Texas border communities welcome reopening after 20 months of travel restrictions
Ports of entry along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada will reopen in November to “non-essential travel,” which includes tourism, shopping and visits to see friends and family.
The borders have been closed to Mexican and Canadian nationals seeking to cross for those reasons since March 2020. In less than a month, they will open again to those who are fully vaccinated.
For Texas, the reopening will mean a return of commerce and tourism for hundreds of thousands of daily border travelers across the 28 international bridges that connect the state to its Number 1 trading partner: Mexico.
Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose district includes Laredo, the Rio Grande Valley and southern San Antonio, said on a press call Wednesday that the closure massively impacted many border residents’ lives — including those in his hometown of Laredo.
“We talked to some of the people down there that depended on 40, 50, even 60% of their business came in from Mexico. So you got a pandemic, and then you had the customers taken away. So it was a double whammy that came in,” Cuellar said.
In a letter to DHS in May, the Texas Border Coalition — made up of dozens of government and community leaders across the border region — projected $19 billion of lost revenues per year due to the restrictions in place for the last 20 months. The U.S.-Mexico border is the busiest land border in the world, with more than one million people crossing every day before the pandemic struck.
The restrictions also took a toll on small family owned businesses.
“We’re eager for the bridge to open, and it’s been almost two years of this. We really need the people,” said Jacquelina Garcia, general manager of Casa Bella, a home goods retail store with a view of the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge.
Garcia said that over the past year, the business has barely survived. It has kept its doors open by offering rock bottom wholesale prices.
“What has sustained the business is the wholesale buyers. Either from here in the Rio Grande Valley or a few people who are American and live in Reynosa and they come to purchase here to sell to those still in Mexico,” she explained.
The lifting of the travel restrictions will also mean the reunion of binational families separated for more than a year and a half across the two countries.
Throughout the pandemic, Cynthia Sakulenzki, CEO of the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, received calls about reopening the border.
She said many people on both sides of the border have seen COVID afflict their relatives, and they had no way to grieve with each other.
“There's just so many people that are on this side of the border and that side of the border that have family on either side and that need to be able to feel the warmth, the handshake, the hug of their family members that they haven't been able to see in months and months,” Sakulenzki said.
Elizabeth, who asked TPR to use her first name because of her family’s citizenship status in the U.S., has lived and worked in the Mexican border town of Camargo, just across from Rio Grande City, since travel restrictions were put into place. She was thrilled when she heard that travel restrictions would finally be lifted.
“We watched the announcement on television and Facebook,” she added. “I’m so emotional, so happy, because I’ll finally be able to see my family after such a long time that the bridge has been closed.”
She said she has been separated from her family for the last 20 months, and she is already making plans for the first day they’ll be able to see each other again.
“We’re going to our favorite restaurant to see each other. It’s been a long time that I haven’t seen them.”
Local officials in the Rio Grande Valley are also welcoming the change.
Eddie Treviño Jr., the Cameron County judge and chair of the Austin-based Texas Border Coalition, said that he worked since last year to reopen the bridges connecting communities on both sides of the border.
“We're very, very pleased with the announcement. It's something that we've been advocating for almost a year now. And we're glad that it's finally happening,” he said. “We wish it would have happened a lot sooner. But at least, as they say, better late than never.”
Treviño explained the bridge system in Cameron County operates three ports of entry, which have seen a loss of just under $14 million since the travel restrictions were put in place. American Rescue Plan Act funds have kept the system afloat.
“The reality is that we’d prefer that we’d be generating those funds through operations,” Treviño said, referring to the ARPA funds. “And maybe use (ARPA) for a lot of other different projects.”
Officials are also bracing for a shift in protocols because people seeking entry must provide proof of full vaccination from any vaccines approved by the U.S. or World Health Organization.
This will include vaccines contracted by Mexico and supplied by AstraZeneca/Oxford and CureVac, among many others. With nine different vaccines in its portfolio, Mexico has the most emergency use authorizations in the world. In June, the U.S. sent Mexico 1 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines specifically for use on the border. Those doses have been administered.
Essential travelers crossed landports throughout the pandemic, like truck drivers and students, will also be required to show proof of full vaccination status starting in January.
“We were having some vaccination drives in coordination with the maquila industry to get them and their employees vaccinated. So we hope that those investments will hopefully bear some fruits,” Treviño explained. “And if we need to continue to do that, we're going to investigate the possibility of having vaccination centers or clinics available either at the ports of entry or in some form or fashion to coordinate with CBP.”
The non-essential travel restrictions were based on a part of the U.S. Health Code called Title 19, one of two health codes enacted by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Biden administration will continue its use of another part of the health code, Title 42, to expel asylum-seeking migrants arriving at the border.