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Mexican Neighbors May Soon Cross Texas Land Ports Again

REUTERS/Veronica G. Cardenas
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents oversee the travellers going into the country at the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, in March 2021.

For two centuries, Deep South Texas and Northern Tamaulipas have blended into one region that shares much in common culturally and even more economically. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of international neighbors commuted between countries every day. Many commuted for work, school, shopping or to visit family — from South to North and from North to South.

All this was made possible by the 28 international bridges that connect Texas to its longtime number one trading partner — Mexico. But on March 20, 2020, travel by foreign nationals from Mexico and other countries into the United States came to an abrupt halt.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in a joint initiative with Mexico and Canada, blocked land entry for anyone who “potentially poses a health risk.” This included what DHS defined as “non-essential travel” by foreign nationals with valid travel visas — such as tourism, shopping and family visits.

Since March 2020, the travel ban was renewed every 30 days, including by the Biden administration in 2021.

For some families with members living on either side of the border, face to face contact stopped completely. For small and large businesses, revenue dropped dramatically.

“It has affected every business here in Hidalgo,” said Gloria Alvarez, general manager of the Grand Mercado General Store, which is situated within view of the Reynosa International Bridge. “We’ve survived from sales to locals here, but more than half our business has been gone since the restrictions. We’re not sure how much longer we can go.”

For the Texas-Mexico border, international traffic over land ports represents more than $19 billion a year and 650,000 jobs. Some studies have estimated that up to 45% of retail sales in border regions like the Rio Grande Valley comes from Mexican nationals.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez toldBorder Report in April that “there seems to be a disconnect in the thinking in Washington.”

Cortez criticized the federal government for keeping visa holders out as it allowed undocumented migrants into the country. But while some undocumented migrants remain in the United States for processing, many — including credible asylum seekers — faced expulsion.

The National Immigration Justice Center said in a statement on border restrictions that “the border closure perpetuates racist stereotypes about migrants and asylum seekers. The U.S. has a dark history of weaponizing public health to advance anti-immigrant views. In the 1980s, the U.S. imposed an immigration ban on individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Like today, the government ignored the elephant in the room: that the U.S. had the largest outbreak anywhere in the world.”

Coalitions of border mayors, county judges, chambers of commerce, and other officials reached out directly to DHS multiple times in the past year to petition for a reversal of these land port restrictions.

“We’ve been pushing extremely hard,” said Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar — whose district includes parts of the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo. “I've been pushing on this issue since last year. We almost had it open under Commissioner Mark Morgan. And we're continuing not only to write letters, but I've talked to the Homeland Security Secretary twice about this. I’ve talked to the White House about this. I've talked to Marcelo Ebrard, the Foreign Minister of Mexico. I've talked to the CDC about this. I've talked to Dr. Anthony Fauci about this.”

Cuellar said that response from DHS was limited for months, but that is changing. He told TPR on Friday that he believed the land port restrictions may finally come to an end.

“There are indications that probably in the next 30 days, maybe 45 days, we might see something happen,” he explained.

In late spring 2021, the Biden administration ended the "Remain In Mexico" policy. In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the policy did not enhance border management. The reversal came only days after the administration ended family separation for illict border crossings.

In June 2021, the United States began to ship vaccines that the Biden administration promised in May to share with other countries, including Mexico. That could make the biggest difference to land port restrictions, which are based on health safety concerns.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday that his government planned to use 1 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine along the border as part of an effort to fully reopen border crossings.

“There is going to be a special vaccination plan in the border communities of our country on the northern border, with the aim of getting border transportation back to normal,” López Obrador said.

Ebrard, Mexico's foreign minister, said in a news conference on Friday that “the Johnson & Johnson doses will be used to vaccinate those between 18 and 40 in Mexico’s border area with the United States. This area comprises 39 municipalities.”

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz told theLaredo Morning Times that “as it stands now, after an abrupt extension by Mexican Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, the bridge closure is expected to end on June 21.”

He added that he approached a possible reopening of land ports to foreign nationals with caution. He feared appropriate health screenings may not be in place by that time.

“If we don’t or if Washington doesn’t come up with a plan shortly to address this, then we will be inundated by migrants,” Saenz told the Laredo Morning Times. “And, of course, the COVID situation is still a very big part of what we are dealing with.”

Texas-Mexico border counties are now seeing some of the highest vaccination rates in the state. A third of all counties performing above average in vaccinations across Texas are on the border. Most counties on the border have currently vaccinated between 40% and 50% of their residents.

The expected change in land port restrictions also comes amid a recent disaster declaration on the border by Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor attributed “an ongoing and imminent threat of widespread and severe damage and threats to public health” to recent increases in migration, which border leaders described as a political move by the Republican governor.

Related | On The Texas-Mexico Border, Gov. Abbott’s Disaster Declaration Rings Political

Despite concerns, border leaders and their communities were mostly eager to see the restrictions lifted.

“My greater concern is President Biden’s continued closure of our ports of entry that are having negative consequences on our community,” Cortez said in a recent public statement. “Gov. Abbott’s pressure against the Biden administration would be much more welcome in the form of calling for these ports of entry to be reopened so that the free flow of trade can begin to return to normal.”

“It's about time,” Cuellar said. “We need to help these small businesses. And the economy.”

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Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.