Eagle Pass businesses hit by bridge closures to combat migrant surge

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Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, in Eagle PassWilliam Luther

EAGLE PASS — In late November, Customs and Border Protection officials pinched off northbound traffic on the Eagle Pass International Bridge as the number of illegal border crossings began to climb.

The federal agency, which includes Border Patrol, said it was shifting personnel away from the bridge that connects this city of nearly 30,000 people to Piedras Negras, Mexico, to process the asylum-seekers as quickly as possible.

By Wednesday, Border Patrol was once again struggling to keep up with a fresh influx of thousands of migrants.

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The bridge remains closed to motorists heading into Texas from Mexico, a blow to the regional economy — and definitely a blow to Francisco “Frankie” Hernandez, the owner and manager of Cowboy Corral.

Leather cowboy boots of all colors and styles line the walls of his western wear store, located just two blocks from the bridge, which locals call Bridge 1. Many of Cowboy Corral’s customers travel from the Mexican state of Coahuila, and the Christmas season is usually one of the retailer’s busiest times of year.

But on Wednesday afternoon, four days before Christmas Eve, the store was quiet, save for a handful of customers who perused the stacks of blue jeans and racks of shirts and belts.

“It’s never been this slow,” said Hernandez, whose family opened the store on the corner of Main Street and Commercial Street in 2011 — a prime location.

Many of the small businesses lining Main Street and the surrounding blocks of downtown Eagle Pass depend on Mexican shoppers. Their spending  helps retailers pay their employees, stock up on merchandise, keep the lights on and make rent.

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“There’s only so much people from Eagle Pass are going to buy,” Hernandez said.

Customers come from the Coahuila cities of Piedras Negras, Zaragoza, Morelos, Nava and Allende, and they mostly arrive by way of the bridge. Hernandez said December sales at his family’s three western clothing stores in the area are down by one-third compared with this time last year.

City government, too, suffers when visitors from Mexico can’t access the bridges or are stuck in lines that take hours to clear.

In a 2020 report on Eagle Pass’ finances, officials said the city relies heavily on retail sales tax revenue and international toll bridge crossings, “which are largely stimulated by our neighbors in Piedras Negras and its other northern Mexican neighboring cities.”

“The crossing of Mexican Nationals into the United States is correlated to the sale of goods and products,” they said. “Based on current estimates, 10% of sales tax revenue and 20% of bridge toll revenue are directly derived from international traffic, excluding commercial traffic.”

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Rail crossing closures

In recent days, Border Patrol agents have apprehended record-breaking numbers of migrants who are turning themselves in to federal immigration authorities to seek asylum.

On Wednesday, Juan G. Bernal, acting chief patrol agent of Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, said agents had apprehended 4,095 migrants who’d crossed the Texas border illegally in the previous 24 hours, according to an Instagram post.

Agents had taken in 9,957 migrants in the sector over the weekend.

On Thursday, thousands of migrants waited in a grassy area between the Camino Real International Bridge, known as Bridge 2, and the railroad bridge. As groups were bussed off to Border Patrol facilities, more migrants were brought in from another staging area closer to the Rio Grande.

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The Camino Real bridge is for semi-trucks and other commercial vehicle, while private motorists and pedestrians use the Eagle Pass International Bridge.

CBP reduced Camino Real’s northbound vehicle lanes from six to one on Monday to free up customs officers to assist Border Patrol with crowd control. The result: waits of between eight and 12 hours to cross into Eagle Pass, said Homero Balderas, the city’s international bridge general manager.

CBP also temporarily shut down the rail crossing in both directions, as well as one in El Paso, to similarly redirect customs officers, prompting an outcry from Texas officials and the railroad and agricultural interests. CBP also cited an increase in migrants being smuggled on trains a reason for the closure.

But Union Pacific Railway and BNSF Railway told the Associated Press that they’ve seen few migrants attempting to cross illegally through a U.S. port of entry by train. Union Pacific said it has found five migrants trying to enter the country on its trains in the last five weeks.

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Union Pacific estimates that $200 million in economic activity will be lost every day that the Eagle Pass and El Paso rail crossings are closed, according to a letter dozens of major U.S. agricultural groups sent U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday. Close to two-thirds of U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico move south via rail, the letter stated.

Eagle Pass is where Corona and Modelo beer, produced at Constellation Brand’s brewery in Nava, Mexico, crosses into the U.S. Beer imports through Eagle Pass are valued at more than $3.5 billion annually, Glenn Hammer, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said in a Chamber Business News opinion piece about the bridge and rail closures.

“This train doesn’t just stop in Eagle Pass. This train doesn’t just impact Texas,” U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, whose district includes this section of the border, said at a press conference this week. “This train impacts all of America, goods that are going to all over America.”

‘Get back to normal’

CBP told the Express-News on Thursday that the closures and lane reductions will continue “until further notice.”

In October, Balderas, the bridge manager, was notified just a few hours before CBP re-opened Bridge 1. The federal agency had closed that bridge to motorists coming from both directions for three weeks due to another influx of migrants.

CBP closed it again on Nov. 27.

“We’re trying everything that we can to get our federal friends to help us,” Balderas said. “We just want to get back to normal.”

Gov. Greg Abbott’s Dec. 15 directive requiring the Texas Department of Public Safety to inspect all commercial trucks entering Eagle Pass and Del Rio from Mexico has only “added salt to the wound,” Balderas said.

Because of the long wait times at the Camino Real bridge, many commercial drivers who’d normally enter the U.S. through Eagle Pass are now crossing at Laredo. That’s lost revenue for Eagle Pass, which depends on bridge tolls to support 55% of its operating budget.

Eagle Pass reaps $18 million per year from bridge tolls, according to City Manager Ivan Morua.

Each week in which a bridge is closed to motorists or its lanes are reduced costs the city up to $150,000, Balderas said.

Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze referred all questions about the inspections to DPS, which did not respond by deadline. Eze did not respond to a question about the economic impact the inspections would have on Eagle Pass and the state.

Eagle Pass City Hall has been inundated with calls from residents asking whether they’ll be able to return to Texas if they head south of the border for the holidays, or how long it will take family members from Mexico to drive into Eagle Pass.

“The bridges are a way of life” in Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Balderas said. “It’s not something that separates us, but something that connects us.”



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