With federal agents redeployed to manage migrant caravan, Texas border-crossers expect long holiday waits

Keep calm and come on over. That’s the holiday message El Paso city and business officials are sending to their neighbors directly across the Texas-Mexico border.

A man waits outside his car as Customs and Border Protection officials conduct "operational readiness exercises" at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry on Nov. 9, 2018, in El Paso, Texas.

EL PASO — Keep calm and come on over.

That’s the holiday message city and business officials here are sending to their neighbors directly across the Texas-Mexico border.

Given that local Customs and Border Protection Agents have been redeployed to California and Arizona ahead of the anticipated arrival of a caravan of Central American migrants to those border states, wait times are likely to spike at Texas' key ports of entry — ahead of the busiest international shopping season of the year.

“This is historically a very busy period,” Hector Mancha, Customs and Border Protection's director of field operations in El Paso, said in a statement. “Border-crossers should take steps to help themselves and also plan to build extra time into their schedules to accommodate what will be longer-than-normal processing times.”

Federal officials argue the redeployment is necessary to ensure the southwest border remains safe from the migrant caravan, which has been a subject of consternation and outrage from Republicans nationally, particularly in the run-up to the November election.

Local Democrats, meanwhile, have blasted the move as political theater, and said the effects of border-processing delays on commerce will hit El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juárez particularly hard.

“We have a very strong economic relationship with Mexico that goes in both directions, and benefits us locally, statewide and nationally,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said in a statement.

Those charged with promoting El Paso's downtown tourism and shopping districts say there will be an economic toll, but acknowledge city leaders and the people who live along this stretch of border have been down this road before.

“The concerns are valid,” said Rudy Vasquez, the marketing and communications manager for El Paso’s Downtown Management District. “But one thing I can say for sure is that concerns about the impact to retail and downtown business [aren't] new in that respect."

It’s unclear how many agents from the El Paso area have been reassigned to California and Arizona. Local news reports put the number at more than 100. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who represents the country’s busiest inland port, said the total number of agents sent from Texas is 575, though his office didn't detail how many were deployed from each field office. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman declined to confirm a number for “operational security reasons.” The spokesman also declined to say how long the agents would be away.

Rodriguez, citing a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said Mexican shoppers accounted for more than $4 billion in retail sales in Texas cities in 2012, up from $2 billion in 2006.

“Now, faced with a refugee pilgrimage to safety in the U.S. during a holiday season that celebrates the traditions of sanctuary, the administration not only is preparing to meet them with force, it is apparently willing to choke commerce in so doing,” the state senator added.

But some other border residents say the Trump administration has the right to do what it needs to ensure America is only letting in immigrants who don’t pose a threat.

As she sat in Ciudad Juárez’s Mariachi Bar on Tuesday afternoon, Brianna Puckett, a 25-year-old American citizen, said she was worried she’d get trapped in cross-border gridlock on her way home to El Paso. But she said it’d be worth it.

“I think the U.S. is doing what it needs to do," she said, conceding that her political opinions aren’t too popular in a part of Texas that regularly supports Democrats.

Puckett added that her Salvadoran grandmother is a legal immigrant to the U.S. Of the would-be asylum-seekers in the migrant caravan, she said, "I feel like there is a process, but a lot of people aren’t going through the process.”

Gracie Viramontes, a marketing specialist who was in downtown El Paso on Tuesday promoting the city's upcoming Small Business Saturday, said she isn't too worried about some delays on the bridges.

El Paso and Ciudad Juárez have withstood drug wars, divisive elections, peso devaluations and economic downturns, she said. The politics of the day doesn't stand a chance against holiday traditions that have guided border communities for decades.

“You know what, we’re fronterizos, this is the way life is. Business will continue as usual,” she said. “Either way, family is family. If they have to wait 10 hours to [cross] and see their family, then they’re going to wait 10 hours.”