Mexican nationals show their visas to Customs and Border Protection agents at the top of the Paso del Norte Bridge late Sunday night. The restrictions on non-essential travel were lifted just after 10 p.m. local time, allowing Mexican travelers into the United States for the first time since March 2020. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
By Lauren Villagran/El Paso Times

The United States has reopened the border to vaccinated Mexican tourists.

Shortly after 10 p.m. Sunday (midnight in the Eastern time zone), El Paso’s three 24-hour international ports of entry began welcoming Mexican nationals with valid tourist visas after nearly two years of border restrictions.

About a dozen people waited at the top of the Paso del Norte bridge, visas in hand, to enter the United States into El Paso.

Alicia Tagle, 60, clutched a clear plastic folder full of documents. She said she was going to request an I-94 permit to see her sister in Colorado. Until then, she’d stay with an aunt who lives near Montana Avenue and Raynor Street.

“I am so happy,” she said. “My aunt is just waiting for us to call her when we cross.”

At the Bridge of the Americas, better known as the “free bridge” because there is no toll, passenger vehicles stretched about a mile into Juárez.

Five portable toilets were set up in the home stretch — a sign that the Mexican government is expecting extreme wait times — and side roads were barricaded to prevent cars from cutting into the line.

Juárez residents have been waiting nearly two years for the United States to lift restrictions on non-essential travel. On Sunday night, the moment was hours away.

Downtown, pedestrians waited with their visas and vaccine cards ahead of the reopening.

In March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security placed restrictions on non-essential travel at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Effectively, Mexican nationals holding tourist cards were banned from traveling over the land border — although air travel between points in the interior of both countries never ceased.

U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, medical personnel, students and those with work authorization were deemed essential under the restrictions and were permitted to cross the border.

Mexican citizens wait with their visas in hand on the Paso del Norte International Bridge late Sunday night. The restrictions on non-essential travel were lifted just after 10 p.m. local time, allowing visa holders into the United States for the first time in 20 months. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Cross-border traffic of “essential” travelers between El Paso and Juárez has been rising steadily, reaching nearly 800,000 crossings of passenger vehicles in August, according to the Border Region Modeling Project at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The border restrictions, in place for nearly 20 months, limited travel between the two countries during a period of deadly contagion. But they outlasted the reopening of the U.S. and Mexican economies and continued after communities on both sides of the border reached high levels of vaccination against COVID-19.

“Nobody anticipated that this pandemic would last as long as it has, in terms of travel restrictions,” said Hector Mancha, U.S. Customs and Border Protection director of field operations in El Paso. “People have not crossed over and visited with family in going on two years. … Unfortunately, the pandemic has kept us from (reopening). I think it’s overdue.” 

On the morning after border restrictions were lifted, traffic was quiet at crossings between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez during rush hour.

Passenger vehicles sped up the El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas freely, no line to stop them.

“I’ve sold hardly anything,” said newspaper salesman José Fierro, whose rack was still filled with El Diario newspapers and PM tabloids at 8 a.m. He had been there on the curb since 3 a.m., he said. There was 6 a.m. traffic, then nothing. “Everyone crossed yesterday panicked about how the lines were going to be today.”

Many commuters opted to cross the border Sunday night over concerns that lines would be long Monday morning, as people with visas began crossing again.

Constantino Castellanos, 68, and his wife Lizbeth, 62, bought quesadillas at the foot of the Bridge of the Americas. A street vendor handed over a plastic foam tray wrapped in plastic.

They could take their time. The bridge — usually a wall of slow-moving cars and trucks — was en empty ribbon asphalt.

“It’s been two years,” said Lizbeth Castellanos. “We’re going to Marshalls and Walmart.”

Castellano said it felt good to be back on the bridge after all that time, especially with small amount traffic.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection had opened nearly all lanes on Monday, helping avoid the expected long lines.

Cover photo: Mexican nationals show their visas to Customs and Border Protection agents at the top of the Paso del Norte Bridge late Sunday night. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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