Presidio disrupted as US, Mexico close their border

PRESIDIO — On Friday, the United States and Mexico announced they’d agreed to limit international travel across their shared border through at least April 20 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It followed a similar agreement between the U.S. and Canada, which also closed their border to most travel on Friday.

In Presidio, the closed border is more than an abstraction. Overnight, families were separated from each other, and people from their jobs. And the hum of cross-border travel mostly ground to a halt.

Take Ojinaga resident Molly Ferguson. She works at a school in Presidio and has families on both sides of the border — including a husband in Mexico and her father, Presidio mayor John Ferguson, in the United States.

“My husband is over here,” she said in a phone interview from Ojinaga. “It really doesn’t make any sense to be stuck [in Presidio].” Still, she said the tightened restrictions are  “kind of overwhelming.”

As a U.S. citizen, Ferguson can still get across the border if she needs to — though border officials are discouraging all non-essential travel. But after years of tightened restrictions along the southern border under President Donald Trump, including adding a secondary checkpoint in the middle of the international bridge, the restrictions, however necessary, feel like another painful wedge in the community.

Her father, Mayor John Ferguson, often talks about Presidio and Ojinaga as one city divided by a border, and there’s truth to that: Ojinaga has ample clinics and restaurants and a large grocery store, while the United States offers consumer retail (especially in El Paso) and access to public services like the post office.

Now, the two countries and cities are more divided than ever — separated not by politics, but by a deadly new disease.

With Texas schools closed by order of Governor Greg Abbott, Molly Ferguson doesn’t have to worry about getting to work. “I’m assuming folks are going to work from home anyway,” she said — though she isn’t sure exactly what that will look like for a music teacher like her.

Still, she is used to crossing regularly, whether to run errands at the bank or the post office or just to visit with friends and family. And her husband, who was in the process of getting his U.S. visa, is now waiting indefinitely.

She worries about when she will get to see her father again — and about the possibility of more restrictions.

“Hopefully I’m being overdramatic,” she said. She noted that other people could be more affected by the rules — including a Mexican friend who’d recently had a baby in El Paso. “That’s a complicated situation,” she said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is tasked with implementing many of these new coronavirus-related travel restrictions, has emphasized that the U.S. is still open for business.

“The border is not closed,” Greg Davis, a spokesman for the agency, said. Rather, he said, “the border has been basically transitioned to essential travel and trade only.”

Agents at the border, he said, have some discretion in deciding who gets across. Tourism and cross-border shopping trips are definitely not allowed, but trade is still open and crossing for health care or family emergencies is okay.

He emphasized that Ferguson, as a U.S. citizen, can still cross into Presidio. But “the hope is to stop travel,” he added. “Going back and forth is not necessarily a good idea.”

John Ferguson, Molly’s father and the mayor of Presidio, sees the new border guidelines as something like the canceling of events and closure of bars — another necessary but painful step to halt the spread of a deadly disease.

“I have friends that cross on almost a daily basis that are disappointed,” he said, but “I think most people understand why it’s closing.”

Rather than “freaking out” about the news, he said Presidio and Ojinaga are asking themselves practical and logistical questions about the new rules. Questions like: “Should I go to work on Monday?”

Asked about his daughter, Ferguson acknowledged he feels “sadness that maybe we’ll be separated for a month or more.” But he stressed that worries like that don’t stop at the international border.

His son, he pointed out, lives in Dallas — and Ferguson doesn’t know when he’ll see him, either. “Whether it’s an international boundary or just distance that separates us in the same country, that’s just going to be how we live” through this crisis, he said.

“We’re good,” he said of Presidio. “We’re ready to take this challenge on and try to take the right thing.”

Coronavirus, and the new rules imposed to try to slow its spread, have caused other ripple effects across the economy and government, on everything from immigration to tourism.

Davis, the CBP spokesman, said the agency now allows agents to “adjudicate some cases in the field at initial counter” — effectively fast-tracking deportations. And in a social media post, Matthew Hudak, chief patrol agent for the Big Bend Sector of Border Patrol, said that undocumented migrants are being “immediately” removed from the country to stop “potential pandemic threats.”

And while the U.S. has stressed that trade with Mexico remains open, cross-border traders in Presidio nonetheless worry about the prospect of decreased commerce — either because of more restrictions or because factories and other businesses that supplied imports and exports are also shutting down.

“It would impact us in a huge way,” Isela Nuñez, a former Presidio city council member and a broker in Presidio, said last week before the restrictions went into place. “It would impact us the way that it’s impacting a lot of people that are closed down for whatever reason.”

But Nuñez couldn’t talk for long: she had a shipment of cattle to process. As brokers on both sides of the border grappled with economic and political uncertainty, there had been a rush of last-minute orders.

Jose “Pepe” Acosta, another Presidio broker, also worries about the sudden changes and what they would mean. “I’ve been working since the free-trade agreement [NAFTA] opened, since I was 14 or 15,” he said. “This is the first time since I was born – that I know of – that the border is going to close.”

Acosta, who largely works with vehicle and machinery imports and exports, said his business hasn’t yet slowed down. And at least for a while, he could continue working on import/export paperwork.

“I can do them online anywhere,” he said. “I can do them in my house, if I still have internet.” But with movement restricted across the border, he predicts he will eventually need to hire U.S. workers to inspect VIN numbers if Mexican workers can’t make it across.

“I need more help. I need to train people,” he said. “And it’s not an easy job to train.”

As a sign of how broadly coronavirus has affected the economy, Acosta is just as worried — and maybe even more so — about his other businesses. He’d been planning for months to start doing contract work for the post office. Now, he doesn’t know where that plan stands or if he’ll be able to find workers.

He also worried about El Changarrito, the restaurant he runs with his wife. Business is way down, he said, not least because fewer tourists are coming to visit Big Bend Ranch State Park. “My customers mostly are tourists,” he said. He wonders if he can find people with food-handling permits if he needs them. And when his wife went to purchase eggs the other day, she waited for half an hour only to learn there was a 24-egg limit on purchases.

These days, he says his customers are mostly Border Patrol agents. The other day, one asked him: “Are you gonna close?” Acosta wasn’t quite sure how to answer. “I said, ‘It depends on if my supplier keeps supplying me.’”