US-Mexico travel ban surprises, worries border merchants and residents

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Not all agree with COVID-19 cross-border restrictions that will cost businesses 50 to 90 percent of their clients

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Mexican music blared outside clothing and dollar stores on El Paso Street on Friday, but that failed to lift the impending sense of doom among merchants and shoppers.

“They say sometimes the cure is worse than the disease,” said Jose Luis Carbajal, an El Paso resident who regularly visits his elderly aunt in Juarez, Mexico. “A lot of business will close and we will not be able to see our families once they shut the border.”

Carbajal sat on a bench outside La Pasadita grocery, which like hundreds of businesses in South El Paso are heavily dependant on shoppers from Mexico. The manager there said she expects to lose up to 80% of her store traffic once the southern border is closed to non-essential travel on Saturday.

On Friday, President Trump announced travel restrictions between Mexico and the United States that exclude commercial truck traffic and keeps the door open for legal workers. However, tourists and Mexican shoppers with non-legal resident border crossing cards — the lifeline of El Paso’s and Juarez’s downtowns — may no longer be welcome in order to contain COVID-19. El Paso has reported six coronavirus cases already and Juarez two.

According to a Department of Homeland Security notice, travel through the land ports of entry and ferry terminals 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.

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

Between 8% and 14% of El Paso’s economy depends on Juarez shoppers, and many El Pasoans without insurance seek medical, optical and dental services in Juarez.

A majority of those shoppers use border crossing cards, or laser visas, which are issued to non-U.S. citizens who want to enter the United States temporarily for business or tourism or for a combination of both. As of Saturday morning, U.S. authorities had turned back at least 300 Mexican citizens who tried to cross the Paso del Norte Bridge with the laser visas/border crossing cards, El Diario reported.

On Friday afternoon, Paola Garcia inspected and stacked lens frames in an optometry store in Juarez a block away from the Paso del Norte port of entry to the United States. The licensed optometrist said she is “mentally preparing” for an inevitable layoff once the store is forced to close for lack of customers.

“This will affect all of us: pharmacies, eyeglass stores … everyone. Most of our clients are from El Paso; I would say up to 90 percent come from over there,” Garcia said.

Juarez optometrist Paola Garcia

She said she’ll survive on savings, but confessed she’s in disbelief about the border shutdown. “I never imagined this would be possible,” she said.

Outside, hundreds of cars packed Avenida Juarez waiting their turn to cross the border into El Paso. Some said they wanted to take care of personal business or stay over for the weekend with relatives one last time before the partial shutdown prevents them from going over.

David Mendez, manager at Pieles Apache, said he’s seen plenty of upheaval at the border over the years: political protests, migrant camps and drug violence. “Many times they threatened to close the (border) because of the migrants, but they never did it. This is going to be very bad,” he said, adding that more than half of the customers at his boots and leather shop are from El Paso.

Aside from banning non-essential travel, it’s not clear if the U.S. government will allow newly arrived asylum seekers to present their claims at ports of entry..

That was unexpected news for Edwin Yohan Rodriguez, a 25-year-old Honduran who only this week arrived in Juarez, hoping to apply for asylum in the United States.

The former U.S. Agency for International Development volunteer fled his homeland after the 18th Street gang threatened his life. He says it was over his activism that included helping at-risk youth stay away from drugs and gangs.

“They told me, straight to my face, they were going to kill me, that’s why I left my country,” Rodriguez said. He spent several months in Chiapas, Mexico, before gangs there tried to recruit him, so he left for the U.S. border. “This border closing comes as a surprise to me. It was the last thing I expected to find.”

Asked what he would do now that he cannot take his paperwork — which includes certificates of appreciation from USAID — over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, Rodriguez said he would stay in Mexico and try to find work. “I’m not going back to Honduras. I can’t.”

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