A Mexican chartered plane waits to clear customs at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection air facility at El Paso International Airport. (KVIA-ABC 7 photo)
By JC Navarette/ABC-7

For nearly two years, land borders between Mexico and the United States have been closed to all non-essential travel. Air borders between the countries, though, have fallen in a grey area — with private planes and chartered flights touching down every day in El Paso.

“This is a direct route and the closest port of entry for some of these travelers is El Paso, in Chihuahuas’ case, instead of flying directly to Las Vegas, it will be quicker and faster if they stop here and then continue on their journey (to) clear customs here,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief Angel Hernandez said.

More than 8,600 international passengers and crew were processed from private flights to El Paso International Airport in 2021, according to CBP data, which is a 67% increase compared to 5,100 passengers processed in 2020. El Paso often becomes a pit stop for the rich and famous. Hernandez said some flights this fiscal year also brought Mexican nationals seeking the COVID-19 vaccine.

Mexican nationals have been heavily restricted from crossing the U.S. border since March 2020, part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Crossings were permitted for a limited set of “essential” purposes. But people from Mexico arriving by air — whether on commercial or private flights — have not faced such restrictions.

The restrictions on land crossings will be lifted Nov. 8 for people with proper travel documents and proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

Much like CBP inspects vehicles and foot traffic, officers at the agency inspect planes, passengers and their luggage.

“We do have an x-ray machine, we do have a K9 at our disposal, those are all tools that we use for a layered approach to inspect any kind of conveyance in this particular situation it happens to be private aircraft,” Hernandez said.

CBP officers get a clear picture of who they are dealing with when it comes to private planes. Officers receive a roster of who is on board, making it a safer encounter than those at the bridges.

Almost 9,000 travelers from Mexico went through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at El Paso International Airport in the past year. (KVIA-ABC 7 photo)

“At the land border, we don’t know the person, they come right up to the officer at the land border. Here, we are given a one-hour notification of what the conveyance is and who the passengers are on that particular vessel,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said CBP’s commitment to secure borders remains the same whether it be land or air.

“That is what our officers do each and every day at the land border, at the rail, at the airport. … you see everyone that is our mission to foster trade through legitimate trade and travel,” Hernandez said.

Cover photo: A Mexican chartered plane waits to clear customs at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection air facility at El Paso International Airport. (KVIA-ABC 7 photo)

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