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,” Saenz said. “We’re not used to concertina wire.”
Laredo, with a population of about 260,000, is more than 95 percent Latino. It is one of the areas being “hardened” by the US military under orders from US President Donald Trump.
As part of the contentious mission that has seen about 5,900 troops sent to the border, the US 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 said he understands the federal government’s desire to protect the US’ border with Mexico.
However, 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 said, adding that the city has had some initial discussions about challenging the federal government’s fence.
Mexican shoppers account for about 40 to 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 about 17,000 people shuffle daily back and forth across a busy bridge.
Even a small drop in foot traffic could have a big effect on the local economy, and similar concerns are being echoed up and down the border.
In Nogales, Arizona, 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,” said 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 said it is too soon to know if legal border crossings are slowing, but anecdotally at least, some observers have noticed changes.
Compared with 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, said in the picturesque town center.
However, 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.
“I usually say we’re tied [at] the hip,” Saenz said.
Foot traffic goes both ways, with US citizens heading into Mexico, often to search for cheaper pharmaceuticals and property.
“The army being deployed here is ridiculous,” said Angela Torres, an American whose husband was deported and now lives in Nuevo Laredo, while she keeps a home on the US side and crosses daily.
Critics have decried Trump’s order to toughen the border as a costly political stunt, coming as it did just before the Nov. 6 elections.
A US 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 50km stretch of border he patrols.
The entire border operation is to cost an estimated US$72 million, the Pentagon said.
The mission is supposed to run until Dec. 15.
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