EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Border officers say they are prepared to welcome non-essential foreign nationals in an orderly manner beginning Monday, but they warn that travelers without proper documents, including proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, will be turned back.

They’re also advising U.S. citizens and anyone else otherwise eligible to come across the border to be prepared for possible hours-long waits, as they anticipate a spike in traffic volume once non-essential land travel restrictions go away for the fully vaccinated on Nov. 8.

“While trade and travel facilitation remain a priority, we cannot compromise national security,” said Ray Provencio, acting port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso. He said the trafficking of fentanyl and other dangerous synthetic drugs is on the rise and that border agents will look for contraband as usual. Those who attempt unauthorized crossings will be subject to public health order Title 42 expulsions.

“We will be monitoring traffic and adjusting some staffing to meet the anticipated added demand. We are predicting longer wait times and are asking for travelers to help us speed the process as much as possible by being prepared,” Provencio said. “This is a shared responsibility.”

CBP Acting El Paso Port Director Ray Provencio (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

The travel restrictions have been in effect since March 2020 to minimize cross-border spread of COVID-19. There’s no hard data on whether the strategy worked but its impact on U.S. merchants who rely heavily on Mexican shoppers has been well documented.

South El Paso merchants said they lost between 50% to 90% of their clients due to the restrictions. Some shops near the border crossings closed during the pandemic and have yet to reopen.

Merchants see the rollback of border travel restrictions during the holiday shopping season as the last hope to stay in business.

“The arrival of additional shoppers from Juarez during the holiday season is unambiguously a good thing for the El Paso retail sector,” said Tom Fullerton, an economics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “This is going to provide a welcome jolt to that sector of our business community.”

Mexican shoppers represent between 8% to 14% of El Paso’s $13 billion a year retail economy, he said.

Foreign travelers must carry valid documents

Provencio on Friday urged foreign nationals planning to cross into the United States next week for family, social or recreational reasons to make sure they’re carrying valid travel documents, proof of COVID-19 vaccination and to be prepared to clearly state the purpose of their trip and their vaccination status at the ports of entry.

Not every non-essential foreign individual will be asked to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, but all are required to carry proof of vaccination.

The U.S. is only recognizing some COVID-19 vaccines as valid. They include Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Sinovac, Sinopharm and Covishield. Unvaccinated foreign minors traveling with a vaccinated adult are exempt. All U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents returning home also remain exempt.

Provencio said border officers will examine the traveler’s COVID-19 vaccination card when they deem it appropriate. He said the agents are trained to examine all sorts of foreign documents for validity.

“We do anticipate more travelers, especially as we head into the holiday season. Everybody should expect longer wait times. That’s the reality of what we’re going to see,” he said.

Provencio added that the agency doesn’t have the resources to have “every inspection lane open 24 hours” a day. The City of El Paso has offered to pay for the overtime of CBP officers during peak hours, but that won’t kick in until after next week, Provencio said.

CBP thus is asking foreigners engaged in non-essential travel to avoid peak traffic hours at international crossings. In the El Paso area, the busiest times are weekday mornings and all day Sunday.

The Mexican consul general in El Paso echoed that advice.

“What I recommend to Mexican who will be coming over is first, don’t everyone come over on November 8 because the lines will be too long,” Consul General Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon said. “The restrictions have been lifted; you came come any time in the next few months. Also, have your documents ready when you get to the bridge because any delay has a multiplying effect at the ports of entry. The flow of traffic slows down.”

Across the border in Juarez, police say they will have officers on hand starting Monday to maintain an orderly flow of traffic into the United States. Some side streets to avenues leading to three U.S. ports of entry will be closed to prevent people cutting in, Juarez police officials said.