For supply chain companies, U.S.-Mexico border closures could be catastrophic

Andy Uhler Mar 16, 2020
Two-thirds of Mexico’s export business is with the United States. And 70% of that passes through Texas. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For supply chain companies, U.S.-Mexico border closures could be catastrophic

Andy Uhler Mar 16, 2020
Two-thirds of Mexico’s export business is with the United States. And 70% of that passes through Texas. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Update March 20, 2020: President Donald Trump told reporters on Friday that the United States and Mexico have agreed to restrict non-essential travel across their shared border. The measure will take effect on Saturday. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said both countries wanted to ensure workers could continue to cross the border for their jobs, but some immigration attorneys worry their clients will be deemed “non-essential.” Trump said the new restrictions will not apply to trade between the U.S. and Mexico, but it’s unclear whether any freight crossing the border will be slowed or interrupted.

Mexico’s deputy health minister says he’s worried about people coming into Mexico from the United States. The U.S. has far more cases of COVID-19 than Mexico. The Mexican government even said it might consider restricting access at its northern borders. For businesses that operate on both sides of the border, any shutdown could be catastrophic.

That includes businesses like, Hessen Group, which has an office in Brownsville, Texas. There, an 18-wheeler carrying pipes for oil and gas backs up to a loading dock. Hessen is a supply chain company — it acquires parts and components for other companies to build stuff. Its headquarters are in Matamoros, Mexico, just a few miles away.

The company’s president, Francisco Homs, says that those pipes are on their way to Canada, and a few of them will travel all the way to Alaska for an oil company up there.

Homs picks up a little box and explains that inside is a little screw for a tractor. Without it, a farmer would have to stop working because the tractor wouldn’t function.

That little screw was imported from China. Homs says the slowdown of factories in China, because of the coronavirus, means his suppliers, like the screw-maker, were running low. That makes it tough for him to get his hands on the parts his customers need.

The Chinese government says the virus has peaked there and factories are starting to get back to normal. But Homs admits he doesn’t know if he can trust that.

He says his company might have dodged a bullet if Chinese suppliers are indeed coming back online.

His big concern now is the Texas/Mexico border. If they close the border, he said, it would cause problems and disrupt the economies of the United States, Mexico and Canada.

We’d just stop doing business, he said.

All of his shipments run from Mexico into the United States and then some into Canada. So any border closure would make Hessen’s work impossible.

And we can’t be interrupted, he added, because that would have a knock-on effect to many other businesses that depend on the parts and components that he gets to them.

The Hessen Group employs about 150 people split between both sides of the border. It’s a small part of a large ecosystem.

Two-thirds of Mexico’s export business is with the United States. And 70% of that passes through Texas.

Homs says before anyone considers closing the border, President Donald Trump and Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, should discuss a coordinated response to the virus.

As for now, he says all of his people can work from home, if the situation calls for it.

Everyone here has a laptop, he said. But he says the independent truck drivers and contractors who work on the loading docks, they have to be on site to run things.

Those people also only get paid if they show up for work. So, for now, they’re glad the COVID-19 hasn’t shut this part of Texas down, yet.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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