EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Long before the federal government announced the rollback of non-essential land border travel restrictions, the City of El Paso was preparing to deal with increased traffic and longer waits at U.S. ports of entry.
“We have been talking to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for months in anticipation of this day coming. Now that it’s here, we have some general rules and guidelines, but we need to work on specifics,” David Coronado, the city’s managing director of international bridges and economic development, told Border Report.
Coronado expects an overnight surge in border crossings as soon as the rollback happens. The city is prepared to spend some of its bridge revenue to pay the overtime of CBP officers so that the agency can keep inspection lanes staffed during peak hours in addition to opening more lanes than customary. The budget for the so-called 3P Program is $1.65 million, he said.
The city also anticipates potential bottlenecks on bridges going from El Paso to Mexico, as more Juarez residents return home in the evening and more El Pasoans visit Juarez in the daytime. The city is working on traffic control measures to prevent such bottlenecks.
But Coronado says a lot of things are still “up in the air.” For instance, DHS hasn’t released the exact date for the November rollback. It’s also not clear what vaccines will be deemed valid. Mexico has vaccinated millions of its citizens with the Russian Sputnik vaccine and the Chinese SinCan and Sinovac.
City officials, CBP and Mexican Customs representatives as well as other stakeholders from government and private industry are set to meet on Thursday to work on what comes next.
The Department of Homeland Security said foreign nationals can again come for shopping or recreation to the United States through land ports beginning in November if they carry proof of being fully vaccinated for COVID-19. In January, all those crossing the border will be required to show proof of vaccination.
Despite the logistical challenges, Coronado and other El Paso leaders say the rollback of the restrictions will have a positive impact on El Paso’s economy.
The economic impact “is difficult to estimate because we’ve never been in this place before,” Coronado said. “But it’s good news, nonetheless, that we’ll have this gradual reopening, that crossers return and that our border life will be resuming to some kind of normal, or new normal.”
The Economics Department at the University of Texas at El Paso estimates that Mexican shoppers and businesses account for 15% of El Paso’s economy. The restrictions never applied to industry or organized commercial traffic, but the absence of Mexican shoppers hit the pocketbook of many businesses and devastated those in Downtown El Paso who relied on their Juarez clientele.
“Our region’s business community applauds this overdue first step in the right direction,” said Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance. “This decision will help boost our regional and national economies and help return our inextricably linked community to some degree of normalcy.”
The restrictions were put in place to prevent cross-border spread of COVID-19. But with border cities like El Paso leading Texas in vaccination rates (75.6% of the population over 12 years of age is fully vaccinated) and with Juarez claiming very similar rates, local officials said the easing of border travel restrictions was overdue.
“The reopening of the land ports of entry is welcomed and long overdue news,” said U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas. “Our southern border communities rely on travel between our sister cities in Mexico for so much, and keeping our borders closed to legal travel has hurt our border communities economically and barred many from seeing loved ones. Reopening our borders to legal travel is a critical step in returning to normalcy.”
David Jerome, president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said the business community welcomes the news.
“The chamber is very supportive of this. Many El Paso businesses are having trouble hiring employees and with delays in their supply chains. A full border opening should help. More generally, we welcome back our neighbors,” he said.