City, county officials brace for possible transmigrante impacts in Marfa

“It won’t just impact Presidio" city, Buddy Knight, a Presidio County commissioner, said of transmigrantes. “I think it’ll impact the whole county.”

MARFA — An hour south of Marfa, city leaders in Presidio have spent months bracing the possible arrival of transmigrantes, a term for traveling merchants from Central America.

But Marfa could see impacts from the merchants, too. Just a few state and federal highways branch out from the border city of Presidio. And one of them — U.S. Route 67 — runs right through the center of Marfa.

That could mean more traffic for Marfa’s main intersection, or more demand for city goods like groceries and gasoline — though Marfa and Presidio County officials stress it’s still early for them to know exactly what to expect.

“I’m just trying to keep an open mind and envision what the impacts are and what our response would be,” said City Manager John Washburn. “Until we have more info, I don’t think we can do any final planning-stage stuff.”

Transmigrantes export large consumer goods (washing machines, car parts, etc.) from the United States to Central America, and their vehicles are weighed at Mexican ports of entry in a process that can take days. Currently, the only approved Mexican port for transmigrantes runs through Los Indios in South Texas. But Mexican officials have for months floated the idea of opening another approved route in Presidio/Ojinaga.

That puts the border city on the front line for any impacts — including an unknown number of transmigrantes parked and waiting in town for their customs paperwork. Officials there have said they don’t want to see Presidio become like Los Indios, where transmigrantes dominate the city’s economy and are even celebrated with a yearly holiday: Dia del Transmigrante, or “Day of the Transmigrante.”

As Presidio city works to decide how it will handle a possible influx, the Presidio County Commissioner’s Court has also begun studying the issue. In December, Presidio City Administrator Joe Portillo briefed the court on transmigrantes. Rod Ponton, the county attorney and Presidio city attorney, has expressed a desire to coordinate the county with Presidio city on regulating transmigrantes, including with rules on parking.

When Presidio city council met last week to discuss (among other things) transmigrantes, several commissioners were in attendance. “It won’t just impact Presidio [city],” said Buddy Knight, a Presidio County commissioner. “I think it’ll impact the whole county.”

At the state level, the Texas Department of Transportation last year finished its study on U.S. Route 67, which started in 2018 and sought comment from the public and officials on possible improvements for the corridor between Presidio and Marfa.

While the agency did not specifically consider transmigrantes, Jennifer Wright, a spokesman for TxDOT’s El Paso district, said TxDOT “always” plans for increased traffic and may hold additional public-comment meetings if transmigrantes become a major traffic issue in the area.

“It’s not like we’re frozen in time with conditions as they were in 2019,” she said.

Washburn, Marfa city manager, in December briefed Marfa City Council on transmigrantes. He’s also spoken to officials in Los Indios to get a better sense of what to expect.

“They predominantly see a trickle,” he said of transmigrante traffic in the area, citing his conversations with those officials. But the traffic surges during certain times of year, including around holidays like Easter and Christmas.

If Mexico does end up opening a corridor for the merchants in Presidio/Ojinaga, Washburn foresees a few possible impacts. More traffic could lead to vehicle break-downs and could put strain on the four-way stop in the middle of town. If that happens, the city could coordinate with local police and agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation to help keep cars flowing, he said.

Outside of traffic, a large number of people in Marfa could also put a strain on resources, he said. “If they come in and empty the town of gas and groceries, everyone’s going to be negatively impacted,” he said.

But like many U.S. officials in the region, Washburn is still waiting to learn more about the issue. It remains to be seen if Mexico will ultimately approve a transmigrante route through Presidio/Ojinaga and, if so, how many transmigrantes will use the new route.

“I can envision a lot of scenarios,” he said. But he didn’t think it made sense to start preparing until “we know it’s a true possibility.”