McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — If the U.S. and Mexico extend the Trump-era ban on non-essential travel at the southern border, which was implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and is set to expire on Wednesday, then Southwest border communities will endure more lost revenue from Mexican shoppers, which several lawmakers in South Texas say is unfair.
A local congressman, the Hidalgo County judge, and the mayor of McAllen have all been vocal this past week, urging President Joe Biden to lift the travel ban restrictions that since March 2020 have allowed only “essential workers” to cross at land ports of entry operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
They say the restrictions are unfair because Mexican travelers who fly into U.S. ports are allowed to do so — as long as they show proof that they are COVID-free. But those trying to walk or drive across land ports, perhaps to come to shop, are not allowed, and they say this is devastating local economies.
“That’s the discrimination,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas, told Border Report on Friday. “Why is it OK for a Mexican to fly in but a Mexican who wants to drive across the port you don’t let them come in. What’s the difference?”
“They are very essential for border communities and they’re not coming in,” he said.
“If you talk to CBP they will tell you what they call ‘non-essential,’ which I call essential, are the people who come and visit family members or come spend money with our hotels and restaurants,” Cuellar said via phone from Washington, D.C.
The Department of Homeland Security today, or in the next couple days, could announce extending the travel ban, or they could lift it.
They are very essential for border communities and they’re not coming in.”U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-TX
However, Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said that based on recent conversations he has had with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, he does not believe the administration will ease restrictions this month. But he is hopeful they will in May.
DHS officials on March 18 announced restrictions would be extended through April 21 and explained in a tweet that the agency is working “with our counterparts to identify an approach to easing restrictions when conditions permit.”
Cuellar said aside from talking to Mayorkas within the past two weeks, he also has spoken with Roberto Velasco Álvarez, acting undersecretary for North America at the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs regarding reopening the borders. However, he said Mexican officials appear to be benefitting financially from the travel ban because Mexican nationals who used to cross the border with regularity to shop, now are staying in their own country and spending their money there.
“The Mexicans like this because they’re keeping Mexicans spending money in their local economies,” Cuellar said. “There is a reason for them to extend restrictions as much as possible.”
The United States, Mexico and Canada on March 21, 2020, announced the travel restrictions to stop coronavirus from spreading between the countries.
But McAllen Mayor Jim Darling earlier this week told his city council members that COVID-19 cases are way down in the region, and recent reports from Hidalgo County medical officials in charge of contact tracing show that the Mexicans who are allowed to cross into the United States are not bringing the virus with any more regularity than other Americans already in the country.
“The reason for the non-essential travel ban has been COVID,” Darling said Monday. “We’re seeing our numbers are down … We don’t see any COVID-related activity coming from Mexico.”
Yet Darling says 50% of normal cross-border traffic at the international bridges has been disrupted because travelers don’t qualify to cross under these restrictions.
“They say it’s for health purposes but we don’t think it’s justified and we need to open the border and help our businesses who have been severely affected by this,” Darling said.
We don’t think it’s justified and we need to open the border and help our businesses.”
Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen, Texas
Hidalgo County officials have reported a sharp drop in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, down significantly from the summer when the region suffered among the worst areas of the country for deaths and virus rates.
On Friday, the county reported no deaths from coronavirus, which was one of the first times that has happened since the pandemic began. There were 83 new cases reported bringing the total current cases to 209. The county has had nearly 87,000 cases since the pandemic began last year.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told Border Report that leaders in Washington, D.C., need to weigh the dangers of allowing an influx of unaccompanied migrant youth and migrant families into the community and not testing them for COVID-19. And he says they need to assess whether it’s fair to continue to keep out Mexican nationals who could come with papers proving they don’t have the virus and their wallets open.
“I would never put economic benefits over the safety and economic welfare of our citizens, however, there seems to be a disconnect in the thinking in Washington. When you’re allowing immigrants to come here seeking asylum and basically telling them to just come in, not concerned — or at least not concerned with COVID because the federal government hasn’t provided for any features to test them,” Cortez said. “We’re doing that locally as responsible people, and yet they’re keeping people that want to come here healthy to add to our economy. I think that’s inconsistent thinking.”
There seems to be a disconnect in the thinking in Washington.”Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez
Before the pandemic, over 18 million Mexican nationals crossed into the United States each year and spent over $19 billion, Cuellar said.
“So in theory, we have lost over $19 billion to our economy from the Mexican purchasers,” he said.
Cuellar said that his hometown of Laredo, Texas, had been working with the Trump administration on plans to partially reopen ports there prior to the switch in administrations. He said Laredo city officials had offered to test everyone crossing the international bridges using rapid test devices once they crossed over. In exchange, he said that CBP officials, under the direction of then-CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan, had agreed to allow misters to be placed outside CBP offices to spray and help disinfect incoming travelers.
Last fall, leaders made a push to reopen the border in time for the holiday shopping season, but to no avail.
A bipartisan congressional delegation on Oct. 1, 2020, sent a letter to then-Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf, with Cuellar saying it was “critical that DHS develop a plan for returning to normal operations” in order to strike a balance “between public health concerns and social and economic equities.”
The letter, signed by Cuellar, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, and other representatives from border states, said that Southwest border communities “shoulder disproportionately high economic and social costs as a result of these travel restrictions.”
It said that Arizona prior to the pandemic used to receive more international visitors from Mexico than any other nation, with Mexican nationals bringing in $1.5 billion in 2019.
The McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge has lost more than $2 million in revenue.
Said Darling: “Our downtown merchants are still suffering because we don’t have non-essential travel. Our hotels and other businesses and the mall are greatly suffering.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.