mexico so often that the border checkpoint here seems more like a tollbooth than an international boundary.

Garza is a U.S. citizen who lives in this small border city, but his whole family, and the electronics factory he runs, are just over the Rio Grande in the booming Mexico city of Piedras Negras. What used to be a 45-minute commute has jumped to as many as three hours this week, as U.S. border authorities reassigned officers from the legal crossing to other areas in an attempt to arrest Central Americans entering the country illegally.

While the border delays have Garza worried that his trucks might miss crucial delivery deadlines, a bigger concern looms: If President Trump ever were to follow through on his threats to close the U.S. border — now, a year from now, or at any point — it could also cause his factory to close. Shutting the door between these symbiotic sister communities probably would force many Americans out of work and out of daily routines.

“The past few days have been horrible,” Garza, 59, said in an interview at his local bank. “If you close the border, Eagle Pass will die, totally die.”

Trump has maintained throughout his presidency that “a nation without borders is not a nation,” and until Thursday, he repeatedly threatened to close all or parts of the border with Mexico, the United States’ third-largest trading partner. His apparent targets have included pressuring Mexico into tightening its immigration enforcement and asking Congress to pass laws to make it easier to deport immigrants. Trump changed course Thursday, announcing that he is giving Mexico a “one-year warning” to stem the flow of drugs and migrants to the U.S. border before he orders closures. On Friday, Trump plans to visit a section of new border fencing in Calexico, Calif.

For Eagle Pass, just the threat of closure is frightening, as cutting off access to Mexico would be akin to dropping a bomb on its economy. Thousands of jobs, billions of dollars and nearly half of the city’s budget depend on fast-flowing goods and services across the twin international bridges that span the Rio Grande here.

A closure would resonate in other border cities from California to Texas, but it also would ripple through cities across the United States, where businesses and consumers rely on crucial Mexican imports, including car parts and salad ingredients.

Here on the Texas border, dozens of American children who live in Piedras Negras line up each morning to cross so they can attend school in Eagle Pass. Other residents travel to Mexico to care for elderly parents who enjoy more affordable medical and dental care and home health aides. Dozens visit the mall in Eagle Pass or the barbershops in Piedras Negras, where a haircut and a straight-razor shave are a fraction of the price.

“If we don’t have the operation of our bridges, this city will not function, at all,” Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantu said. “Without the bridges, our city is paralyzed.”

Mexico did $611 billion in trade with the United States last year, and approximately $22 billion in merchandise arrived through the port of entry in this city about two hours southwest of San Antonio: crates of asparagus, avocados, computer parts, motor-vehicle engines and huge quantities of Mexican-label beer. If you drink Corona, the mayor said, it probably came through Eagle Pass.

More than 700 cargo trucks, 10,000 passenger vehicles and roughly 3,000 pedestrians arrive each day from Piedras Negras, a much larger city where manufacturing has thrived since Canada, Mexico and the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s.

But cross-border traffic for pedestrians and vehicles slowed this week after Homeland Security announced that the agency would reassign 750 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers — and possibly as many as 2,000 — to contend with a record number of migrant families illegally crossing the southern border and applying for asylum. Those who reach U.S. soil, including strips of land that lie between the river and U.S. border barriers, have a right to claim asylum and have their cases heard.

Trump asserts the asylum claims are a ploy to win release to the United States, and migrants who make such claims are unlikely to be deported because of limits on the government’s authority to hold families until their cases are decided. Customs and Border Protection officials said last week that they probably will have to directly release claimants into the United States because they are overwhelmed and don’t have enough detention space. Trump has demanded that Congress change the laws, and he has used the possibility of border closure as leverage.

Cantu said the local Border Patrol office has lost 30 staffers to the border crackdown. Paul Del Rincon, the Customs and Border Protection port director in Eagle Pass who is beloved in town for speeding up border-crossing times, said he could not confirm that number. But he said these are “difficult times,” noting that lanes he would prefer to keep open remain closed on both bridges, restricting traffic.

“With what we have, we are doing what we can,” Del Rincon said. “They know that this is something that we are closely monitoring and that we will do our due diligence to ensure that, even with a reduction in manpower in this case, that there is a very efficient and flowing process.”

Reassigning the border officers frustrated drivers and worried workers on Wednesday, as traffic jams formed on both bridges.

“This is not normal,” said Marta Alicia Perez, a U.S. citizen who lives in Piedras Negras and was driving her grandchildren to school in Eagle Pass in her silver Mercedes. “This is happening because of President Trump’s declarations.”

Maria del Carmen Munoz Viguera, 62, who lives in Piedras Negras but works in Eagle Pass, arrived more than two hours late Monday to work at IBC Bank. “Mortifying,” she said.

The lines are so long that a friend asked her to mail her son’s wedding invitations so she wouldn’t have to cross the border. Another asked her to deliver milk to her grandchildren.

She has a suitcase packed in her trunk in case Trump closes the border, but she worries about who would care for her 85-year-old mother in Piedras Negras.

“She’s an American citizen and can live where she wants,” Munoz Viguera said. “Me too.”

Few on either side of the border here believe that Trump would — or logistically could, even a year from now — close the border down. But many U.S. citizens and Mexicans who cross daily think the president could give it a try, something they say would be immediately disruptive.

Factories could face penalties for failing to deliver goods on time. Vegetables would rot. Car parts and medical equipment would languish in boxes.

“We’re worried,” Piedras Negras Mayor Claudio M. Bres Garza said. “You can’t close the border. You can strangle it. You can squeeze it, like it’s being squeezed now.”

Communities here in La Frontera don’t see themselves as all that different just because they sit on the opposite sides of a line. Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras are codependents, partners, teammates. And they have worked together to help support Trump’s push to keep migrants from illegally crossing the border.

In February, Eagle Pass’s mayor, a Democrat, and Bres Garza, a member of leftist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s political party, helped contain an 1,800-person caravan that deluged Piedras Negras. The caravan never made it into the United States. Some were deported. Others remained in Mexico, as Trump wished, to wait their turn for a U.S. immigration court hearing.

The mayors were taken aback last weekend when Trump threatened to close the ports, learning about the possibility at a parade celebrating the 65th annual International Friendship Festival, which includes a “hug” ceremony between the mayors. Standing side by side, they gaped at the news on their phones.

“Really?” Cantu said to his counterpart.

Bres Garza said he communicates daily with the Trump administration about immigrants waiting in Mexico to cross into the United States, noting that it is in his best interests to cooperate with U.S. immigration officials.

“My commerce, my business, the well-being of Piedras Negras and its citizens depends on the well-being of the region,” Bres Garza said, switching easily between English and Spanish. “The river is just the river. We have a lot of things in common.”

One of them is that Bres Garza suspects that smugglers are promising migrants “a lie” and telling them they will qualify for asylum in the United States. “There’s a big business behind this,” he said.

Cantu said both countries benefit by working together on migration: “It’s bad enough that the border has been painted as a war zone by our president, and now we have to deal with fixing that perception.”