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Oct. 14—The Biden administration had good news Oct. 12 for "non-essential" Mexican citizens barred from entering the United States over the last 18 months-plus due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that the nation's borders with Mexico and Canada are reopening to travel and tourism starting Nov. 1, though visitors will be required to show proof of vaccination before being allowed to cross. Students, healthcare workers and others on essential business who have been exempted from the restrictions will be required to show proof of vaccination starting in January.
The news couldn't have come soon enough for the countless family members kept apart during the restrictions, not to mention the many businesses that depend on cross-border traffic.
In a statement, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez called the DHS announcement "welcome news."
"I have long said that our region's path to economic recovery from the setback of the pandemic is with the help of our neighbors in Mexico," he said. "Past economic data shows that Mexican travelers in our region account for a large percentage of our consumer sales. We need to reclaim that level of economic activity to emerge from the pandemic in a strong economic position."
Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said it's been especially hard on small, family-owned shops and restaurants, and that the evidence can be seen in sales tax across the Rio Grande Valley and the U.S.-Mexico border region. The county's revenues have also taken a hit, he said.
"Our bridge revenues suffered tremendously, about $700,000 a month over the last 20 months," Trevino said.
He's joined with other Valley officials in pleading with DHS for several months to ease the border restrictions.
"I'd say about over the last year, both as county judge and as chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, I've been advocating for the reopening of our ports of entry," Trevino said.
While closing the ports of entry to deal with the spread of the virus was understandable, but as the rest of the country began opening up, the continued imposition of border restrictions started to feel punitive, he said.
"Once we got to the point where we knew what worked, and especially once vaccines started becoming available, we felt that it was a bit unfair that the rest of the country was reopening and trying to get people back to work, and yet the Valley and the entire border from here to California was having the difficulty of not being allowed to do that, because our ports of entry were not open to 'nonessential travel,'" Trevino said.
He said he hopes the county is able to coordinate with DHS, Customs and Border Protection and Mexico's federal authorities "to help vaccinate as many people as we can on the border." Trevino said Mexican citizens currently allowed to cross can take advantage of ample supplies of free COVID-19 vaccine available through pharmacies, doctor offices and the county's ongoing vaccine clinics.
While things won't return to normal immediately after November, it will be a step back toward normal, he said.
"It's a positive sign," Trevino said. "It gives our local businesses some hope that help is on the way."
As for binational families being able to reunite after so long, it's "good for the soul," he said.
"It's good for the community, so we're looking forward to that," Trevino said.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador cheered the U.S. decision, as did the Texas Association of Business.
"As Texas' largest trading partner, easing travel restrictions with Mexico is important to the state's full economic recovery," said TAB Chief Executive Officer Glenn Hamer. "This change in policy is especially critical for our border communities, which have been clobbered by these restrictions.
"They are heavily reliant on our friends from Mexico shopping in our stores, eating in our restaurants, and staying at our hotels. We urge the Administration to provide adequate resources and staff to ensure a smooth reopening when the restrictions are lifted."
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez also issued a statement.
"Yesterday's announcement that the U.S. will allow fully vaccinated, non-essential travelers to enter through land ports of entry is welcome news for families and businesses in South Texas," he said. "I am pleased to see that the Biden administration heeded our community's calls to safely resume cross-border travel. This is an important and long-overdue step to getting our economy back on track."