‘My family is essential’: Border residents, merchants endure US crackdown on non-essential travel

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El Paso-Juarez commuters decry hours-long waits at international bridges, some say new restrictions are political, others want designated lane for essential workers

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The coronavirus pandemic and court delays have kept Gerardo Hernandez from finalizing paperwork to bring his Mexican wife to El Paso.

Now a crackdown on non-essential travel to Mexico threatens to build a wall in their relationship.

“The immigration issue separated us. Some of us are here (the United States), some of us are over there (Mexico). I have to look after those over there. They are my family, they are my blood,” the El Paso resident said.

Thousands of American citizens and legal permanent residents since Saturday have been caught in hours-long waits returning to the United States. The waits stem from the crackdown by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is based on a study showing many crossed the border for non-essential activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Hernandez and a few other commuters this week told Border Report they consider their trips essential and that they won’t stop going to Mexico no matter how long they have to wait coming back.

“As long as they don’t close the border, I will continue to go over there, to take (my family) whatever they need, whatever I can (provide),” the disabled former construction worker said.

Hernandez said he observes social distancing and wears a mask in public, and the last time he traveled to Mexico he did so on foot, despite walking with the aid of a cane. “Even if I have to crawl, I’ll go over there,” he said.

Cross-border workers in need of designated lane

CBP says non-essential travelers can expect disruption to their trips including long wait times during their return trips as well as referrals to a secondary inspection area.

“We need people to think twice about non-essential travel and ask themselves if the travel is worth risking their lives and the lives of others,” CBP said in an email, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency said it remains committed to facilitating the cross-border movement of food, fuel, workers and medicines. It said the enhanced enforcement is taking place at four El Paso border crossings, but the Mexican consulate sent an advisory warning its citizens of “greater scrutiny” at Santa Teresa, Tornillo and Fort Hancock as well.

And several employees of El Paso businesses sent over to Juarez on work-related errands this week had to wait four to five hours in the passenger vehicle lines like everybody else. Some even carried a document from an agency of the Department of Homeland Security certifying them as essential critical infrastructure workers — all to no avail.

Ten of the 12 lanes at the Ysleta-Zaragoza international bridge in El Paso are shown to be closed on Monday afternoon. (Reader submission)

At the Ysleta-Zaragoza border crossing, 10 of the 12 booths remained closed to all travelers on Monday afternoon, regardless of purpose. The Designated Commuter Lane, also known as the “express lane,” operated without delay, but not all maquiladora professionals or workers sent over to Juarez by their El Paso employers have such permits.

Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, said he’s fielded multiple concerns from businesses whose workers have been caught in the bottleneck. He said he understands the CBP’s “balancing act” of safeguarding the country from COVID-19 while trying to not hinder cross-border commerce.

Jon Barela, CEO of El Paso’s Borderplex Alliance trade association.

“We’ve heard from many companies and we know that there are thousands of employees — essential employees — caught up in this delay,” Barela said. “So, there has to be a coming together between government officials, business and the public to get the balance we need between commerce, essential work and protecting public health.”

He said he has “enormous respect” for the work of CBP amid the pandemic and that the public has to pitch in. However, “there has to be more communication between the business community and CBP government officials and I urge that to take place. Everybody has to be part of the solution,” he said.

One suggestion could include the manning of a bridge lane for those who can document being essential workers.

KTSM late Monday interviewed several motorists in line at the Paso del Norte Bridge that spans the downtowns of Juarez and El Paso. At least one of them said he crossed the border for work-related reasons.

“This is Trump, he ordered the border closed or almost (closed),” the man said.

Others told reporters they came to purchase materials like ceramic tile and cleaning supplies for their El Paso family-owned businesses because those things are less expensive in Juarez.

Businesses on both sides of the border impacted

In El Paso, business is down as much as 80% since the travel restrictions began in mid-March. Many clothing, electronics and toy shops remain closed and others are surviving on a few El Paso shoppers who are rediscovering their Downtown.

In Juarez, government officials and merchants have mixed feelings about the travel crackdown.

On the one hand, Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada had been calling for restrictions on visits by El Pasoans due to the pandemic. The number of COVID-19 infections in Juarez is almost half that of El Paso (11,050 cases vs. 19,622) but the Mexican city has almost twice as many deaths (747 vs. 394).

On the other, dental and medical businesses that rely on American customers are being greatly affected by the crackdown.

“After March, our business was down 50%, now we’re down 90%,” said Jose Luis Soberones, head of the medical cluster at the Juarez Chamber of Commerce.

Juarez’s low-cost medical offices are one of the city’s main attractions to visitors and a pillar of the economy. Soberones said there’s no proof cross-border travel is to blame for either city’s COVID-19 spikes.

“We had reduced COVID cases and it doesn’t have to do with people not coming from El Paso. People know the rules. Restaurants and other businesses require face masks and have (disinfectant) gel,” he said.

The Chihuahua state health director in Juarez, Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, said no studies exist showing how many of the city’s coronavirus cases were brought over by El Pasoans.

But he said that people’s mobility, in general, has been fueling the spread and that reducing that mobility, whether locally or across the border, would help.

El Pasoan Hernandez said the crackdown is bound to have health repercussions on those waiting in line. He mentioned a weekend incident in which a woman died waiting to cross from Tijuana to California.

“They should have consideration on the elderly and the disabled,” he said. “What if they go into diabetic shock? If they’re U.S. citizens or residents get diabetic shock? What ambulance is going to pick them up? […] This is inhuman.”

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