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Coalition Calls for Easing of Southern Border Travel Restrictions

Officials along the U.S.-Mexico border say restrictions on nonessential travelers — first adopted at the start of the coronavirus crisis — are dividing families and hindering economic recovery in the area.

By Stephen Paulsen, Courthouse News

Elsa Armendariz and her husband Alberto run Montana Western Wear, a clothing store in the quiet West Texas border town of Presidio. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, customers would come from as far away as the Mexican states of Coahuila and Durango states browse their selection of boots, hats and more. At Christmas, they’d pick up gifts for friends and family.

Occasionally, American tourists stop by on their way to the Rio Grande and other attractions. “They buy some things,” Elsa said, “but not as much.” Her main customer base comes from Ojinaga, a city just across the U.S.-Mexico border with around seven times the population of Presidio.

“Presidio is a border city,” Elsa said in a phone interview. “It would be a lot better if people from Mexico could cross.”

A group of officials and trade organizations along the border are calling on the federal government to end travel restrictions for Mexican visa holders, rules first adopted at the start of the coronavirus crisis. The coalition says the United States is winning the war against Covid-19 and that “the time has come” to reopen land ports in American border cities, where many residents have family and economic ties to Mexico.

In a  letter last week to Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, around 30 signatories complained that “the ‘temporary’ limits” on cross-border travel “have now lasted for more than 14 months.” With a cross-border economy worth around $19 billion, they warned that the rules have “heavily paralyzed and devastated” communities along the southern border, where businesses depend on “the influx of daily travelers.”

The letter stresses that asylum seekers are being allowed to cross and that “common-sense measures,” including negative Covid-19 tests and proof of vaccination, can keep residents and port officials safe while allowing border life to return to normal.

“We look forward to a positive response on this matter,” the letter concludes, “which has a severe economic impact on many communities in the U.S.-Mexico border region.”

The travel restrictions at U.S. land ports date back to the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, the U.S., Mexico and Canada all agreed to  limit nonessential border traffic in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

More than a year later, the U.S. and other vaccine-rich countries have started to emerge from the pandemic, but U.S. land ports remain closed — at least in theory. Residents in southern border towns say ports into Mexico have remained largely open even at the heights of the pandemic. But entering the U.S. from Mexico is a different story.

On the northern border, where communities are also fretting about economic impacts, Canada has renewed its port closures for nonessential U.S. visitors through at least late June. This week, U.S. officials also extended restrictions for Mexican travelers. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for policing U.S. borders, did not respond to a request for comment by press time, including to confirm whether they had received the recent letter.

Allowances for commercial and essential traffic mean that some types of visitors — including truck drivers and people with medical needs — are still making it across the southern border into the U.S. But crossing numbers have nonetheless fallen sharply, government figures show.

At the San Ysidro port in San Diego/Tijuana — the busiest southern land port — entry crossings fell from around 15 million people to under 12 million, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation. In Brownsville on the other side of the border, they fell from just under 5 million to around 3 million. 

Glenn Hamer, the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Businesses, supports calls to begin reopening the southern border. A top member of the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition, a group within the association that focuses on cross-border trade, he signed onto the letter.

Talking to officials in border communities, Hamer said many view ending port restrictions as a “number one issue” currently facing cities in the region.

“Border communities are their own ecosystem,” he added. “For the economies of [states like Texas] to fully function, the borders need to be fully open.”

Richard Cortez, the top county official for Hidalgo County in South Texas, also signed the letter to DHS. South Texas was hit hard by Covid-19 last summer, with dozens of people dying from the respiratory disease every day in Hidalgo County, where fewer than 1 million people live. The Atlantic  described the situation as “mass death.”

“In July, we were in a very terrible situation,” Cortez said. “We had four freezer trucks full of bodies, because our morgues couldn’t handle them.” At the time, he thought limiting travel from Mexico was a necessary trade-off to protect public safety. “We were obviously concerned.”

“Thank God, that’s in the past,” Cortez said of last year’s outbreak. Since March, the rate of new deaths in Hidalgo County has slowed to a trickle, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Meanwhile, vaccinations are picking up. Around 40% of Texans are vaccinated, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Those figures are particularly high in some border communities, including Hidalgo County (50%), Brownsville’s Cameron County (52%) and Presidio’s Presidio County (73%).

Still, businesses in the region are waiting to recover after more than a year with few to any Mexican customers. As Cortez sees it, they’ve waited long enough.

“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some restrictions, but the restriction of no travel is an overkill,” Cortez said. “Let common sense and science help us find a course that’s acceptable.”

C. LeRoy Cavazos-Reyna, a resident of McAllen, Texas, and the vice chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, helped organize the letter. Like many people living along the U.S.-Mexico border, Cavazos-Reyna has family ties on both sides.

His aunt lives in Mexico, and with the travel restrictions, “she hasn’t been able to come in 14 months to see my grandmother” in the United States, he said. It was a “great emotional stress” for his 94-year-old grandmother, because “obviously my grandmother misses her daughter.”

Years ago, “we sometimes used to cross just to have lunch or dinner in Mexico,” Cavazos-Reyna said. But those days are long over — a fact he attributes not just to the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions but to other factors, including worsening violence in neighboring Tamaulipas state and heightened political tensions during the presidency of Donald Trump.

With a new administration in Washington, Cavazos-Reyna hopes the feds will not only ease travel restrictions but also address the “diplomatic problems” that have been simmering for years.

“I have complete and utter faith that if anybody can help us repair and move forward with these relations, it’s Vice President Kamala Harris,” he added. “Her tenacity will lead us in the right direction.”

Back in Presidio, Montana Western Wear isn’t the only business impacted by the travel restrictions with Mexico. The Bean Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in the city, used to draw around half of its customers from across the border, as Mexicans crossed to run errands or visit family.

“We’ve definitely felt the impact,” said Yazmin Perez, the restaurant’s head server — though thankfully, “we still get American travelers.”

Still, asked whether she was ready to see the Presidio/Ojinaga port reopen, Perez’s answer was simple.

“Most definitely,” she said.

John Ferguson, the mayor of Presidio, wasn’t a signatory on the letter to DHS. But like others across the U.S.-Mexico border, he says he supports calls to allow Mexican relatives and customers back into border cities.

Businesses and families are hurting after months of border closures, Ferguson said. With vaccination rates rising and City Hall back in business, “we’re going back to fully reopening.” There’s no longer a public-health justification for keeping ports shuttered, he said.

“My point of view is, I have followed CDC guidelines all along,” he said. “If I followed them once upon a time, I’m going to follow them now.”

In the meantime, Montana Western Wear is doing what it can to keep business going. Elsa, the co-owner, says she regularly fields calls from Mexican customers looking to purchase goods from her store: “Do you have this size for my boy? Can you send me pictures of shoes?”

Her son Alfredo Jr. often runs errands in Mexico. Sometimes he’ll bring merchandise to sell with him — but he can only do so much.

“I’m hoping the bridge will reopen,” Elsa said. “I think everybody here wishes the same.”