(Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Just north of one of the busiest commercial border crossings with Mexico is Interstate 35’s Exit 12B, where U.S. truckers often stop before hauling trailers filled with Mexican groceries, car parts, construction materials and other goods out into the country.

There’s a constant buzz of business here — home to three truck stops, a tire shop, numerous warehouses, a strip club and several taco trucks — made possible by the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which has quickened the flow of goods between Mexico, the United States and Canada.

President Trump has called NAFTA “a complete and total disaster,” and he was preparing to announce this past weekend his intention to terminate the agreement, only to be talked down by some of his advisers and the leaders of Mexico and Canada. But Trump still wants to negotiate dramatic changes.

The president’s anti-NAFTA rants have long been a rallying point for his voters in industrial ghost towns who blame the agreement for making it easier for factories to move overseas. But, as Trump’s advisers pointed out last week, terminating NAFTA could deeply harm many rural communities and farms in states that voted for the president — and it would jolt the long-distance trucking industry that provides good-paying jobs for those willing to drive hundreds of miles away from home.

Trump has long counted on truckers for support. “No one knows America like truckers know America,” Trump said in March, wearing a button that said “I (heart) trucks” as trucking industry representatives visited the White House. Later, the president posed for photos in a big rig parked outside.

Donald Comer, a truck driver from North Carolina, poses for a portrait with his dog Dontea by his truck at the Flying J truck stop in Laredo, Texas. (Matthew Busch/For The Washington Post)

Truckers recently passing through Exit 12B sharply varied in their views of Trump’s promise to upend NAFTA, with some worrying it would threaten their livelihood and others optimistically hoping it would lead to a revival of manufacturing in America that would create more jobs in their far-flung home towns.

Many of these truckers — especially those who live in Texas — said they couldn’t imagine Trump actually doing anything that would slow trade with Mexico, and they don’t expect him to follow through with his tough talk. They said doing so could crash the economy here on the border, killing many of the jobs dependent on trucks passing through while harming the economy elsewhere and driving up prices for consumers.

“He’s really going to mess the economy up?” said Ervin Whipple, 51, a trucker from San Antonio who voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton and has lots of concerns about Trump — but dramatically changing NAFTA is not one of them. “If he does that — nah, he ain’t going to do that. He’s just talking.”

Others — many of whom live far from Laredo in towns where good-paying jobs have become scarce — said they would love to see the president make trade with Mexico more difficult in hopes that companies would then be forced to manufacture products in the towns where they live.

Donald Comer, 51, has been trucking for more than 20 years and lives in the small North Carolina town of Crumpler, not far from the borders of Virginia and Tennessee. He grew up in Delaware, where his grandfather and father worked at a Chrysler factory that closed about a decade ago. In 2009, Comer moved to North Carolina’s Ashe County to be close to his mother, who was sick. There, factories were also shutting down and moving operations overseas where labor is cheaper.

“This used to be one of the biggest furniture-making areas, and now people are living in poverty because there are no jobs here,” Comer said of Ashe County. “My girlfriend’s family, there are two or three people in the family who can’t find a job because there is nothing here. Without having to travel a hundred miles away, there’s nothing right here in our area.”

Comer voted for Trump and wants the president to withdraw from or, at the very least, rewrite NAFTA, believing that would force companies to quickly move production back to the United States. He realizes that could lead to higher prices, but he’s willing to pay more to see his neighbors and relatives employed. And he’s not worried that such a big shift in trade policy would hurt his industry.

Saif Gevr, right, a truck driver in training, and Tomas Butrus, left, his truck driving mentor, unpack their belongings as they stop for the night at the Flying J truck stop in Laredo, Texas. (Matthew Busch/For The Washington Post)

“No, no, no, no, because the companies then come back here and end up building products here in America. They still have to have that product hauled from place to place,” Comer said. “That’s not going to hurt the industry. It might help it.”

The ‘very, very bad’ deal

While Trump promised on the campaign trail to “terminate,” “rip up” or “renegotiate” international trade deals, members of his Cabinet instead suggested the president merely wants to tweak NAFTA. Last month, the administration sent a draft letter to Congress that outlined modest changes it wanted to see made to the agreement.

But Trump’s message hasn’t seemed to change — even if he has vacillated between wanting to immediately abandon the pact and being open to renegotiation.

“You have to understand, we have been on the wrong side of the NAFTA deal with Canada and with Mexico for many, many years, many decades,” Trump said at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., on Saturday night. “We can’t allow it to happen. So we are going to renegotiate. And if we can’t make a fair deal for companies and our workers, we will terminate NAFTA, okay?”

While Trump backed off his threat to soon scrap the deal, until he details what changes he wants, many companies are hesitant to invest more money in warehouses or new ventures in border towns, said Laredo’s mayor, Pete Saenz, who leads this city of roughly 250,000 where more than 95 percent of residents are Latino or Hispanic. He said it’s also unclear whether plans to yet again increase the number of lanes on the World Trade Bridge — a commerce-only entry point on the border that Saenz calls “NAFTA on wheels” — will proceed.

