Border becomes a barrier for 'sister cities'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The papier-mâché sweet breads collect dust in large bins, the virgins of Guadalupe hang from stucco walls, and stacks of silver bracelets twinkle for no one in particular.

These Mexican curios - once snatched up by American tourists and toted across the border in excessive quantities - sit idly in Raul Garcia's shop, a short walk from Brownsville, Texas. On what used to be a busy weekend here, the sales staff outweighs the customers.

"Instead of just one day off each week, they now get two," says Mr. Garcia, referring to his employees. "We had to do something. People have stopped coming."

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Up and down the US-Mexican border, Americans' insecurity about travel and the clampdown at border crossings are sending bottom lines plummeting and buckling already fragile economies.

For years, the exchange of commerce and culture between cities on both sides of the border has given this region, often dubbed Mex-America, it own distinct identity. Indeed, southern Texas and southern Arizona share far more in common with Mexico than they do with Iowa or Maine.

But now that cross-border dependence is being severely disrupted as Americans struggle to find the right balance between security and normal living.

Sister cities - like Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico - are being hit particularly hard. They no longer function as the fluid unit they once did.

Tougher screening at checkpoints, new visa requirements, and understaffing at federal agencies are keeping thousands of people at home. That is having a profound effect on local business on both sides. At Garcia's shop, for instance, sales are down by 40 percent since the terrorist attacks. Across the Rio Grande in downtown Brownsville, where the majority of shoppers are from Matamoros, the situation is just as bleak.

But even more significant is what the tighter security means for free trade - especially at a time when the manufacturing sectors of both countries are struggling. Governors from Texas to California are so worried, they are asking the federal government for emergency aid.

"Mexico is the United States' No. 2 trading partner, and Texas's No. 1 trading partner. We've got to find a way to get commerce through that bridge," says Frank Feild, president of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Feild has been taking panicked phone calls from members since the attacks. Just this morning, he says, he got a call from a factory owner in Matamoros who says the truck waits at the border, which can now take several hours (or even longer in cities like Laredo), are severely damaging his business. On a typical day in Brownsville, 40,000 vehicles used to cross the bridges. Today that number is down by 40 percent.

The backup in traffic at the bridges has been good for some, however. Back in Matamoros, Marcelino Velázquez Cedillo sells steaming corn-on-the-cob to passengers creeping by in cars. He says he used to cross frequently into the US, but now plans his trips carefully and does it mostly on foot. "If you are carrying bags, they think you have a bomb, and it takes 45 minutes to check. It's easier to swim across," he says, grinning.

Many factors, beyond extra border security, have contributed to local problems. First, just a week after the attacks, a barge accidentally rammed into the Queen Isabella Causeway, connecting South Padre Island to the mainland. The only way to cross now is by ferry, which has cut heavily into tourist traffic.

Then on Sept. 30, a new visa system, using cards checked by laser, replaced the old paper system, which allowed Mexicans to cross easily into the US for day trips. But the US government hasn't been able to process the new cards fast enough. Only 2.5 million of the estimated 5 million have yet been issued. Those who don't have them aren't allowed to enter the US.

"That means that about half the people who were coming to Brownsville are not coming," says Feild, adding that downtown sales are off by 30 percent, the malls by 15 percent, and the airport has lost $835,000 since Sept. 11. "If we don't see a change in those numbers by the end of January, we are going to see a lot of businesses closing."

With the holidays approaching, many are worried. Take T-Shirt Town in downtown Brownsville. Owner Ernest Kim estimates that 90 percent of his business is from Matamoros and his sales are down by almost half.

He looks up from his seat as someone comes to the cash register to buy a black baseball cap. He eagerly rings up the sale. "Things are tough," he says, "but what else can I do? I'm going to stick it out."

He is hoping the holidays will bring some relief. In addition, the winter-visitor season is gearing up, and most trailer parks are reporting only a few cancellations.

Frank and Lucille Michelfelder are two early winter visitors. They're shopping with friends in Matamoros. "We've been coming down to Brownsville for five years now, and never once have we felt uneasy about crossing the border," says Mrs. Michelfelder.

Across the street in El Fenix pharmacy, no Americans are wandering the aisles. Supervisor Juan Carlos Manzanares says sales are down by 25 percent. But when Americans do come in, they are looking for only one thing: Cipro. Standing under a large orange sign in Spanish that reads, "We have Ciprofloxacin on sale here," Mr. Manzanares says he has stocked up on the antibiotic. Sales of the drug have doubled since the anthrax scare began.

Shops like this will be the real test of whether these border economies can ever get back to pre-Sept. 11 levels. But Feild and others caution that the border will never again be as easy to cross, so everyone will have to adapt. Only Wednesday, Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft announced further restrictions on immigration, including more extensive background checks for visa applicants. "We're never going to be able to recapture the way things were on Sept. 10," says Feild. "The world has changed, and the way we do business has got to change as well."

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