Busy US border town worries about impact of Trump's military fence

Thomas WATKINS
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Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz is worried about the military fencing that the US Army has installed in his bustling border town

Pete Saenz, the mayor of the southwestern Texan city of Laredo, looks at the military fencing that now hems his bustling border town and is uneasy with what he sees.

"It's a surprise to some of us, a shock frankly. We're not used to concertina wire," the mayor tells AFP.

Laredo, whose population of about 260,000 is more than 95 percent Latino, is one of the areas being "hardened" by the US military under orders from President Donald Trump.

As part of the contentious mission that has seen about 5,900 active-duty troops sent to the border, the Army has strung a shiny metal fence made of barbed and concertina wire along Laredo's grassy riverbanks.

Locals are starting to worry of economic consequences for a city that relies heavily on cross-border trade.

In an interview at his City Hall office this week, where the Mexican tricolor stands alongside the Texas flag, the black-mustached Saenz says he understands the federal government's desire to protect the border.

But he is concerned the military presence might cause a drop in legal foot traffic between Laredo and its sister city of Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande River in Mexico.

"Aesthetically, it doesn't look good. Obviously, if we could have our way as a city, I think we would object to the concertina wire," Saenz says, noting the city has had some initial discussions about challenging the federal government's fence.

Mexican shoppers account for about 40-50 percent of Laredo's retail trade, much of which is centered on a vast "outlet mall" that provides better prices and selections than anything in Nuevo Laredo.

Mexican residents of Nuevo Laredo are allowed into Laredo to shop and work, provided they have special permits, and some 17,000 people shuffle daily back and forth across a busy bridge.

- Joined at the hip -

Even a small drop in foot traffic could have a big impact on the local economy, and similar concerns are being echoed up and down the border.

In Nogales, Arizona, for instance, foot traffic from Mexico has slowed dramatically and retailers are feeling the pinch with several stores at risk.

"I don't see it (as) good that (Trump is) putting in the fences. The people from Mexico, they go in and shop around, they leave their money over there," says Sandra Chavez, an American woman speaking in Nuevo Laredo.

"They are not doing nothing wrong."

Worries are especially acute at this time of year, during the usually frenetic Thanksgiving and Christmas retail seasons.

Saenz says it is too soon to know if legal border crossings are slowing, but anecdotally at least some observers have noticed changes.

Compared to two years ago, "there seems to be more shops that have closed, it seems to be more of a ghost town," Laura Pole, a British tourist who has visited Laredo three times in recent years, says in the picturesque town center.

But away from the historic square, which is flanked by an ornate Catholic cathedral and hacienda-style buildings, workers in larger shops say they have not seen any changes so far.

Laredo is inextricably linked to Mexico, and Spanish is by far the dominant language. The city changed hands multiple times during the 19th century and was once part of Mexico.

"I usually say we're tied (at) the hip," Saenz says.

Foot traffic goes both ways, with US citizens heading into Mexico, often to search for cheaper pharmaceuticals and property.

Sometimes, families are split between the two sides of the border.

"The Army being deployed here is ridiculous," huffs Angela Torres, an American whose husband was deported and now lives in Nuevo Laredo, while she also keeps a home on the US side and crosses daily.

- Biggest land port -

Critics have decried Trump's order to toughen the border as a costly political stunt, coming as it did just before the November 6 midterm elections.

A Customs and Border Patrol agent not authorized to give his name welcomed the military assistance as each day, hundreds of migrants attempt to cross the approximately 30-mile (50-kilometer) stretch of border he patrols.

The entire border operation will cost an estimated $72 million, according to the Pentagon. The mission is supposed to run through December 15.

Retail dollars aside, Saenz says Laredo is the biggest land port for goods coming into the United States, rivaled in size only by the maritime port of Long Beach in California.

Some $214 billion of trade crosses annually through the port of Laredo, according to Saenz, and just outside the city center a non-stop stream of massive trucks hauls cargo both ways across a bridge.

"This is what drives our city -- trade, logistics, warehousing, distribution -- and so this is why our relationship with Mexico is so sensitive," Saenz says.

The mayor adds that, going forward, he hopes the federal and state governments pay greater attention to the needs of border communities.

"You know it's easy to govern from Washington or from (state capital) Austin sometimes without knowing the impact on the border itself," he says.

"We live it, we sense it, we feel it, we take it in. And economically we depend on it."