BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — U.S. citizens and residents who try to cross into the United States for “non-essential business” will face longer lines and additional scrutiny in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Southwest ports of entry, an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Border Report on Friday.
“Non-essential travelers should expect more disruption to their travel, including increased wait times and the potential for secondary inspection. Reducing non-essential travel will reduce the risk of further spreading COVID-19. We believe these measures will discourage non-essential travel and reduce the spread of the virus,” a CBP official wrote in an email Friday.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, alerted media on Friday morning to the change at ports of entry, which he said he learned about during a Thursday meeting with CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. He also learned that over 1,200 CBP agents have tested positive for coronavirus, he said.
“They’ll be facing longer lines and put into secondary (screening) and that will make it a little harder and people will think about it before they come over for non-essential purposes,” Cuellar said Friday morning during a video news conference that also was carried live on Facebook.
Cuellar said that additional CBP officers and resources will screen U.S. citizens and residents who are legitimately coming for essential business reasons, which include commercial and medical and food. Those trying to enter from Mexico at border ports for other reasons, such as visiting relatives or friends, will be placed in longer entry lines and face secondary inspections.
The change began at ports this week, Cuellar said, and it was spurred by CBP data showing 65% of travelers were not crossing for “essential business” as laid out under border restrictions that have been in place since March 20 to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Under the restrictions, legal residents and U.S. citizens cannot be denied entry, but this new set up is expected to significantly deter many from trying to cross.
“If you are a U.S. citizen or legal resident, you can go and come back and they’re not going to refuse you,” Cuellar said, “but you will be treated differently by a prioritization of resources, according to Homeland (Security), and this will affect a lot of people and there will be some long lines.”
CBP confirmed to Border Report that this new entry process is being implemented at “certain” ports along the Southwest, but did not specify which ones. A CBP spokesman in El Paso told Border Report that the agency is adjusting operations at the Paso Del Norte, Bridge of the Americas, Ysleta and Stanton crossings.
In South Texas, increased wait times already were being experienced Friday, some pedestrian crossers told Border Report. At the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, one man, who is a U.S. citizen and wished to remain anonymous, said he waited one hour to cross back from Mexico where he was visiting family. Another man, who is a Mexican National, said he waited six hours to cross into the United States on Friday afternoon in 99-degree heat to donate plasma.
“In order to reduce the risk of further spread of COVID-19 in the United States, CBP is adjusting operations at select ports of entry on the Southwest border to assist with the reduction of the movement of non-essential travelers. In light of a recent large-scale survey finding that the majority of cross-border travel by U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents is for non-essential purposes and in response to the ongoing public health crisis and to protect local SWB communities, CBP is taking measures to discourage non-essential travel to and from Mexico to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the United States,” the CBP official wrote.
Cuellar said he was told that officers will be shifted from other DHS locations, such as airports where there are much fewer travelers nowadays due to the coronavirus scare. He said that once all the officers get into position then travelers can expect to see more of these new restrictions put into place.
“CBP will do everything in our power to keep Americans safe from the spread of COVID-19. CBP will continue to allocate resources in a manner to ensure an appropriate balance of facilitation and enforcement to meet all mission requirements for which CBP is responsible,” the CBP official said.
Cuellar also said that he was told 1,200 CBP officers have tested positive for coronavirus and are either actively sick or quarantined at this time. He also announced that an additional 600 officers are being sent to South Texas to help on the front lines and at ports of entry.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.