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Travel restrictions at U.S.-Mexico border have area businesses grappling with uncertainty

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Shoppers in downtown El Paso on April 12, 2019. Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune

EL PASO – Early Friday afternoon, Candelaria Pineda made her way through the U.S. Customs checkpoint in this border city before hurrying north toward the dozens of small shops that line downtown.

She crossed from her native Ciudad Juárez just hours after President Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to to allow only non-essential travel across the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A few minutes later after Pineda crossed through the checkpoint, Betty Chavez walked south and double-checked that she had everything she needed for her small Ciudad Juárez store before leaving the U.S. for what could be the last time for a while.

Less than 24 hours later, the sidewalks near the checkpoint were near empty.

“We’re alone here, and I haven’t sold more than $20 of merchandise [in four hours],” said Maria Ramos, who works at an El Paso clothing store about a block away from the port of entry. “It’s a huge change from yesterday. By this time we would have normally sold at least $300.”

The potential collapse of cross-border commerce has added border store owners to the ranks of Texas restaurateurs and other small businesses who don’t know how they’ll be able to make ends meet.

“I don’t know how we’re going to pay the rent. We depend on the tourists from Mexico,” said Kelly Maing, the owner of Pinochio, a clothing store about two blocks from the Paso Del Norte bridge. “Ninety five percent of our shoppers are from Mexico.”

Store closures on the border could have repercussions far beyond state lines and will affect lives on both sides of the Rio Grande.

“I have my business there, and I come to shop here,” said Chavez, whose Juárez store sells clothing, blankets and household goods. “I come here once a week to shop for clothes, but we’re going to have to stay put and live off what we can buy and sell there.”

While prohibiting nonessential travel between the U.S. and Mexico, the agreement on border restrictions still allows travel for medical or educational purposes, emergency response and trade.

That trade exception could help keep Texas’ economy afloat as the majority of commerce between the United States and Mexico in 2019 passed through Texas. The ports of Laredo and El Paso saw $227.4 billion and $76.8 billion of that commerce, respectively. That makes those customs districts the country’s busiest, while the ports of Pharr, Eagle Pass, Brownsville and Houston were also in the top 10.

But for now, that’s little solace for people like Victor Mireles. The college student lives and studies in Ciudad Juárez but works about 20 hours at a McDonald’s in El Paso. He said some of his co-workers were already cut loose, and he was on his way to the store one last time on Friday to see what unemployment benefits he could apply for.

For people like Ramos, the new restrictions could mean saying goodbye to more of her co-workers. The store has laid off seven members of what was a 10-person workforce earlier this month.

“The owner is upset, and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “She doesn’t know how long she can go on.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the bridge closure was agreed to by both countries and not a punitive measure single-handedly enacted by the Trump administration. The president threatened to close the border with Mexico last March after he accused López Obrador of not doing enough to stem the flow of Central American migrants who traveled through that country on their way to the United States to seek asylum.

Candelaria said she respected Trump’s decision to temporarily halt most border traffic because it was a proactive measure to help save lives, something her own president hasn’t done.

“We need to protect ourselves, I come on the bus with my facemask and my dark glasses and some people might think ‘ridiculous, old lady,’ but I do it to protect myself and everyone else,” she said. “I love my country more and my president, but he needs to react better,” she said. “He’s helping us more in other ways but right now he’s lacking the urgency” the country needs.