In Presidio, the debate on transmigrantes rages on

PRESIDIO — For the second time this month, residents and officials in Presidio met at the Presidio Activity Center to discuss transmigrantes, as well as how the border city plans to handle an influx of traffic should the traveling merchants arrive.

Presidio City Council had previously met on January 15 in hopes of ironing out such details. But the meeting was overshadowed by two other contentious topics — language barriers at city council, as well as a proposed rate increase on city utilities — and council postponed their transmigrante discussion until last Wednesday, January 22.

Transmigrantes are traveling merchants from Central America who buy used goods in the United States and sell them back home. They aren’t allowed to sell their wares in Mexico, and Mexico funnels them onto set routes. As violence spikes in northeast Mexico, officials in Presidio city and county say their Mexican counterparts have discussed opening a transmigrante route through Presidio/Ojinaga. But officials in Presidio have continuously stressed that they’ve received virtually no information on the plan, and the date for the supposed change keeps moving back.

“Again: there’s nothing in writing, at all,” Presidio Mayor John Ferguson said at last week’s meeting. He’s received little more than a 12-page packet, which includes Mexican news clippings and a letter from Presidio City Administrator Joe Portillo.

Presidio officials say they’ve also reached out to local officials and agencies to discuss logistics and funding, including to Congress and the Texas Department of Transportation. But with the Mexican plan still in the works, it’s hard to get Texas and U.S. officials passionate about the issue, said City Administrator Joe Portillo.

“There’s no real emergency,” he said at last week’s meeting, paraphrasing how he felt state and national officials viewed the situation. “We have real emergencies that we have to tackle right now, so come back and visit with us.”

At the start of the meeting, Mayor Ferguson gave a brief presentation on challenges the transmigrantes could pose to city funding and infrastructure. The presentation wasn’t “for or against” transmigrantes but instead intended to offer “considerations,” he said.

Presidio, unlike Los Indios, had no large parking spaces for transmigrantes, he said. Building a parking lot in unincorporated Presidio County could leave them without running water or sewer to take care of “typical human needs.” And U.S. Route 67 — the main road out of town — is just two lanes and “curved and hilly sections.”

The city recently passed an ordinance intended to regulate city parking lots and keep transmigrantes from parking all over town. They’re also considering opening a municipally owned parking lot, which would give the transmigrantes somewhere to park while also hopefully contributing to city coffers.

H. Cowan, a representative of Solitaire Homes, has been an outspoken critic of such plans. Since December, he’s attended at least three city meetings on transmigrantes — including the one last week — where he’s denounced the city’s ordinance planned parking lot as “unconstitutional,” “possibly illegal” and a “scheme” to divert transmigrante customers from privately owned lots.

At last week’s meeting, he compared the worried tenor of the city’s discussions on transmigrantes to the chatter about weapons of mass destruction leading up to the Iraq War. No such weapons were ever found, he noted.

“Governments, big or small, should not use any form of fear, especially unfounded fear, to do things it otherwise might not do,” he said.

Cowan has also expressed concerns about traffic from transmigrantes, both at the port of entry and near the Solitaire facility on Farm to Market Road 170. At the meeting last week, he proposed opening the port to transmigrante traffic between 12 and 5 a.m. He argued that could limit the impact of transmigrante traffic on everyday commuters — though city officials like Mayor John Ferguson say they worry about the safety implications of putting large numbers of transmigrantes on U.S. Route 67 in the middle of the night.

Vicky Carrasco, a consultant at Kleinman Consultants who has worked on the U.S. 67 Corridor Master Plan, spoke on the possible traffic impacts from transmigrantes. The draft of the master plan only briefly touches on transmigrantes, when it notes that “this additional traffic would impact U.S. 67 because “all of it would end up on the corridor.” But Carrasco stressed that the plan was a living document and could be updated as conditions changed.

Arian Velazquez-Ornelas, a Presidio resident, pressed city officials on how they were coordinating with Mexican officials.

“I just wanted to ask if there’s been any communication with the Mexican authorities to actually come to this meeting regarding transmigrantes?” she asked. “If there was any formal invitation to anybody who has to do with the transmigrantes?”

City officials said no, but stressed that they’d communicated with Mexican officials in other forums, including in a meeting with Mexican and U.S. port officials in November. City Administrator Portillo added that they’d invited U.S. port officials but that they weren’t able to attend.

“They really don’t have a stance on this,” he said. “Their objective is to make sure that once [transmigrantes] cross over, they have the proper documents.”

Unlike past transmigrante meetings, though, this time there were several Ojinaga residents in attendance, including people who worked in customs and law enforcement. And their concerns, it turned out, weren’t that different from those in Presidio.

They expressed worries about traffic and speculated that Ojinaga (like Presidio) would need to invest in things like more police and customs officers to handle the increased activity. And they stressed that — while transmigrantes could bring “economic development” to the area — officials shouldn’t allow the security situation to devolve as it has in northeast Mexico.  What is “most important,” one Ojinaga resident said, is “the security of the population.”