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Opposite Sides Of Border Closure: Laredo, Texas, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two Defense Department officials have told NPR the Pentagon is sending additional troops to the southern border and making plans to do the same for the northern border. This comes after the Trump administration closed the borders with both Mexico and Canada. So what is life like on the southern border now? NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: As I walk out on the streets of Laredo, they're deserted. For decades, the downtown retail district has been geared to Mexican shoppers coming across the bridge from Nuevo Laredo. But today, stores like Cindy's Electronics, Classic Perfumes (ph) and Casa Raul Mens’ Clothes are shuttered.

NATIVIDAD DOMINGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Natividad Dominguez (ph) sells empanadas, turnovers and doughnuts at Pano's Bakery. She says sales are down as much as 90% because all their business from across the river is dead. In the long history of these twin frontier cities, there's never been anything like the coronavirus border shutdown - never, not even after 9/11, as the U.S. government closed its 7,500 miles of border with Mexico and Canada.

Former Border Patrol Chief Ron Vitiello has spent 33 years protecting the nation's borders. In that time, they closed individual ports of entry because of floods, protests and unruly migrants. And in those limited areas, local communities suffered.

RON VITIELLO: But nothing on the scale of what we're seeing now. In my experience, when the borders close, it is going to be difficult for the region. The communities along the border are interdependent as it relates to culture, trade and just how business is conducted.

BURNETT: This week, Mexican protesters in Nogales blocked the border crossing with Arizona and held up signs reading, stay at home. They demanded their government screen all Americans heading south. But on the morning I crossed into Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican health official had me sign a list of everyone entering the country. Then he cheerfully waved me in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: At this border crossing, they're letting anyone in. People are all over the streets in Nuevo Laredo. Life goes on without the strict rules limiting social contact that have been imposed in Texas. Father Antonio Llano (ph), a retired Catholic priest, can't believe what the bridge looks like.

ANTONIO LLANO: There's no people. Before, there were lines and lines and lines. Now it's empty. I mean, that is going to be a disaster for both sides.

BURNETT: On a normal day, about 10,000 people cross the Gateway to the Americas Bridge from Nuevo Laredo into Laredo. On this day, it's barely a trickle. The border shutdown blocks shoppers, visitors, tourists and asylum-seekers. Only students, essential workers and freight haulers can still cross. Trade continues to flow.

Eighty-five hundred tractor trailers rumble north through Laredo every day, making it the nation's No. 1 commercial port. But Mexican business owners like Alma Gonzalez (ph) cannot cross into Texas. She owns a shop in Nuevo Laredo that makes health shakes.

ALMA GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) We get gas over there. We buy our clothes. I get supplies for my shop, like bottled water. So this is affecting all of us.

BURNETT: Currently, there are no cases of the sickness in Nuevo Laredo, though there is concern that Mexican authorities are undercounting coronavirus throughout their territory. And people are on edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Meanwhile, on a taxi driver's radio, a huckster with a soothing voice is selling supernatural solace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: By placing the prayer cloth against the head and heart, she says it will ease your fears over the coming of coronavirus. John Burnett, NPR News, Laredo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.