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 United States will lift pandemic travel restrictions at border crossings with Mexico next month, reopening the border to fully vaccinated individuals and ending a virtual shutdown that separated families and hurt 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 United States, Mexico and Canada have limited travel across land border crossings for only essential reasons including work, medical care and education since March 2020.

“In alignment with the new international air travel system that will be implemented in November, we will begin allowing travelers from Mexico and Canada who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to enter the United States for non-essential purposes, including to visit friends and family or for tourism, via land and ferry border crossings,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “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.”

The border economy has suffered. Businesses in South El Paso that depend on customers from Mexico have seen sales plummet since shopping is not considered an essential reason to cross into the United States.

“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 about $1.3 billion a year in retail sales according to the Borderplex Business Barometer from University of Texas at El Paso.

Additionally, residents with relatives on both sides of the border have faced social costs. They have not been able to see loved ones for more than a year and half since visiting family members is not considered essential.

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

Maria Patricia Mitre of Ciudad Juárez has missed lots of those special events, including her granddaughter’s baptism. “It’s been devastating,” Mitre said.

The last time she crossed from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso was in February 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,” Mitre said.

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. 

The border will reopen in November, though an exact date hasn’t been announced. It’s unclear if the reopening will come in time for Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead holiday celebrated on Nov. 2. It appears likely families will be able to reunite for Thanksgiving and Christmas in El Paso as well as Ciudad Juárez.

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.

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 United States across for non-essential reasons.

And since U.S. citizens and legal residents cannot be stopped from returning home to the United States, they have been able to travel back and forth since the restrictions were announced.

Beginning in November, fully vaccinated travelers from Mexico or Canada can enter the United States at land and ferry ports of entry for non-essential reasons. Travelers will be required to have appropriate paperwork that provides proof of vaccination, officials said. Individuals who have not been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 will not be allowed to travel for non-essential purposes from Canada and Mexico into the United States.

The change will not immediately impact people who have been crossing for purposes deemed essential. That will change in January, when the United States will require that all inbound foreign national travelers crossing U.S. land or ferry ports of entry — whether for essential or non-essential reasons — be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and provide related proof of vaccination.

Cover photo: 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)

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners....