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Ahead Of Fall Shopping Season, Laredo Business Leaders Renew Calls To Ease Border Restrictions

Courtesy of Congressman Henry Cuellar's office
Congressman Henry Cuellar calls for nonessential travel to be allowed through inland ports on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. The Laredo Democrat has proposed screening and testing cross-border travelers that businesses rely on heavily.

Border business leaders joined Congressman Henry Cuellar in downtown Laredo on Friday to once again urge the federal government to ease travel restriction at ports of entry along the Texas-Mexico border.

Pointing to an almost empty street and various closed locales with for rent or for sale signs, they said the lack of Mexican shoppers is hurting businesses along the  border.

“These restrictions have been devastating to our economy primarily made of small to medium businesses, and every extension will continue to have a negative impact on our economy,” said Gerry Schwebel, executive vice president of Laredo-based IBC Bank.

The restrictions first imposed in March have limited travel at inland ports to activities deemed essential. That includes travel for trade, schools, health professionals, military personnel, and diplomats, but not for shoppers or tourists.

Cuellar said border businesses may not survive if the restrictions continue through October, November and December, the busiest months for Mexican shoppers.

“Without the Mexican shoppers it is very hard for them to stay in business,” he said during a press conference Friday. “Some have gone under already.”

The restrictions were last extended through Sept. 21, and the Laredo Democrat has proposed for the federal government to ease the restrictions by screening and testing travelers. 

“They can do enhanced medical screenings,” Cuellar said. “They come in, you do the temperature check, ask them a couple questions, and give them the rapid test.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has yet to take action on the proposal. Instead, Customs and Border Protection closed lanes at some inland ports of entry last month and directed its officers to facilitate essential travel while more closely scrutinizing U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents returning from Mexico.

“They just haven’t responded,” Cuellar said. “And this is why we’re here, because in the next week or two, they’re going to make a decision. And this message is not only to the folks in the U.S. but also Mexico has to make a decision.”

Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan told TPR News last week that the decision of when to allow more travel at the border will ultimately be up to the federal coronavirus task force and and President Donald Trump.

Border officials and business leaders, including Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, made similar calls to the federal government in June, questioning why inland ports like Laredo continued to face the restrictions as the rest of the state and country reopened. But they became less vocal as Texas saw a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the summer.

They renewed their calls on Friday as the state reports lower levels of COVID-19 spread. Cuellar said even if Texas and the U.S. move to reopen again, his proposal would still benefit communities.

“We’re talking about anybody who comes across will get screened,” he said. “Once you do that, then you actually know who’s coming in, and if they’re negative, then you know there’s no issue.”

Miguel Inclan, owner of La Sabrosita Paleteria & Snacks, said if it’s safe for tourists to travel through airports, they should be allowed through inland ports as well.

“This situation of the closed (pedestrian) bridges is unsustainable,” he said in spanish. “Nobody can cover their costs without the Mexican clients.”

Mike Marasco, owner of a local McDonald’s franchise, said his locations along I-35 and in downtown Laredo have been the hardest hit, and he fears more losses during the fall peak season.

“With our lower customers and lower sales, we don’t need to hire more people in our community,” he said. “We’ve lost over 100 positions within our organization because we haven’t had the need to rehire people.”

Edelmiro Martinez, owner of Emex Financial Services Casa de Cambio, has locations in seven cities along the border from Brownsville to El Paso. He said the impact has been felt all along the Texas border.

“If everything remains the same in the next three months, I think it’ll look like a cemetery,” he said in Spanish.


María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria. She is a corps member of Report For America.


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María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria