Along the border, residents and businesses are counting the days until the pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted, allowing all fully vaccinated visitors to cross into the United States on Nov. 8.
“We’re all excited that they’re going to open the bridges because it’s the perfect time of the year,” said Samuel Lara, an employee at Simple Mobile, a South El Paso store about half a block from the international bridge.
“Eighty percent of our customers are from Mexico,” he said “We lost hours. We lost money.”
Many, like Lara, are hoping the holiday season will help them recover losses suffered since March 2020, when global concerns about rapidly spreading COVID-19 led to the ban of all but essential travel. People were allowed to cross the border for jobs, school or medical reasons. But authorities did not consider shopping and visiting relatives essential.
The move mostly kept Mexican citizens with border crossing cards or visas from visiting since U.S. citizens and legal residents who crossed into Mexico could not be prevented from returning home if they went to Ciudad Juárez.
The result: Businesses that depend on customers from Mexico suffered losses long after the Texas economy reopened because the border remained closed to non-essential travel.
“Bridge pedestrian traffic was decreased by about two thirds,” said Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the El Paso Downtown Management District. The economic organization includes 110 blocks of Downtown south of 1-10 to the border.
In El Paso alone, cross-border shoppers from Ciudad Juárez and other parts of northern Mexico account for an estimated $1.3 billion a year in sales, according to Borderplex Business Barometer, a publication from economists at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“We did have some closures as everybody would expect,” Gudenrath said.
South El Paso has long been known for some of the highest volume retail space. There are about five empty storefronts currently in south El Paso, according to Gudenrath.
“For those who did stay open, it was through sheer determination and aggressive efforts to lure El Pasoan customers into the stores,” Gudenrath said.
Some businesses relocated. In one vacant store a small printed sign taped to the window notified customers, “moved to Cielo Vista mall.”
The pandemic exposed disparities in how the health policy designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 was carried out. The border remained closed but air travel resumed. Fully vaccinated grandmothers from Ciudad Juárez could not walk across an international bridge, but U.S. tourists were hopping on planes to enjoy vacations in Mexico.
Mexican citizens in border states who could no longer drive across international bridges also had to buy plane tickets to reach cities like El Paso, Laredo and McAllen. Some families could not afford that option.
Economic and family ties extend to both sides of the border.
“Decisions that are made on one side have a direct impact on the other side,” said Eva Moya, associate professor in the department of social work at the University of Texas at El Paso. She researches cross-border health issues in both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. “And so, you need to be able to understand that, yes, for many of us, we have one leg in one country and the other leg in the other country”
The social cost is measured in missed birthdays, graduations, quinceañeras and funerals.
“You can’t replace a hug, un abrazo, un beso, un contacto humano, the essence of being close to your loved ones,” Moya explained.
“And the fascinating thing is who is considered essential and who isn’t because at the end of the day I sort of look at essential people and essential workers and think, ‘wow, that’s the majority of us.’”
Maria Patricia Mitre Carlos, a grandmother living in Ciudad Juárez is among those who missed family milestones during the partial closure.
“They baptized my granddaughter and I also couldn’t be there to see her,” she said.
Mitre said her son tried to wait, but the baby was becoming a toddler and the border travel restrictions kept getting extended month after month.
The last time Mitre set foot in the United States was February 2020, just before the United States and Mexico closed the border to non-essential travel.
“We’re losing that beautiful experience that we grandmothers have with our grandchildren,” Mitre said.
Working parents also lost the helping hand of grandmothers who care for children, something Mitre has done for her now 9-year-old grandson since he was a baby. She was the one who picked him up every day after school. She says authorities who decided what is essential when they closed the border need to experience being cut off from loved ones.
“For the people I think who make those decisions to understand, they need to not live with their families, go through what we have,” she said.
Photojournalist Heriberto Perez, 23, a recent college graduate, like many, grew up enjoying a binational life.
“I really love to live here because it’s a unique experience to be here in this Borderland,” he said.
Perez is a U.S. citizen and crossed back and forth to work. But many of his friends and relatives in Ciudad Juárez have not been able to visit El Paso.
“It can be from someone that wants to be here at the Sun Bowl looking at the football team or looking at their favorite band in a concert or just people who just want to come here to visit their families,” he said.
These shared experiences bind border communities, Perez said. His family and friends in Ciudad Juárez look forward to the border reopening so they can enjoy the big events but also little things in El Paso, “to taste that Whataburger here again,” he said.
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)