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Border & Immigration

Laredo Leaders Remain Concerned, But Hopeful After The Latest Extension Of Travel Restrictions

Cars stand in line at the Cordova International Bridge at the Mexico-U.S. border to enter into El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez
Jose Luis Gonzalez
Cars stand in line at the Cordova International Bridge at the Mexico-U.S. border to enter into El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico August 24, 2020.

Laredo officials had been preparing for an easing of restrictions this week. The restrictions have been a blow to the city's budget and small businesses.

Despite Texas communities’ efforts to reopen the border, restrictions against nonessential travel will remain for another month.

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, announced Monday on Twitter that the restrictions will continue through Nov. 21. The restrictions have limited cross-border travel since late March to those deemed essential, such as those in trade, education, health care, the military or diplomatic work.

“Every day that the bridges remain closed, especially to the nonessential is significant for us financially,” Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said in response on Monday. “We will continue to press and advocate for the opening, especially when the numbers indicate that we’ve been responsible and we’re reading for the bridges to open.”

The news came after border communities had been preparing for a potential reopening of the border with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

On Friday, Laredo officials released health guidelines for cross-border visitors and shoppers. But a few hours later, the office of Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs made their request public for the restrictions to be extended.

Congressman Henry Cuellar said he was disappointed the restrictions weren’t eased this week but that he found hope in Wolf’s announcement, which said DHS is “working closely with Mexico and Canada to identify safe criteria to ease the restrictions in the future and support our border communities.”

“Which is the first time I’ve seen a tweet from the secretary to say ‘and support our border communities,’ so I think they heard it,” he said on Monday. “They heard what we’ve been talking about.”

The Democratic Congressman and Laredo city leaders traveled to Mexico City earlier this month to discuss the restrictions, and they sent letters to DHS officials along with Sen. John Cornyn and members of the congressional border delegation.

Officials said they will continue planning for a possible reopening next month. If that doesn't happen, they fear that cities and businesses will lose out on the holiday shopping season.

“And not just for the City of Laredo,” City Manager Robert Eads said. “Remember, we are the front door for the state of Texas and the United States for that matter. As the restrictions are held up, the state of Texas does not get a benefit out of their crossing either.”

The restrictions have also strained border cities’ budgets.

“We pretty much have this revenue baked into all of our budgets,” Eads said. “We don’t get the benefit out of sales tax. We don’t get the benefit out of hotel-motel tax, and then that has long term effects to us as well... We’ve cut to the bone to make sure our city remains providing the necessary services.”

That was evident at the Laredo City Council meeting Monday night, where Eads warned council members against reopening park playscapes because the Parks Department’s staff and budget were slashed by $1 million to balance the city’s budget.

“While our retail sales have shrunk, the city continues to operate like a mid-size city,” said Economic Development Director Teclo J. Garcia. “That’s one of our primary concerns about the restrictions being in place. The other primary concern is the impact on small business owners here in Laredo.”

Through the CARES Act, Garcia said the City of Laredo has been able to give out about $1.1 million in grants to 71 small businesses.

“But keep in mind there’s thousands of small businesses in Laredo, and we’re only able to help a certain amount,” he said.

The city is working on distributing more in the coming weeks, and the state of Texas is also now allowing Laredo businesses to expand their capacity up 75% after the area’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate dropped to less than 15%.

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Corrected: October 26, 2020 at 5:30 PM CDT
A previous version of this story included an incorrect number of small business in Laredo that received CARES act grants. The correct number of businesses is 71.