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Border & Immigration

More Essential Travelers Are Crossing The Border Than Migrants As Frustration Grows Over Pandemic Restrictions

The border crossing from Laredo, Texas, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Kainaz Amaria / NPR
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The border crossing from Laredo, Texas, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

In normal times, Texas border cities bustle with movement, and people regularly cross for work, school, family or shopping.

But since the coronavirus pandemic began, two big policies — adopted under the Trump administration and continued under President Joe Biden — have dramatically changed life along the border.

First, new restrictions blocked nonessential travel across the U.S.’s borders under agreements with Mexico and Canada. Second, migrants, including those seeking asylum, were quickly turned away under a 1944 public health code known as Title 42. Now, the two policies have come to a head as border communities try to return to normalcy.

It’s been over a year since shopping trips to the U.S. or visits with family across the Rio Grande were halted for Mexican nationals. Today, they’re only allowed to cross the border for reasons deemed essential such as work, education or health care.

“So that’s what we’re seeing: undocumented people coming in but the legal visa holders aren’t coming in,” Congressman Henry Cuellar told reporters earlier this month.

The Laredo Democrat is referring to policy changes seen under Biden that have allowed some asylum seekers to enter the U.S. To clarify, it’s not just anyone — these people are legally making their way through the U.S. immigration system.

Still, for some border residents, the optics don’t look great. And while the travel restrictions haven’t applied to U.S. citizens or permanent residents, the economic effects are straining the historic ties between border communities and the migrants they welcome every year.

“Quite honest, I don’t think they even know this dynamic, and I would venture to say resentment, that we’re starting to see,” Cuellar said of the federal government. “They need to get a pulse of the border community.”

That pulse was visible at a recent border roundtable with Republican Sen. John Cornyn, where some border leaders, including Eagle Pass mayor Luis Sifuentes, raised concerns about the travel restrictions.

Before more migrants are allowed into the country, “they need to let our neighbors come over and do a little spending so our economy can get back on track,” Sifuentes told officials at the meeting.

This tension though, according to immigration attorney Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, comes from a big oversimplification of the situation. He said Americans should remember that entering the U.S. is the legal way to seek asylum, as outlined by law right now.

“And while it's important to note again that these border restrictions are keeping families apart and are preventing people with visas from coming to the United States, in many situations, those individuals are not fleeing harm, or desperately seeking safety,” said Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel for the American Immigration Council.

In the past, migrants could enter the U.S. and claim asylum at ports of entry at border bridges. But those ports remain closed to nonessential travel, resulting in more people crossing through other areas.

Still, less than 25,000 families and unaccompanied children have crossed the border each month, Reichlin-Melnick said, and many don’t get a chance to legally pursue asylum.

“The vast majority of people, 72% of all people who crossed in February, were expelled back across the border without any chance to seek protection or indeed, any of the rights that they're entitled to under the law,” he said.

By comparison, he estimates almost 9 million people crossed the Southern border for essential travel in December, according to data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics of trucks, pedestrians and passengers on busses, personal vehicles and trains.

That’s about 50% less than December 2019, but still far greater than the number of asylum seekers allowed in.

Biden also reiterated last week that he will continue to turn away most migrant families and will instead focus on helping unaccompanied migrant children.

So, what should be done? Experts say there’s no clear answer.

“There's a little solid guidance out there to tell governments what they should do at any given time when it comes to border measures, during a pandemic that has lasted this long,” said Catherine Worsnop, an assistant professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

She helped conduct a systematic review of studies on cross-border health measures in China with the Pandemics & Borders Project, a coalition of researchers funded by a grant awarded under the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

She said research on the U.S. is limited, but their work highlighted the importance of international and domestic policies that are consistent for all people wanting to cross borders.

“The clearest way to avoid … you know, the ‘othering’ type of social harm is to adopt uniform policies. So, for instance, Hong Kong requires that anybody entering is, is tested and quarantined,” she said.

While some asylum seekers are required to get COVID tested before entering the country, Americans and foreigners crossing for essential travel are not.

This was also true for air travel, which is not limited to essential travel, until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in early January that flight passengers would need to present a negative test before boarding flights.

“It actually may be the case that these more targeted policies that try to single out certain communities, you know, may actually be leaving the gaps in our system,” Worsnop said.

That’s probably not comforting to border residents whose cities have been devastated by COVID-19 outbreaks and a huge loss of business from their Mexican neighbors.

“Why are they discriminating against land bridges?” Congressman Henry Cuellar said. “Before the pandemic, 18 million Mexicans would come to the U.S. and spend over $19 billion dollars. So for us on the border, we’ve been hit twice, one by COVID and the lack of Mexican shoppers.”

Cuellar has proposed a plan to allow each border community to choose whether to reopen to nonessential travel, but it wasn’t implemented by the Trump administration and hasn’t been picked up by Biden.

Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar of El Paso filed legislation to strengthen coordination between the U.S. and Mexico in combating COVID-19 and has also asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to work with her to develop a plan for the border to reopen.

For now, it remains closed to nonessential travel and most migrants.

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