(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with a CBP comment.)
RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas congressman said Tuesday that after repeated conversations with the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection over easing travel restrictions along the Southwest border, CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan has instructed his agents to begin discussions with border communities from Texas to California on whether they believe it is safe to begin reopening in their areas.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, held a roundtable discussion with leaders from Starr County and CBP officials on Tuesday afternoon in Rio Grande City, Texas, to gauge whether they would be keen to reopening ports to travelers from Mexico. Cuellar held a news conference immediately afterwards during which he announced that discussions — such as the one held on Tuesday at the Starr County Courthouse Annex — are beginning to occur in communities up and down the border.

He said talks between CBP agents and officials in Laredo began Saturday and he expects to hear of more along the northern and southern borders.

“Agents have been instructed to start talking to local communities,” Cuellar said. “Because I want every community to decide. Find the balance between the health of the individual and the health of the community.”

But, Cuellar reiterated, reopening the borders can occur only if, and when, Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf lifts the travel restrictions that were put in place on March 20. The Trump administration implemented Title 42, a public health code, to try to stop the spread of coronavirus across the borders during this pandemic. Every month since, the restrictions have been extended.

Cuellar said he hopes that Wolf will begin to lift some of the restrictions this month, but the secretary could order the sanctions for another full 30 days.

He sent a letter to Wolf on Oct. 6 asking him to implement a community-controlled reopening plan, and said he is optimistic and hopeful that some type of easing of bridge restrictions will happen soon. This is especially important because border retail trade is dependent upon sales during the months of October through December.

Cuellar said Morgan supports the idea of hearing from every community as to whether local leaders believe COVID-19 levels are low-enough for land ports to begin to reopen to “non-essential” vehicular and pedestrian travel without jeopardizing the health of border communities.

A CBP official reiterated the travel restrictions are in place for at least eight more days, telling Border Report: “The travel restrictions remain in effect until Oct. 21 unless they are amended or rescinded.”

Last week, Cuellar was among a group of lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who sent Wolf a letter asking for a plan to end border travel restrictions.

South Texas border communities have lost significant sales tax revenue since border restrictions were implemented. And, bridge revenue also is substantially down. A McAllen international bridge lost over $2 million, as of July, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling told Border Report.

Sam Vale, chairman of the Starr County Bridge Association, and president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, which runs the Rio Grande City-Starr Camargo International Bridge, said non-commercial vehicular traffic is down 60% since travel restrictions were implemented.

Starr County — a rural county on the border with a population of just 64,000 — has had over 3,300 COVID-19 cases and 176 deaths. On Tuesday there were eight new cases, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, left, speaks at a news conference on Oct. 13, 2020, with Starr County Judge Eloy Vera in Rio Grande City, Texas (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Vera said he wants to see the bridge reopen, but he is cautious about doing it too soon.

“The concern I have is health issues and our economy, but the health issues have to come first. However, we do need to open up our ports sooner rather than later,” Vera said.

Health issues have to come first, however we do need to open up our ports sooner rather than later.”

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera
Rio Grande City, Texas, Mayor Joe Villarreal speaks at a news conference on Oct. 13, 2020, at the Starr County Courthouse Annex in Rio Grande City (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Having that local input is paramount and essential but we have to be cautious,” Rio Grande City Mayor Joe Villarreal said. “I’m glad we are at least at this point now.”

Cuellar said in order to safely begin reopening land ports, he believes each community must establish benchmarks for COVID-19 cases, as well as hire temperature-takers and random testers on the bridge to help screen for coronavirus cases. 

He said officials in Laredo are looking into the costs of paying for rapid tests on their bridges.

That will be expensive, however, and Vera isn’t sure how much his rural county can afford to spend on such preventative measures. He said Starr County already has applied to the state for about $500,000 in federal CARES Act funds to reimburse the county. It has not yet received the money.

CARES Act monies were sent directly to municipalities with populations of over 500,000; others, like Starr County, have to apply with the governor’s office, which is in charge of administering the remaining funds.

“I guess it’s in your hands now, Starr County, and all the cities and communities on how you’re going to proceed,” Vale said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com