EL PASO — It took Ciudad Juárez resident Norma Martinez about 90 minutes just to get halfway through the pedestrian line at the Paso Del Norte bridge Saturday afternoon on her way to shop for clothes, umbrellas and other goods she resells at her store across the Rio Grande. She said her young son’s feet began to hurt, so the people in front of her allowed her to skip ahead.
Otherwise, she said, they probably would have waited more than two hours to get through U.S. Customs. Normally, Martinez said, the line is about 30 or 45 minutes.
She's just one of the thousands of border residents that have been forced to grapple with a drastic increase in bridge wait times after President Donald Trump’s latest effort address a growing influx of immigrants — many of them Central American families with children — who cross the border to seek asylum.
The Department of Homeland Security said last month it was redirecting 750 Customs and Border Protection officers from the ports of entry in El Paso, Laredo, Tucson and San Diego to assist U.S. Border Patrol agents in processing undocumented immigrants. The reassignments have caused massive delays at international bridges for pedestrian, vehicular and cargo traffic in the weeks leading up to Holy Week.
That has merchants concerned about how the administration's decision to pull hundreds of agents away from their duties at the international bridges will impact El Paso’s retail sector — especially now at the beginning of Holy Week, one of the busiest seasons for cross-border shopping.
“We are really concerned. Historically, Mexican nationals shop a lot during the holidays, especially with the Easter holidays right around the corner,” said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, CEO of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Jon Barela — CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit focused on promoting business and economic development in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso and New Mexico — said Mexican shoppers are responsible for 15 percent to 30 percent of El Paso’s retail trade, depending on the time of year.
And since federal officials pulled agents from bridge duty, Ramos-Davidson said, average wait times for passenger vehicles at El Paso's international bridges have reached 160 minutes or more, about three times the normal wait.
She said international travelers, mainly from Ciudad Juárez or Chihuahua City, will still likely brave the long lines, but they might decide that shopping is less of a priority than visiting family. The chamber of commerce, which has 1,300 members in the El Paso area, recently conducted research and found that more than 50 percent of Mexican tourists won’t cross only to shop if wait times are more than about 45 minutes, she added.
After making it across the bridge Saturday with her son, Martinez said she'll likely cut back on the number of trips they make to shop in Texas.
“After what we saw today, we’d probably think more about making the trip,” she said. “Maybe we’ll come once a month” instead of two or three times.
Commercial industries are also going to feel the effects of the slowdown, Barela said, because of the time tractor-trailers have to spend in line. One business member of the Borderplex Alliance that supplies metal to factories in Ciudad Juárez is operating at about 30 percent of his normal output because of the wait times, Barela said. The employer even had to send some employees home at the height of the slowdown when, according to Barela, wait times reached about 12 hours at some ports.
Barela said he's hoping Congress will come together and find the will to reform the nation's immigration system when it realizes the situation affects not only the border, but industries nationwide.
“Sometimes you need a crisis to encourage people to act, and that’s where we’re at right now,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said last week that 545 of the 750 reassigned CBP officers were from the Laredo field office, which has significantly challenged the remaining officers in his district. The Laredo customs district is the country’s No. 1 inland port and saw about $229 billion in two-way trade in 2018. That was followed by the El Paso customs district at about $77.4 billion.
Cuellar said he met with incoming U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez last week and urged him to replace the reassigned officers with supplemental officers from other South Texas field offices.
“We look forward to the arrival of sufficient CBP reinforcements within the week. Congress must work with the Administration to create a strong immigration framework, which can process migrants without sacrificing U.S. commerce,” Cuellar said in a statement.
After threatening to close the border with Mexico over the influx of undocumented immigrants, Trump backed off last week and said instead he will impose tariffs on imported automobiles next year if the Mexican government does nothing to stop the flow of migrants.
“[Closing the bridges] is off the table now, but what anxiety does it create in the market? Will people try to rush things into the market before the bridges close?” asked Ken Roberts, the president of WorldCity Inc., a Florida-based company that analyzes trade data and business trends. “That creates traffic on the border. The biggest factor is the uncertainty.”