Border crossings plummet in El Paso area as COVID-19 travel restrictions take effect


Confusion reins among Mexican and US residents about who can and can't travel, and under what circumstances

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Activity at El Paso-area border crossings slowed to a crawl on Saturday, as restrictions on non-essential travel between the U.S. and Mexico went into effect to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Three major land crossings reported passenger vehicle wait times of two to five minutes at 1 p.m., compared to the average rush-hour waits of 43 to 73 minutes. Pedestrians were getting across in two minutes at Paso del Norte, a port of entry spanning Downtown El Paso and Downtown Juarez, Mexico.

A silver lining: Border wait times significantly shorter

Between ports of entry, the U.S. Border Patrol was returning unauthorized migrants to Mexico almost as quickly as it caught them.

“Cross border incursions are encountered immediately, processed promptly in the field and expelled expeditiously from the country-this is how we reduce the risk of #COVID19 exposure to our personnel and the American public,” Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott tweeted Saturday afternoon.

Truck traffic and lawful commercial activity was unaffected, he said. “Ports of entry are open for trade with restrictions to non-essential travel. […] Balancing national security & facilitating trade and travel is what we do,” Scott tweeted.

But one of the reasons the bridges were nearly empty had to do with people not being clear on the travel restrictions.

“The person collecting tolls told me I can go across, but my employer yesterday told me I could not. So I don’t know,” said David Mireles, a legal permanent resident of the United States. On Saturday, he walked away from the Paso del Norte Mexico-bound lane rather than risk becoming stranded in Mexico.

The new emergency rules at the border restrict access to the United States to U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents and urge that they only go abroad for legitimate commerce or other specific reasons, such as health.

But after talking to other border crossers, Mireles was further stumped by entry restrictions imposed by Mexico. “Better not to risk it,” the El Paso bus driver said. Further, he said the travel restrictions would affect his job, as well as the El Paso economy because his company would have fewer customers. “Just like we see here … look at the stores. They’re all empty.”

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard since Friday became aware that some people aren’t getting it. “The border is not closing. It could have closed if we (the U.S. and Mexico) didn’t do this work together,” he said.

In a news release forwarded to Border Report by the Mexican consulate in El Paso, the Mexican government stressed that, yes, traffic on land crossings would be reduced as health controls are imposed, but the measures shouldn’t interrupt bilateral commerce.

“Both countries agreed not to limit the normal flow or workers and students who cross the border for their daily activities. Traffic will not be halted for people involved in trans border commerce, such as truckers,” the release said. “Also, Mexican or U.S. citizens will be able to return to their country of origin and people traveling to either country for medical reasons will be allowed through.”

But Mexico, just like the United States, is “encouraging postponing tourism” because that’s not considered essential travel.

Several El Paso residents and commuters interviewed Saturday by Border Report said the rules are still not clear to them and they feared that immigration agents in the United States or Mexican federal officials in Juarez would give them a hard time crossing the border.

Geronimo Alvarado

“I’m afraid that if I go now I will have problems coming back. I have my wife (in Durango, Mexico) and I go there for one week out of every month,” said Geronimo Alvarado, a legal permanent resident of the United States who spends most of the year working on farms in New Mexico and Texas, and is reunited with his family in December.

Miguel Nava, another El Paso-area farmworker, said the partial closing of the border has effectively separated him from the rest of his family in Juarez.

“This is bothersome for all of us. We’re afraid they won’t let us across. Right now I’m sick. I’m in convalescence, I’m weak, I cannot go to Juarez to see my mom and my brothers for that reason,” Nava said. His relatives can’t visit him in El Paso any more because visitors with visas aren’t being let through.

El Diario de Juarez on Saturday reported that more than 300 Mexicans with visas, including the so-called “laser visas” that allow tens of thousands of Juarez residents to visit and shop in El Paso, were refused entry by U.S. authorities between midnight and 8 a.m.

The newspaper said Mexican officials warned the laser visa holders they would be turned back, but some insisted on getting through. When they were sent back, they demanded their toll money back but were told no and police presence became necessary.

David Calderon, a resident of El Paso’s Chihuahuita neighborhood who was hanging out with friends Saturday morning a block from the Paso del Norte port of entry, said the travel restrictions were unnecessary.

“All they’re doing is killing off the commerce. Look at the empty stores,” he said, motioning toward businesses along South El Paso Street. “I think this is not necessary … more people are sick in the United States than Mexico. If anything Mexico should be the one doing this.”

Like the Mexican consulate, CBP has previously said travel along the United States-Mexico border shall be limited to “essential travel,” which includes, but is not limited to:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States
  • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States)
  • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions
  • Individuals traveling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Mexico in furtherance of such work)
  • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support Federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies)
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Mexico)
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel
  • Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States
  • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.

Border Report on Saturday asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection to answer some of the questions and concerns expressed by residents. Here are some the questions and answers:

  • Question: Will I get fined coming back into the United States if I went to Mexico to buy toilet paper and cleaning supplies, which I couldn’t find in El Paso storers? Answer: Personal use quantities are allowed. Person applying for entry must meet requirements described above.
  • Question: I had a cold recently and I’m still sneezing, I’m an LPR, will I be denied entry into the United States coming back from Mexico if I’m coughing or sneezing? CDC personnel are responsible for the enhanced health screening of travelers in all locations. Answer: CBP is working with the CDC to identify arriving travelers who have been in mainland China or Iran within the previous 14 days, as they require enhanced health screening.  Those travelers are identified by CBP officers during their primary inspection and are referred for secondary screening where CDC personnel conduct the enhanced health screening. CDC makes any determination from there as to whether any additional measures must be taken.  U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s highest priority is to ensure the health, safety and security of the American people. Agents and officers will maintain situational awareness while identifying individuals who have traveled from or transited through affected countries.  If individuals are observed with symptoms of COVID-19 we will continue to work with the CDC to determine if a traveler is a possible public health risk by referring them for enhanced screening.  As the COVID-19 epidemic progresses, we are reminding all CBP employees to use proper procedures to prevent the spread of communicable disease.
  • Question: We have seen with our own eyes this morning that the Paso del Norte bridge is all but empty of vehicles and pedestrians are sparse. Is this an accurate reflection of what is happening today? Answer: You can monitor wait times at the CBP website to gain an understanding of current conditions and those earlier in the day.

The temporary travel restrictions, however, bar individuals traveling for tourism purposes, including sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events.

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