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Long delays at border bridges bring anxiety for businesses as Holy Week begins

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This week is one of the busiest shopping seasons on the border, but after hundreds of federal agent were diverted from international bridges to help with a surge of migrants, retailers and other businesses are fretting about how hours-long wait times will impact them.

It took Ciudad Juárez resident Norma Martinez about 90 minutes just to get halfway through the pedestrian line at the Paso Del Norte Bridge bridge Saturday afternoon on her way to shop for clothes, umbrellas and other goods she resells at her store across the Rio Grande. She said her young son’s feet began to hurt, so the people in front of her allowed her to skip ahead.

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Otherwise, she said, they probably would have waited more than two hours to get through U.S. Customs. Normally, Martinez said the line is about 30 or 45 minutes.

She’s just one of the thousands of border residents that have been forced to grapple with a drastic increase in bridge wait times after President Donald Trump’s latest effort address a growing influx of immigrants — many of them Central American families with children — who cross the border to seek asylum.

The Department of Homeland Security said last month it was redirecting 750 Customs and Border Protection officers from the ports of entry in El Paso, Laredo, Tucson and San Diego to assist U.S. Border Patrol agents in processing undocumented immigrants. The reassignments have caused massive delays at international bridges for pedestrian, vehicular and cargo traffic in the weeks leading up to Holy Week.

That has merchants concerned about how the administration’s decision to pull hundreds of agents away from their duties at the international bridges will impact the city’s retail sector — especially now at the beginning of Holy Week, one of the busiest seasons for cross-border shopping.

“We are really concerned. Historically Mexican nationals shop a lot during the holidays, especially with the Easter holidays right around the corner,” said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, the CEO of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

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Jon Barela, the CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit focused on promoting business and economic development in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso and New Mexico, said Mexican shoppers are responsible for 15 to 30 percent of El Paso’s retail trade, depending on the time of year.

And since federal officials pulled agents from bridge duty, Ramos-Davidson said average wait times for passenger vehicles at El Paso’s international bridges have reached 160 minutes or more, about three times the normal wait.

She said international travelers, mainly from Ciudad Juárez or Chihuahua City, will still likely brave the long lines, but they might decide that shopping is less of a priority than visiting family. The chamber, which has 1,300 members in the El Paso area, recently conducted research and found that more than 50 percent of Mexican tourists won’t cross only to shop if wait times are more than about 45 minutes, she added.

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After making it across the bridge Saturday with her son, Martinez said she’ll likely cut back on the number of trips they make to shop in Texas.

“After what we saw today we’d probably think more about making the trip,” she said. “Maybe we’ll come once a month” instead of two or three times.

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