PRESIDIO, Texas (CN) – Officials in the small west Texas border town of Presidio are not known for rejecting new ideas, especially when the ideas can lead to dollars.
Economic opportunities here are scarce, so the town tends to embrace them when it can. A few years ago, when neighboring communities across this rural corner of the state protested a controversial natural gas pipeline, Presidio welcomed the project and the new chili roasting plant it helped bring to town. When renovations started on a defunct international railroad, the city’s boosters rejoiced, touting prospects for expanded cross-border trade.
Now, however, the city’s usual economic optimism is being tested by an international trade plan that officials fear will bring more problems than prizes.
If you’ve ever traveled an interstate in Texas, you’ve likely seen small convoys of trucks – often battered, decades-old Toyota pickups – loaded down with appliances and other goods, “In Tow” taped across the back windows.
The drivers who find and haul the scrap vehicles are known as “transmigrantes” for the routes they travel from across the U.S. through Mexico and south to Central America, where the trucks and the bounty they carry are sold for a profit. Though not necessarily a lucrative business, the trade is an important economic engine for some impoverished communities in countries like Guatemala.
The Mexican government is considering a policy change that could bring an influx of transmigrantes to Presidio. Local officials say the change would overwhelm the town’s resources, sparking safety, housing and other logistical challenges as the drivers wait for days for their customs paperwork to clear before crossing the border.
“I’m concerned about the whole thing,” Presidio Mayor John Ferguson said in an interview. “It has fallen into our lap, and we’re just being kind of put into a situation where it’s like, well, what do we do?”
Mexico currently requires the drivers to cross from the U.S. at a particular international port in South Texas, but the Mexican government has talked about rerouting the traffic to the international bridge at Presidio, where the much more bustling city of Ojinaga lies just south of the river.
The government has yet to finalize the plan, Ferguson said. The city has been in conversations with various officials about it for at least two years, but Presidio officials said the issue appears to have taken on more urgency in Mexico after that country’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in late 2018.
A government briefing on the proposal, shared with Courthouse News Service by Ferguson, reveals some of Mexico’s motivations for the change, which include a concern for the safety of transmigrantes amid a rise in violence along the route they currently travel from the South Texas border. The drivers are known to rely on cash for their travels through parts of their journey south, making them targets for crime and forced bribes.
Ferguson said he worries that if the route is changed, criminals would simply follow transmigrantes to the parts of Mexico that border West Texas.
“Ojinaga, I think, is probably one of the safest places to visit on the border in general, and I’d hate to see that be a thing of the past,” he said. “If they’ve got a problem, they need to deal with the problem and not just kind of shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak.”
Crime is far from the only concern about the plan.
The main highway into Presidio is a winding, mountainous road with steep inclines where drivers routinely blow past the 70 mph speed limit. Some worry adding slow-moving convoys of old vehicles to the mix could prove deadly.
“I am very concerned that we’re going to have a lot more wrecks, and specifically a lot more head-on collisions,” Malynda Richardson, Presidio’s emergency medical services director, said at a public meeting on Friday.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to questions about what role, if any, the American government might play in Mexico’s plans, nor did Customs and Border Protection or Texas officials.
A spokesperson for Republican Congressman Will Hurd, whose district spans the West Texas border, said his office is “working closely” with local and federal officials on the issue.
Presidio leaders still don’t know when the change will take effect, or even if it ultimately will at all, but they are nonetheless formulating a plan to regulate an influx of trade traffic.
Staffers are pitching a plan for a city-owned parking lot that would essentially function as a municipal truck stop, where transmigrantes would be required to park and live while they wait to cross the border into Mexico.
“You have to be prepared for 150, and you have to be prepared for 1,500,” Presidio City Administrator Jose Portillo said at Friday’s public meeting. The route change could take effect as soon as January, he said, based on his conversations with Mexican officials.
Local officials stress they don’t have a problem with transmigrantes themselves.
“It’s not that these people are bad people, these people are just trying to work,” said David Beebe, a justice of the peace in Presidio County. “But the issue is one that’s not going to be a real positive for Presidio.”
Still, the change could be good news for private customs brokers in Presidio who help facilitate the paperwork required for cross-border trade. South Texas is home to a number of such transmigrante-focused businesses. Local restaurants and gas stations could see an uptick in sales with the increase in cross-border travelers, though officials say the drivers aren’t expected to spend much money as they pass through.
Overall, Ferguson feels his small city is simply not equipped to handle the sudden influx of trade traffic, particularly during the holiday season when travelers already line up in droves at the local border crossing.
“We do really enjoy our quality of life, and we’d like to try and preserve it,” he said. “We just want to try to make it orderly.”