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Anxiety over Trump stems flood of Mexican shoppers to El Paso

Pedestrians walk towards the Paso del Norte International Bridge to cross from El Paso into Ciudad Juarez. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Washington Post.

EL PASO, Texas -- Stroll down South El Paso Street on a Friday evening past shops named “House of Blouse” and “Best Choice Fashion” hawking three pairs of pants for $9.99 and you will find sidewalks teeming with shoppers as cumbia music blares from store speakers.

Valerie Padilla and her boyfriend Diego Munoz, both 16, recently lugged bags brimming with toilet paper, milk and avocados across the border bridge from downtown El Paso, where Padilla lives during the week, to family members in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Alfredo Gomez and his nieces carried a child’s kitchen play set and plastic teapot from the dollar store for a relative’s birthday.

Each day, tens of thousands of people cross the three bridges between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, visiting friends and family, going to school and work, or simply to shop, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to El Paso's economy each year. But that flow of commerce has shown signs of slowing as anxieties grow over President Trump's immigration and economic policies. 

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The parking lots of shopping malls here are normally crowded with cars sporting Mexican license plates. Fifty-two cents out of every dollar spent at Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso is traced back to Mexican nationals, according to Tanny Berg, a commercial real estate developer who co-founded the Central Business Association and is past president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“The retailers, wholesalers and restaurants in El Paso are extremely dependent upon the Mexican nationals who come here to shop, eat, play and go back to Mexico,” Berg said. “At the end of the day, these are employed people from a slowly rising middle class.”

Many of the shoppers work in the maquiladoras in Ciudad Juarez, where Berg said anyone who wants a job could pretty much get one, assembling auto parts, mannequins, and mattress covers. The number of such factories in Ciudad Juarez that manufacture products for export has risen by more than 40 percent to 327 plants since the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force in 1994, according to the University of Texas at El Paso Border Region Modeling Project. 

Luis Felipe Gaytan, a 24-year-old quality inspector at MFI International, a textiles manufacturing firm with a factory in Ciudad Juarez, said he buys all his clothing in El Paso once a year, during the December sales. Victor Salas Oliva, a 56-year-old product engineer at MFI, said he crosses the border every weekend to shop at Costco and Walmart in El Paso.

The Paso del Norte International Bridge connecting the shops in downtown El Paso to downtown Ciudad Juarez is one of the busiest pedestrian border crossings in the world, said Berg, who serves on a local advisory group for Homeland Security. Some come by buses specifically designed to bring shoppers from Mexico to El Paso.

“We’re like twin cities,” said Roberto Hernandez, a tax preparer in downtown El Paso who works with clients on both sides of the border, including American managers of Mexican maquiladoras. “Half of El Paso used to live in Juarez. For most of us downtown, our customer base comes from Mexico.”

On a recent Friday, Horacio Hernandez, fresh from job hunting in a dress shirt, vest, slacks and a tie, carried plastic bags of groceries home to his parents in Ciudad Juarez. Inside his bags, nestled next to the classified ads, were Smuckers grape jelly, Skippy peanut butter and Ritz crackers -- U.S. brands he said his parents have craved since his father was deported two years ago.

Hernandez had gone to the airport looking for jobs as a dishwasher because U.S. jobs pay more than the maquiladoras in Mexico. But he worries Mexican Americans like him would be less welcome given the current political climate, even in El Paso, where 80 percent of residents are Hispanic.

“This president, he’s making people go crazy,” Hernandez said, referring to Trump. “All these people who are racist now feel like they have a shield. He’s dividing two great countries instead of making bridges.”  

As bustling as the scene was here in downtown El Paso, it used to be even more robust. Retail sales to customers from northern Mexico account for between 8 percent to 14 percent of total retail sales in El Paso in any given year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

But between the protracted weakness of the peso and the hostility Mexicans feel from Trump’s rhetoric, sales to residents of northern Mexico are projected to be on the lower end in 2017, said Tom Fullerton, an economist at the University of Texas at El Paso and head of the university’s Border Region Modeling Project. Still, he estimates that customers from northern Mexico will account for approximately $980 million of retail sales in El Paso in 2017.

The effect is already being felt at Casa Mundial, a lingerie store along this downtown strip of shops. All of its wares, like most of the merchandise sold on this street, come from China.

“99.9 percent of my customers are from Mexico,” said Kun Lee, the shop owner, an American of Korean descent who grew up in Paraguay. He said the store lost money for the first time during the month of January.   

There also have been media reports in recent weeks that some Mexican residents are boycotting U.S. products or deliberately not crossing the border to spend their money to protest the Trump administration.  

Instead of the usual line of traffic waiting up to three hours to cross from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso, entering the U.S. one Friday evening took less than five minutes. A vendor walking up and down the pedestrian bridge balancing a tray full of churros in one hand hardly sold any.

A U.S. border agent checking documents remarked at the lack of cars.

“People are scared,” he said, as he took this reporter’s and a photographer's passports.

Of what?

“Of our president,” he said, before sending us on our way.