LAREDO, Texas — The lunchtime crowd at El Meson de San Agustin restaurant is a lively mix of locals, Customs and Border Protection officers and Mexican tourists enjoying specials such as marinated beef tongue or the eatery’s famed homemade salsa.
Close the U.S.-Mexico border, located just two blocks away, and that scene — and owner Jesus Bernal’s livelihood — will vanish, he said.
“It’ll be catastrophic,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about it. We share everything here, on both sides of the border.”
President Donald Trump’s threat to seal the border has sent jolts of alarm across the U.S.-Mexico border, but few places feel it more acutely than this border city. Besides the economic hit, Laredo would feel a cultural and community loss gained from three decades of living in close proximity to its Mexican neighbor.
Students and workers travel daily across the two main bridges connecting Laredo with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Families span both side of the border, crossing frequently to attend family dinners or quinceañeras, the traditional celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. And Laredo businesses depend heavily on well-heeled Mexican tourists who come to shop and dine on the U.S. side.
Trump last week threatened to close the southern border if Mexico didn’t do a better job of halting crossings of immigrants from Central America hoping to reach the U.S. On Tuesday, Trump softened his stance, saying Mexico “started apprehending more people” but told reporters closing the border was still an option.
“Let’s see if they keep it done,” he said of Mexico. “Now, if they don’t, or if we don’t make a deal with Congress, the border’s going to be closed, 100%.” The president also said that he might only close “large sections of the border” and “not all of it.”
On Wednesday, under a soft pelting rain, long lines of cars stretched along the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge near downtown Laredo, waiting to cross into the U.S., while a steady stream of people crossed on foot. Roughly 260,000 people call Laredo home, while Nuevo Laredo has about 360,000 residents.
Juan Angel Rosales, 22, travels from Mexico to the U.S. five days a week. A U.S. citizen, Rosales, lives in Nuevo Laredo with his wife and 7-month-old son but goes to work each day as a forklift operator at a warehouse in Laredo.
Closing the border would sever their only income source, he said.
“I wouldn’t be able to buy diapers for my baby, pay the rent, pay the electricity bill, water bill,” he said. “My family depends on me getting across this bridge each day.”
Around $234 billion in imports and exports cross through Laredo each year, making it one of the busiest land ports in the U.S. The area is also home to 510 freight forwarders, 400 trucking companies and 105 U.S. Customs brokers.
If the border were to close, about one-third of the city’s economy will come to an immediate halt and 60% of the local workforce will have nowhere to go, said Olivia Varela, president and chief executive of the Laredo Economic Development Corporation.
“It would have an absolutely devastating effect on this community,” she said.
More than just economically, Laredo is intertwined with its Mexican neighbor in ways unique even for border cities. The Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos (the Owls of the Two Laredos), a Mexican baseball squad, play home games in stadiums in both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
Each year in February, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo also celebrate the Abrazo Children Ceremony, where four children – two from the U.S., two from Mexico – meet on the international bridge and share a hug. The annual ceremony is cheered by thousands of onlookers crowded onto the bridge.
This year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended the event along with Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz and U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar Nuevo.
“It’s our roots,” said Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina, the county’s top executive. “We have a very defined culture here. It’s a multicultural environment that exists on both sides of the border.”
Bernal, 66, the restaurant owner, said the connections with Nuevo Laredo run deep. He was born in Nuevo Laredo and has spent 50 years living in the U.S. His restaurant, opened 22 years ago, relies heavily on a lively, open border, he said.
In Laredo, he said, there’s a saying: If someone sneezes in Nuevo Laredo, someone in Laredo catches a cold.
Sealing the border — for whatever reasons — would grind Laredo to a virtual halt, Bernal said. “It’ll be a tragedy,” he said.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis. Contributing: Associated Press.