“There’s this uncertainty here, and people are holding back, especially investors here in the border area,” said Saenz, a lawyer who was elected in 2014. “The sooner we come up with a policy as to how we’re going to deal with all of these border issues — border security, NAFTA, immigration — the better, so we can all adjust to it and move forward, because it is hurting us economically.”

In July 2015, Trump visited Laredo and the World Trade Bridge for a crash course in the parts of NAFTA that help the country. The visit came on the heels of Trump’s campaign announcement speech, in which he broadly painted undocumented immigrants from Mexico as criminals and rapists. Upon landing in Laredo, Trump declared: “They say there is a great danger for me to be here.”

Trump visited the bridge and watched trucks flowing in and out of the country as his hosts peppered him with statistics about the thousands of trucks hauling products each day, fueling the economy not just in Laredo but across the region.

“He didn’t have much feedback,” Saenz said. “He was kind of in a taking-it-in mode. But he did listen, so we’ll see. I think it’s going to work out. Frankly, I want him to succeed on these issues because, frankly, it’s important for the country to succeed.”

Saenz says he has been assured by members of the Texas congressional delegation that Trump will not actually follow through with many of his NAFTA threats. The mayor is also confident the president will not construct a physical wall along the entire border, which could plop an eyesore into a riverside park near Laredo’s new outlet mall.

Saenz is an independent who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but was alarmed by what he saw as a rapid deterioration of religious freedom and moral values. He then voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Saenz said his religious convictions and opposition to abortion outweighed his concerns about trade, immigration or some of Trump’s other stances that he opposes.

“He says things just to raise issues, and he certainly gets people’s attention,” said the mayor, who attended Trump’s inauguration in Washington.

That’s a sentiment shared by many of the truckers who passed through Exit 12B.

Fred Steneck, a 57-year-old Trump supporter from San Antonio who has been driving trucks since 1979, says the president’s harsh rhetoric is just the first step in a long negotiation process that he predicts will end with minor changes to NAFTA.

“Politics is politics, so Mexico is going to start from this side, and Trump is going to start on this side, and they’ll both be happy with what the outcome is,” Steneck said. “That’s part of the process.”

Francisco Arzate, a 52-year-old trucker from Kansas, said that even if Trump tried to fully or partially seal the trade border, Congress would stop him. Arzate, a former union organizer who used to volunteer in Democratic politics, couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton or Trump, so he cast his ballot for “that guy from New Mexico,” also known as Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

“I kind of have my trust in Congress and the House of Representatives, and the House speaker,” said Arzate, who came to the United States from Mexico about 30 years ago and became a citizen in 1993. “I have my trust on them, not so much on Trump.”

An independent lifestyle

Other truckers getting off at Exit 12B have their trust fully in the president, confident that he can’t make things any worse.

Trucking is a lifestyle — one that keeps you on the road, away from your family for days or even weeks at a time. The pay is good compared with other industries, but it tops out and can be inconsistent, depending on the availability of loads and gas prices. Some truckers work for companies large enough to offer health insurance, while others have to get coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces, where they often make too much money to qualify for subsidies and have seen rates skyrocket.

Most truckers live in their cabs sometimes waiting for days in Laredo in between dropping off one load and waiting for the next to show up. To pass the time while driving and waiting, many listen to endless talk radio. They only occasionally see cable news while traveling.

Trump is “his own person, sort of like the rest of us truck drivers out here,” said Ron Hoffman, 56, who lives in McKinney, Tex., and has never voted in his life, although he wishes he had voted for Trump to feel more a part of his historic win. “We’re our own people. And that’s what people like, is somebody that’s going to stand up for us, be their own person.”

Many of these truckers laughed when asked about the self-driving trucks that some experts say could soon replace long-distance truckers, just as robots have replaced many factory workers. Safety and insurance issues will prevent it, they say.

“I really don’t think that I’ll be alive” when that happens, said Jeffrey Lehosky, a former salesman from Canton, Mich., who switched to trucking in 2009 when what he calls “Obamanomics” crashed the markets and his sales opportunities.

Lehosky mostly runs from Michigan to the southern border, hauling supplies for General Motors factories in Mexico, including robotic welders and other machinery that does the work once performed by humans in the United States.

He sees the constant flow of goods over the border as an important part of the current economy, but he wants the president to crack down on it.

“If they didn’t have their manufacturing in Mexico — the plants, the Ford plants, the Chevy plants, the GM plants — then they’d be right back up in Michigan or they’d be back in Ohio or they’d be back in Indianapolis or Indiana, and there’d be more employed people here in the States as opposed to Mexico,” said Lehosky, who grew up in Arizona. “And the price of the vehicle’s not going to change, realistically, when you think about it. . . . I just kind of believe in ‘Made in the USA.’ You know? Buy American.”

Alice Li contributed to this report.