Border travel restrictions force residents to choose between safety and economic loss

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El Pasoans welcome latest extension of non-essential travel ban with mixed feelings

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — International travel restrictions in force since March 21 have cost Leticia Sanchez most of her Mexican customers.

Still, the El Paso merchant isn’t ready to call on President Trump to reopen the border to non-essential travel. “If it’s because of safety, it’s fine … but look at Downtown. It’s totally dead,” she said.

Like Sanchez, other El Paso residents expressed mixed feelings at Tuesday’s extension of U.S.-Mexico travel restrictions through July 21. The measures are meant to stop COVID-19 from crossing the border, but they’ve bled businesses that depend on visitors from Mexico. For the most part, only U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can come back and forth. Mexicans frequent crossers with so-called “laser” visas are still not allowed in most cases.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo

“I understand the economic strain the restrictions on our border have caused, but we need to ensure the public health of both El Paso and Juarez before we can fully reopen our border,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo told Border Report.

Though many Downtown buildings are finding rebirth as urban apartments and new hotels are under construction, many businesses near the ports of entry still rely on shoppers from Juarez and Chihuahua City, Mexico.

They include clothing, shoe, electronics and jewelry shops as well as small restaurants and novelty shops. And the impact goes beyond economics. Raquel Hernandez and her daughter haven’t seen their relatives from Juarez in the past three months.

“They cannot come across. We cannot see them, they cannot even come shopping,” she said.

El Pasoans are rediscovering what it’s like to shop at Downtown stores previously teeming with shoppers from Mexico. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

But Margo points out that COVID-19 is still taking lives and making people sick on both sides of the border. On Tuesday, El Paso and Juarez combined for 25 coronavirus-related fatalities.

“The extension of non-essential travel restrictions is important during a time when both countries are still reopening their economies and testing capacity still needs expanding,” he said.

El Paso County recently surpassed its goal of testing 5% of its population for COVID-19 but wants to screen even more. Juarez officials, on the other hand, recently admitted they’re only testing people who come to hospitals already sick.

Christopher Lantz, an El Pasoan who visits Juarez often to see his wife, agrees that travel restrictions shouldn’t be lifted.

“We’re not ready for that,” he said. “I feel bad for the people there but the way the economy is in Juarez right now, Mexican nationals need to spend their money in Mexico. There’ll be plenty of time to come over and spend your money here later. Right now, stay over there and spend your money over there.”

He also expressed concern at seeing people “bunched up” at the international bridges connecting Juarez and El Paso.

“A lot of the people waiting on the Mexican side of the bridge are shoulder to shoulder, and that’s a health hazard,” he said, adding that he informed U.S officials of the situation and was told that an issue for Mexican authorities.

For now, the Downtown stores that chose to reopen — many are still closed — are relying on local shoppers rediscovering their Downtown.

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