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What to know when border crossings reopen to ‘non-essential’ traffic on Nov. 8

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By Lauren Villagran/El Paso Times

At midnight on Monday, Nov. 8, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security lifts the restrictions to “non-essential” traffic at the U.S.-Mexico border.

That means that Mexican nationals with a valid border crossing card will able to return to El Paso and other U.S. border communities to shop and visit friends and family for the first time in 20 months.

Here’s what you need to know.

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Does the change affect U.S. citizens or lawful residents?

No. The pandemic travel restrictions on non-essential travel didn’t apply to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, who were considered “essential” under the rules regardless of their reason for crossing the border. 

When the restrictions lift, who is eligible to cross the border?

U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents can continue to cross the border for any reason, without proof of vaccination. Mexicans with a valid border crossing card, also known as a B1/B2 visa, will be able to cross if they can show proof they have been fully vaccinated.

Foreign nationals, including Mexican citizens, should be aware that the restrictions will be modified in two phases: 

  • Phase 1: The first phase will go into effect Nov. 8 and allows fully vaccinated foreign nationals with valid travel documents to enter the U.S. for non-essential reasons, including people who hold a B1/B2 visa. Unvaccinated travelers can still only cross the border for essential purposes.
  • Phase 2: During the second phase that will begin in early January — DHS hasn’t announced a date — foreign nationals will be able to cross the border for both essential and non-essential reasons only if they have been fully vaccinated.

There will be no testing requirements in either phase.

Who can apply for a B1/B2 visa or border crossing card?

Border crossing cards are available to Mexican citizens who reside in Mexico and meet certain qualifications, including proof of ties to Mexico such as property ownership or a steady job.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the Borderland hold a B1/B2 visa, which can be used to cross the border regularly to shop or for tourism, to conduct business meetings or to visit family and friends. Mexicans with a border crossing card can travel freely through the border zone, which differs depending on the state:

  • California within 25 miles of the border
  • Arizona within 75 miles of the border
  • New Mexico within 55 miles of the border or up to Interstate 10, whichever is farther north
  • Texas within 25 miles of the border.

The border crossing card doesn’t permit holders to work in the United States.

People shop on South El Paso Street in Downtown El Paso on Oct. 13. (Vic Kolenc/El Paso Times)

What if my visa expired during the pandemic?

The Department of State, which issues border crossing cards at consulates in Mexico, has been operating on a limited basis through the pandemic. Wait times for all but “emergency” applications have risen significantly as a result. At the U.S. Consulate in Juárez, the next-available appointments for B1/B2 visa renewal are in late 2022 and early 2023.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and consulates in Mexico “have resumed limited processing of non-immigrant visas,” which include the B1/B2, a State Department spokesperson told the Times in an emailed response to questions.

“Applicants should expect a longer-than-normal wait time for their services and plan accordingly,” the spokesperson said. “Applicants applying in the same visa class and whose previous visa expired within the last 48 months may be eligible for interview waiver,” meaning the process will mimic a visa renewal even if the visa is expired.

Which vaccines will the U.S. accept?

Homeland Security hasn’t released its final guidance, but if the land border rules follow the new air travel system’s lead, foreign nationals should be able to cross with vaccines that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or World Health Organization. These include: 

  • Pfizer/BioNTech
  • Moderna
  • Janssen (Johnson & Johnson)
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca/Covishield
  • Sinopharm
  • Sinovac

It’s not clear whether travelers who have received mixed doses will be able to enter the U.S., but officials said the CDC is “working through” that question for both land and air travel.

COVID-19 restrictions have greatly reduced crossings at the Paso del Norte Bridge linking El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Matters)

Unanswered questions

Here’s what we don’t know about the policy implementation:

  • Which documentation will be deemed acceptable proof of vaccination
  • Whether CBP will capture vaccination status at first crossing or whether travelers will have to carry proof of vaccination each time they cross
  • How children 12 to 17, who are eligible for vaccination in the U.S., but haven’t had access in Mexico, will be treated when traveling with a vaccinated guardian
  • Whether the U.S. government will accept vaccines made by drugmakers other than Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson
  • How the U.S. will handle pent-up demand for renewal of border crossing cards after more than a year of limited service at U.S. consulates in Mexico
  • How CBP will handle staffing as vehicle and pedestrian traffic increases after Nov. 8.

The El Paso Times and Puente News Collaborative have sent these and other questions to Homeland Security, CBP and the Department of State and will report answers as soon as additional guidance becomes available.

This story will be updated as additional guidance becomes available.

USA Today contributed to this report.

Cover photo: A sign displays the peso exchange rate outside a money exchange store on South El Paso Street in Downtown El Paso on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Vic Kolenc/El Paso Times)

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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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