For much of the world, the economic and social isolation brought on by the peak days of the COVID-19 pandemic is fading. But in this inland port city on the US-Mexico border, tough times have dragged on.
US officials closed the border to non-essential travel in March 2020, drawing a hard line that cuts through the heart of this bi-national metro area known locally as “the two Laredos” – Laredo , Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
The nineteen-month shutdown divided families and drove a wedge through the economies of both sides. When the border reopens on Monday, November 8, the region will be eager to breathe fresh air and renew cross-border connections.
Many Laredo residents, such as 57-year-old Belen Zamora, have not seen their loved ones across the border since the closure. Although she has lived in Laredo for years, she is not a resident of the US, and if she had gone to Mexico during the closure, she would not have been able to return. Her four brothers and 10 cousins, in Anahuac, Mexico, an hour’s drive away, visited her several times each month, but they could not.
“For us, family is very important,” she said tearfully. “Although there is technology now, it will never replace hugs, meals or time with family.”
She said her brothers would be waiting to cross on Monday when the bridge reopens for the long-awaited family reunion. But don’t expect everything in Laredo to rebound as quickly as its families.
In the old town along the Mexican border, more than half the buildings are either upholstered or closed. Dust collects on old items in shop windows. A few blocks away, the Rio Grande cuts through the center of an urban area with 260,000 people in Texas and 450,000 in Mexico. A foot bridge over a rocky river connects the historic downtown of Sister City.
“This place was always full,” said Carol Galvez, manager of a big box electronics store, two blocks from the international bridge. She sold smart TVs and meter-long speakers to hordes of shoppers who came from all over Mexico to buy cheap goods and American brands in Texas.
Since the border closure, sales have dropped by 50%, and more than half of the city’s businesses that were open before the pandemic have closed, she said.
“It makes me sad when I walk around here. It’s all empty, all left,” said Jose Arevalo, the manager of the printing shop. “Hopefully things will get better when the Mexicans come back. ”
Not all businesses in Laredo suffered. The city hosts the largest inland port in the US, sometimes taking the top ranking for the busiest US port by value of trade.
Commerce in the Port of Laredo faced an epidemic and workers there were deemed essential. It was small businesses and the region’s typical informal economy that took the biggest hit.
Restrictions on non-essential travel reduced pedestrian traffic on the Downtown Bridge from 3,460,000 crossings in the first six months of 2019 to 1,482,000 crossings in the first six months of this year, according to data compiled by the Texas Center at Texas A&M International University. Over the same period, non-commercial vehicular crossings on nearby bridges fell from 5,280,000 to 3,145,000.
Not all of them had come to Laredo to shop. Many people use US border crossing cards every day or week to work in regular but informal jobs on the Texas side of the border, contributing to the region’s economic lifeblood for generations.
‘Government fully aware’ [how border crossing cards are used], said Israel Reyna, an attorney with Texas Riogrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free representation to low-income clients. “There is an unwritten policy of looking the other way.”
Thousands of people came from the Mexican side to work in construction sites, restaurant kitchens, retail shops, auto mechanics and private homes. They would come to sell snacks on the street or do yard work in the neighborhood.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who can tell you the statistics on that; it’s a no-no,” said Roman Ramos, a paralegal at Texas Riogrande Legal Aid since 1980.
Ramos said he’d seen several dozen women descend on his neighborhood bus stop to clean local homes, as did others in Laredo. When the border was closed, those women disappeared.
“You’ll see busloads of women who wrote their doctoral thesis about housework crossing the border in Laredo,” said Ariadne Gonzalez, an assistant professor at Texas A&M International University. “Their livelihoods have been completely put on hold. ”
Two women she followed told her that they had gone to other parts of Mexico to look for work. Others found low-paying jobs in Nuevo Laredo. Gonzalez has lost touch with most of them.
“I don’t know that many of these domestic workers will come back,” she said. “I don’t know if a lot of these businesses will come back.”
According to the organization’s president, Gabriela Morales, the Laredo Chamber of Commerce has plans to boost recovery.
The business group is preparing a reopening campaign aimed at bringing back Mexican shoppers. “Regresa a Laredo” or “Return to Laredo,” focuses on four major sectors – retail, restaurants, entertainment and hotels. The Chamber is recruiting local businesses to offer coupons and discounts written in Spanish to be published online and handed out in person at the pedestrian bridge.
“It’s something the business community has been eagerly waiting for, just waiting 19 months for the border to reopen,” Morales said, also to his family in Torreón, Mexico, since the border was closed. Haven’t seen. “It has been very hard on the people, the economy, the community and society in general.”