TORNILLO — In the first Texas-based binational effort to vaccinate Mexican workers from U.S.-owned companies, more than 1,400 Juárez factory workers were vaccinated against coronavirus with unused Texas vaccines Tuesday.

The launch of a cross-border vaccination effort focusing on maquiladora workers has an ultimate goal of inoculating up to 50,000 workers in a city that has struggled to access vaccines, said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, who spearheaded the effort.

“Herd immunity in one place and not the other doesn’t make sense” in communities like El Paso and Ciudad Juaréz, which are so interconnected, Samaniego said.

The vaccination site inside the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry can distribute vaccines for up to 2,500 workers a day, according to Roger Esparza, chief of the county’s Emergency Services District #2, which is coordinating the effort. The county aims to vaccinate the 50,000 workers as soon as possible, as some of the vaccines are set to expire within a week, Samaniego said.

A bus shuttles Juárez maquiladora workers to an El Paso County-run vaccination site inside the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in Tornillo July 6, 2021.

Samaniego also feels the pressure of the looming July 21 deadline, the date through which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has closed the U.S.-Mexico land border to all but essential workers and U.S. citizens. Whether the DHS will extend the closure — which has been in place since March 2020 — remains to be seen given low vaccination rates in Mexico’s northern border states.

Both the county judge and El Paso’s congresswoman hope this effort will lead to the reopening of the border.

“The separation created by border closures has been devastating,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said during Tuesday’s launch. “It’s devastated families, it’s devastated our binational communities, it’s devastated our economy.”

Index Juárez, a maquiladora industry association, is paying to operate the site, which is estimated at $500,000, Samaniego said. The figure does not include the cost of the vaccines, which the Texas Department of State Health Services is providing at no charge, he said.

“They’re sitting there,” Samaniego said of the 50,000 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine that DSHS Commissioner Imelda Garcia guaranteed for the effort. 

“In essence, we’re helping the state because they too would be embarrassed to say that they weren’t able to move them,” he said.

A maquiladora worker from Juárez gets the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine inside the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in Tornillo July 6, 2021.

El Paso, like the rest of Texas, has seen the demand for vaccines slow from April’s peak. To date, nearly 66% of El Paso County residents age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to DSHS figures. Nearly 42% of Texas’ population is fully vaccinated.

Across the border, less than 30% of Juárez residents had been vaccinated against the virus as of June 30, the Dallas Morning News reported.

The city of nearly 1.5 million people has been hit hard by the virus, with more than 3,700 confirmed deaths to date, according to figures from the Chihuahua state government. But the number might be even higher given Mexico’s reporting inaccuracies on the current death toll.

Juárez is home to hundreds of maquiladora assembly plants, many of which are owned by U.S. companies. American executives pressured Mexico to reopen these plants early in the pandemic.

About a third of Juárez’s 320,000 maquiladora workers have been vaccinated through federal efforts, Fabiola Luna, Index Juárez president said Tuesday. Texas’ donated vaccines would cover about a quarter of the remaining workers.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego speaks during a press conference for the launch of a county-led effort to vaccinate 50,000 maquiladora workers July 6, 2021. (Molly Smith/El Paso Matters)

Samaniego’s idea for the Tornillo port of entry vaccination site was inspired by a similar program in San Diego. That effort was far smaller however, and reached 10,000 maquiladora workers in Tijuana, he said.

The judge plans to reach out to his counterparts along the Texas border, including Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, to encourage them to replicate the vaccination program at their ports of entry. It’s unknown whether the state health agency would be willing to allocate more unused vaccines for similar efforts.

DSHS spokesperson Lara Anton said the agency has distributed all of the remaining Johnson & Johnson doses in its inventory.

Escobar said she wants the federal government, rather than county officials, to take charge of future binational vaccination efforts.

“My focus is getting this on a federal scale so that communities don’t have to scramble, use their resources and their time and energy on doing what I believe should be federal international functions,” she said.

René Kladzyk contributed to this report.

Cover photo: El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego speaks during a press conference for the launch of a county-led effort to vaccinate 50,000 Juárez maquiladora workers July 6, 2021. (Photos courtesy El Paso County)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.