February 27, 2020 1115 AM
PRESIDIO — After months of rumor and speculation, a Mexican official said at a meeting Tuesday night that a transmigrante route will soon open in Presidio-Ojinaga — and that Ojinaga is already getting ready.
That was the main takeaway from Presidio’s first international multi-agency workshop on the traveling merchants, who buy consumer goods like used cars in the United States and sell them back in their home countries (but not in Mexico).
Mexico controls the route(s) for these transmigrantes, and the country has long floated the idea of opening such a route at the Presidio-Ojinaga Port of Entry. Those discussions have put Presidio at the frontlines of an international-trade arrangement that is largely outside the border city’s control.
Such a route has broad implications for Presidio County and the Big Bend region as a whole. Opponents say it will create logistical, traffic and safety issues in Presidio and along U.S. Highway 67 up through Marfa. Proponents see it as part of expanded international trade through the Big Bend region — a trend that also includes a reopened international trade bridge, the bridge improvements at the Presidio-Ojinaga Port of Entry and the “Entrada al Pacífico” trade route.
Kleinman Consultants, which is organizing the workshops, reached out to several U.S. politicians and public officials at the federal level. None of them came to Tuesday’s workshop. That includes officials at the Presidio Port of Entry — though they did at least share their vision for streamlining transmigrante traffic through the city.
In an email to the city on Tuesday afternoon, Alejandro Leos, assistant port director at the Presidio Port of Entry, said he was “unable to attend this meeting or send a representative.” But he agreed transmigrantes are “an important issue” and said the “broker processing of paperwork” is a “critical point” in preventing a logjam. He also said officials would implement procedures for the merchants, which could possibly include “a 20-vehicle limit for presentation at the port.”
No other federal officials attended or contributed information to the workshop. It’s a problem Presidio Mayor John Ferguson has complained about for months. While the federal government in Mexico is apparently taking a lead on transmigrantes, federal officials in the United States are nowhere to be found, he says.
“You know what we really need in Presidio?” Ferguson said on Tuesday night. “We need for our federal government to say, ‘We’ve got your back on this.’ We need Congressman Hurd to say, ‘We’ve got your back.’ But he’s not saying that.”
At city council meetings, and especially at recent ones, Presidio has repeatedly discussed transmigrantes. But as the debate has drawn on for months, city leaders and citizens have grown increasingly frustrated.
Attempts to plan for transmigrantes have been bogged down by side controversies, including one surrounding the city’s plan to build a parking lot for the travelers. Meanwhile, city leaders say they’re getting little information from Mexico and even less help from the feds and the state.
And so, at Presidio’s last city council meeting, the city agreed to have a series of “workshops” on the issue. The goal is to bring together local, federal and Mexican officials to discuss and plan for a new proposed transmigrante route through Presidio-Ojinaga.
The first such workshop happened at the Presidio Activity Center on Tuesday evening. When it ended around three hours later, participants were about halfway through their agenda, and tempers were hotter than ever.
Several Mexican officials were present at the meeting. Among them were Melissa Franco, a Mexican social development official based in Ojinaga. She said a transmigrante route in Ojinaga could open as early as March but could also get delayed, as Mexican officials readied the port.
Ojinaga is already getting upgrades, she said. There are plans to build a new highway loop around Ojinaga, and the city is removing street-wiring and medians along major roads, including on Avenida Morelos. At first, she said, transmigrante traffic will be split between Ojinaga and Los Indios — currently the only approved transmigrante port — until Presidio-Ojinaga are ready for all of it.
“For many years, we’ve been waiting for a development on both sides of the border,” Franco said. The transmigrante route, she said, will “detonate” business growth. That includes not only brokers but businesses like food sellers and bunkhouses.
Presidio City Administrator Joe Portillo pushed back against the idea that transmigrantes will bring revenue to the city. He cited his experience meeting transmigrantes while working in law enforcement.
“They didn’t stay in a hotel. They do eat, but they eat very simply,” he said. “They spend the least amount of money they can.”
Presidio city and county officials have a more pessimistic take on transmigrantes than Franco. They say the route will strain EMS and other city resources and contribute to already long wait times at the port. “I’m imagining Christmas holiday constantly,” city Councilmember Irvin Olivas said.
County officials worry about strain on the narrow and winding U.S. 67, as well as safety issues. At the meeting, David Beebe, a Presidio County justice of the peace, brought up the possibility of crime “with transmigrantes as victims.” After all, he said, they carry cash.
Oscar Prado, a Mexican broker in Ojinaga, disagreed. That was “completely erroneous,” he said. Transmigrantes use credit cards.
This meeting — like previous ones — was bogged down by debates over the city’s proposed transmigrante parking lot. H. Cowan, a representative of Solitaire Homes, repeatedly interjected to express his objections to the plan.
At one point, he asked Mayor Ferguson whether he planned to enforce a city parking ordinance. Ferguson said yes. “You will have the biggest boondoggle you’ve ever seen here, and it will be a black mark against the city,” Cowan said.
Cowan also repeatedly complained that too much of meeting was happening in Spanish.
“You need to start learning Spanish,” Prado, the Mexican broker, said in English.