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A year into border restrictions over COVID-19, still no public plan for reopening

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By Lauren Villagran/El Paso Times

Ricardo Samaniego keeps a cartoon on his desk of four people in a sinking boat.

Two are frantically scooping out buckets of water on one side, while the other two kick back and one says, “I’m sure glad the hole isn’t at our end.”

As the Borderland faces the anniversary of one year of border restrictions tied to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the El Paso County judge says he thinks about that cartoon often. He sees the health of El Paso inextricably tied to the health of Juárez — and the fate of the border crossings, too.

“We’re in the same boat,” he said. “If they sink, we all sink.”

March 21 marks the anniversary of the restrictions on non-essential travel at land ports of entry — an unprecedented response to what has become a global disaster. A year in, even as Texas fully reopens its economy, there has been no publicly released plan to reopen the crossings to normal travel.

“I’m approaching 30 years in government service and I have never seen anything like this,” said Hector Mancha, El Paso field operations director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “What is the reopening of the borders going to look like? I hope it will be a phased approach.”

A line of cars heads north into El Paso from Ciudad Juárez. The border continues to be largely closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with only essential travel allowed.

The U.S. and Mexico are engaged in high-level talks regarding the shared, 2,000-mile border, according to officials on both sides of the border. 

Even as early as last summer, CBP leadership was speaking with field office authorities about eventual plans to reopen the border, Mancha said. But as the second and third waves of COVID-19 hit both sides of the border, discussions fell by the wayside.

“I’m very conscious that in the community we live in, the back-and-forth is a way of life,” Mancha said, “and we’ve taken that away from people — not CBP, but COVID. Moving forward, will it ever get back to the way it was pre-COVID? It won’t be something that occurs overnight. Everyone wants to go back to the way things used to be. But we need to be mindful of how serious COVID is.”

The U.S. border restrictions — initially put in place for 30 days and invariably renewed each month, a few days before their expiration — have been hard on binational communities, dividing families whose lives span the international divide and hurting businesses dependent on the cross-border traffic.

The restrictions permit only “essential” travel at land ports of entry, for work, school or medical purposes. 

In practice, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have been considered “essential” and have continued crossing by the hundreds of thousands. The restrictions have effectively prevented Mexican nationals holding tourist visas from crossing.

The Borderland is populated with families of mixed status, and relationships have become increasingly complicated with the border restrictions. 

Juarenses who care for elderly friends or family members can’t cross north. El Pasoans who wish to see parents or grandparents who are Mexican nationals must go to Juárez, because their loved ones can’t come to El Paso. Couples whose lives span the border have been separated from their partners; in some cases, parents from their children.

The restrictions have hit small businesses especially hard.

Holders of Mexican tourist visas previously crossed to shop in El Paso to supply businesses in Juárez, purchasing everything from wholesale shoes and clothing Downtown to used vehicles or loads of metal for to recycle and resell. That smaller scale commercial activity has been stopped by the restrictions.

Personal vehicle crossings in early March are down 37%, compared to the same point a year ago before the restrictions went into effect, Mancha said.

Almost a mile from the border, thousands of vehicles wait to cross into the United States from Ciudad Juárez before dawn on Sept. 23.

Cross-border traffic has been well below the norm for nearly a year, according to a compilation of data by the University of Texas at El Paso’s Border Region Modeling Project. 

Monthly average personal vehicle crossings hovered between 500,000 and 600,000 through the final three months of the year, down from a monthly average around 900,000 during the same period in 2019, according to the UTEP report.

“We do need a plan,” said Joe Heyman, director of the Center on Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. “We are definitely making progress on bringing COVID-19 under control. We need a plan for reopening all the things that we do in our lives.

“We certainly shouldn’t simply go into a situation where we close off relationships and movement on the basis of inertia — that this is a way of sliding into closing the border,” he said. “We need to think about how we recover, in terms of health but also in terms of society.”

Borderland pandemic timeline

No plan, no benchmarks

Border state representatives in Washington have been calling for months for a strategy to be made public regarding the return of normal operations at land ports of entry.

Back in October, a bipartisan group including Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Will Hurd, R-Helotes, asked the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a plan.

“DHS has provided little public insight into how it weighed the costs and benefits of these extended travel restrictions,” the coalition said in the letter.

“Furthermore, DHS has not publicly articulated a plan for returning to normal operations, or set forth any benchmarks that must be reached before the travel restrictions can be partially relaxed or completely lifted,” they said.

“While we understand that DHS is currently forced to adapt to a constantly-changing situation, all four southwest border states — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California — have developed phased reopening plans. DHS should develop the same type of plan to better provide local communities with a basic idea of what to expect in the coming months.”

According to Cornyn’s office, there still has been no response from DHS.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, has been advocating for a binational public health strategy that would treat the Borderland as a seamless community. She filed a bill this month, the Binational Health Strategies Act, updated from a previous version submitted last year.

“Mexico did not do a very good job of tracing or mitigating COVID,” Escobar said. “That was really troubling to me and everybody from the border. In the absence of a testing, contact tracing and mitigation plan, the border was shut down. It’s not good for our region.”

A young man crosses the Bridge of the Americas at sunrise in El Paso on Sept. 23.

H.R. 1538 asks for the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission, under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services, to develop a binational strategic plan that addresses COVID-19 in the Borderland “with a focus on testing, contact tracing and 18 other infection prevention and control measures.”

The bill also requests a plan for the U.S. to distribute the vaccine throughout the U.S.-Mexico border area, “taking into account the various vulnerable populations in the region.”

“It’s frustrating to have the border closed,” Escobar said. “Believe me, I wish that we had had a plan a year ago. We did not have an administration that was at all interested in that.”

HHS didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the border closure or the commission’s role in maintaining public health in the region.

Options for re-opening

Roberto Velasco, undersecretary for North America for Mexico’s foreign relations ministry, told the San Diego Union-Tribune last month that the U.S. and Mexico are already working together on a plan.

Mexico has never broadly closed its ports of entry to southbound traffic, including to U.S. citizens. But the country has gone along with the U.S. closures, even announcing the ongoing restrictions on Twitter ahead of DHS.

Velasco said that, each month, the two countries review pandemic data in the border states and make a decision about whether to continue restrictions at land ports of entry.

“We still don’t have this plan at a point where we can release it publicly,” he told the Union-Tribune.

“But yes, one of the options that is being analyzed is what this gradual reopening could consist of, if it could be by stages, by localities or by states, etc. There are distinct options that are being evaluated.”

Merchants try to sell items to drivers entering the U.S. through the Bridge of the Americas in Ciudad Juárez.

President Joe Biden underscored cooperation with Mexico in his first bilateral video-call meeting with Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“There’s a long and complicated history between our nations, and haven’t always been perfect neighbors with one another, but we have seen over and over again the power and the purpose when we cooperate,” Biden said.

“And we’re safer when we work together, whether it’s addressing the challenges of our shared border or getting this pandemic under control,” he said.

In the meantime, as border residents await news, Samaniego said local authorities are doing what they can to cooperate and share information.

A contingent from the Chihuahua state health authority crossed the border on official business recently: They came to see how El Paso city and county health authorities are now jointly managing the vaccine distribution.

“What I would like to see is that we share best practices with Juárez and Chihuahua,” Samaniego said.

“The answer is not closing the borders,” he said. “The answer is treating this like a region.”

Lauren Villagran can be reached at lvillagran@elpasotimes.com.

Cover photo: The Rio Grande with three international bridges crossing from Juárez (left) to El Paso: The train bridge or “Puente Negro,” the Paso del Norte Bridge, and the Stanton Street Bridge. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Puente News Collaborative

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.

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