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Pandemic border crossing restrictions will end in November

The Paso del Norte Bridge seen from Ciudad Juárez’s Presidencia Municipal, with New Mexico’s Mount Cristo Rey in the background.
Corrie Boudreaux
El Paso Matters
The Paso del Norte Bridge seen from Ciudad Juárez’s Presidencia Municipal, with New Mexico’s Mount Cristo Rey in the background.

The U.S. will lift pandemic travel restrictions at international bridges and border crossings next month, reopening the border to fully vaccinated individuals. This ends a nearly 19-month shutdown that kept people from visiting relatives and hurt U.S. businesses that relied on shoppers from Mexico.

“This is wonderful news, long-awaited news and long-overdue news,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso.

The U.S., Mexico, and Canada restricted travel across land border crossings in March of 2020 for essential reasons including work, medical care and education.

Texas businesses at the border that depend on customers from Mexico including those in south El Paso just steps from international bridges have seen sales plummet since shopping is not among the essential reasons to visit.

"Our region’s business community applauds this overdue first step in the right direction," said Jon Barela, CEO of The Borderplex Alliance, an organization promoting economic development in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region.

“Mexican nationals comprise 15% to 30% of retail customers in the Borderplex region,” Barela said. “This decision will help boost our regional and national economies and help return our inextricably linked community to some degree of normalcy.”

In the El Paso area alone, visitors from Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Northern Mexico account for an estimated $1.3 billion a year in retail sales according to theBorderplex Business Barometer from University of Texas at El Paso.

The economic benefits and losses extend well beyond the border in Texas. People drive up from Monterrey to San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Houston to shop, attend concerts and sporting events including Cowboy games. Visitors spend money on hotels and restaurants.

The has also been a social cost for residents with relatives on both sides of the border who not been able to see loved ones for more than a year and half.

It’s the heartache that many of our families have endured, keeping folks apart. Having folks miss birthdays, anniversaries, holidays,” said Escobar.

Maria Patricia Mitre has missed lots of those special events including her granddaughter’s baptism.

“It’s been devastating," said Mitre.

The last time she crossed from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso was in February of 2020. She helped raise her grandson, 9, and pick him up at school and was not present for his events including earning his yellow belt in Karate.

Even as the border remained closed to non-essential travel she held out hope restrictions would be lifted in time for the holidays “such an important time dedicated to being with loved ones, family,” said Mitre.

She’s fully vaccinated and eager to see her family. Mitre has kept in touch via video calls and enjoys occasional visits from her daughter who is a U.S. citizen and has been able to cross back and forth.

Border travel restrictions have not been enforced equally by the U.S. and Mexican governments. While U.S. authorities have stopped Mexican nationals from visiting, Mexico has allowed many from the U.S. side across for non-essential reasons. Since U.S. citizens and legal residents cannot be stopped from returning home to the United States, people have been going back and forth.

And people have been flying in and out of Mexico for months now for vacations. Border residents questioned why fully vaccinated Mexican citizens with travel documents could not not walk or drive across an international bridge to visit relatives or shop.

The opening of land border crossings to fully vaccinated visitors from Mexico and Canada coincides with new international rules for people flying into the United States

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced the decision was based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts.

“Cross-border travel creates significant economic activity in our border communities and benefits our broader economy. We are pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner,” said Mayorkas.

The border will reopen in early November according to DHS but did not give an exact date.

It’s not clear if it will be in time for the Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — holiday on Nov. 2, when families reunite to remember their departed relatives.

Whenever it happens, a fully vaccinated Mitre is eager to see her family in El Paso in person.

“It’s been very hard, devastating not being able to hug each other,” she said.

This story was produced by KTEP.