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El Paso’s small businesses breathe a sigh of relief at lifting of border travel restrictions

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ORALE, a discount clothing store on El Paso Street that sits just steps away from the Paso del Norte Bridge, has long-relied on foot traffic from Mexican consumers to stay afloat. Like many of the small retail stores in Downtown El Paso, news of a long-awaited end to border travel restrictions for vaccinated Mexican border crossers was warmly welcomed by the owners of the store on Wednesday.

The restrictions will be lifted next month, the Biden administration announced late Tuesday.

Owner Mimi Kye sighed loudly when asked if she was relieved at the news of lifted travel restrictions for vaccinated border crossers from Mexico.

“I’m very excited,” she said, gazing into a shop devoid of customers. El Paso Matters spoke with her husband, Jeong Ho Kye, in August 2020, who worried that the shop might not be able to survive without Mexican customers.

Mimi Kye, owner of ORALE clothing store in Downtown El Paso, is excited for border travel restrictions to be lifted. (René Kladzyk/ El Paso Matters)

But while ORALE was able to make it through 19 months of travel restrictions, other El Paso small businesses were not.

Jon Barela, CEO of Borderplex Alliance, said that over 45 small businesses in the Downtown area closed because of the border travel restrictions.

“The closure of the border to non-essential travelers cost our economy thousands of jobs,” he said. “The retail sector, the service sector and the restaurant industry were devastated by this shutdown in our area.”


Related: After 19 months, border crossing restrictions are coming to an end


Prior to the border closure, between 15% and 30% of retail trade in El Paso was attributed to Mexican citizens crossing to shop, Barela said.

But the extent to which businesses are reliant on Mexican customers is uneven, based partly on geography, and partly on the sector, he said.

“Clearly the businesses that were most impacted, devastated, were those closest to the border,” Barela said.

At Simple Mobile, a cell phone store on El Paso Street near the international bridge, Mexican consumers made up 80% of sales, according to shop owner Miguel Lara.

“I don’t know whether to believe (the news of the restrictions ending) or not,” he said. “It’s been really hard. It’s been hard for a year and a half.”

Although it may take time for researchers to determine the overall economic toll of the border closure, total losses linked to retail exports could amount to as much as $300 million, said Tom Fullerton, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“This is undeniably a good development for the borderplex. It’s going to help consumer households, it’s also going to help improve overall regional economic efficiency,” Fullerton said.

A vacant storefront in Downtown El Paso. (René Kladzyk/ El Paso Matters)

The El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce applauded the news in a statement by CEO Cindy Ramos-Davidson on Wednesday, calling it an “exciting step for El Paso small businesses.”

“The global pandemic … not only stalled and ended meaningful trade between our countries, but the restrictions on people crossing were detrimental to our border communities,” Ramos-Davidson said.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said in a statement the reopening was long overdue.

“There has been unnecessary economic and emotional stress with the decision to keep the borders closed for many months longer than required,” he said. “The inequality was outrageous.”

The announcement was celebrated by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, on Wednesday, who had called for the restrictions to be lifted sooner. She expressed optimism that the cross-border economy would bounce back, but expressed concerns for Downtown businesses that have already been shuttered.

“The one thing I am worried about of course is how long it will take some of our Downtown storefronts to reopen,” Escobar said. “They’ve been devastated, completely devastated. There’s a lot of storefronts that had to shut down. It may take a while for that to come back to life.”

Cover photo: Businesses in Downtown El Paso like those on El Paso Street were hit especially hard by border travel restrictions. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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