Presidio ready to welcome back Mexican shoppers as border restrictions ease

PRESIDIO — Business owners and city officials alike have been waiting since the start of the pandemic for the return of one of the most significant forces in Presidio’s economy: shoppers from Mexico. Back in March 2020, the Department of Homeland Security closed land borders to “nonessential” travel, dealing a devastating blow to border towns who depend on cross-border visitors. 

“First couple of years the Dollar Tree was open, you’d go in and half the license plates would be from Mexico and the other half would be from Texas,” said City Administrator Brad Newton. “Now you very rarely see a Mexican license plate anywhere.”

Newton stressed that local businesses aren’t just feeling the burn — the city is too. “In 2009, about 70% of our sales tax came from Mexican customers. Now most of our sales tax comes from the increased cost of gasoline,” he explained. 

For every gallon of gasoline sold in Presidio, the city earns two cents. “That’s why we like to have tourists, and we like to have people shop at home,” he said. 

Newton and other Presidio residents are quick to remind visitors that Presidio and Ojinaga are virtually one and the same. For most people, the restrictions haven’t torn families apart — they’ve just put the burden on people from the U.S. side to cross, resulting in long waits in line on the bridge.

For Presidio-based businesses, though, the Title-19 restrictions have been devastating. Azucena Romero, who manages the Dollar General with a view of the Presidio International Bridge, estimates that before the pandemic, about 70% of her business came from Mexico. There are two Dollar Generals in town, and hers gets the bulk of the international shoppers.

“I know our sales are going to be like they used to [when the border reopens],” she said. “We are all going to benefit from it.” 

Many of Romero’s Mexican customers are people who own small businesses and vending stands who rely on her store to restock snacks and basic food staples. She has also noticed the absence of the Mennonite community, who once regularly crossed from their farming cooperative outside of Ojinaga into Presidio for a day of shopping and good food. 

Harper Hardware’s José Saenz has owned his business since 1971, offering him a front row seat to ups and downs in Presidio’s economy through many eras of border policy. “Years and years ago, our business from Mexico was probably 90%,” he said. 

Fluctuations in the peso and drastic restrictions imposed after 9/11 changed all of that. In the latest wave of border closures due to COVID-19, he estimates he lost about 10% of his current customer base. “They come here for what they can’t find over there — quality, U.S.-made [tools and materials],” he said. “I’m not one to complain, though. There will be more business and we will get some.” 

The border is set to partially re-open on November 8, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Travelers from Mexico will be required to provide proof of vaccination, but it’s unclear exactly what that process will look like. “We’re still awaiting specifics from DHS,” said Roger Maier, public relations specialist for Customs and Border Protection in El Paso. 

The lifted restrictions mirror an easing of COVID-19 policies across the river in Ojinaga. City administration recently extended the hours bars and restaurants are allowed to be open until 2 a.m. The state of Chihuahua is still “code yellow” in its pandemic crisis response, with 1,330 confirmed cases in Ojinaga and 79 in San Carlos. 

Regardless of the reality of the pandemic on either side of the border, Presidio is ready for cross-border shoppers to return. “Presidio is not in this alone — every border community has suffered,” Newton said. “The Mexican shoppers are vital to border communities. We’ve been treading water and praying for their return. We are ready for our friends from Mexico to come back to Presidio.”