Judge asks DHS to lift restrictions; Trevino says policy hurting border economy

A view of the Rio Grande and Gateway International Bridge Friday afternoon from Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., in his capacity as chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, has penned a new letter to Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, requesting that foreign travel restrictions limiting entry to the United States at land ports-of-entry be reexamined as the nation and Texas continue easing pandemic-related restrictions.

The travel restrictions, which prohibit non-essential travel by land into the United States from Canada and Mexico, were put into place by U.S. Customs and Border Protection over the spring based on a “health-risk designation” from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The policy specifically allows essential travel by U.S. citizens and permanent residents into the United States as well as medical travel, work- or school-related travel, and travel for the purposes of cross-border trade.

As Treviño noted in his Sept. 29 letter to Wolf, an 600 additional CBP officers that DHS announced it was deploying to the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo sectors to enforce the non-essential travel restrictions are not much in evidence at the Valley’s international bridges.

“The announcement was accompanied by an inexplicable reduction in operating lanes at most (land ports-of-entry),” Treviño wrote. “When these surged personnel are not evident at the ports and the number of lanes are reduced during peak hours, wait times have grown much longer, further impeding the passage of international goods and travelers that border communities rely on.”

Since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has further eased restrictions on the state’s economy and the State Department has lowered its official travel advisory for Mexico from Level 4 to Level 3, which shows reduced risk for travel between the two countries, it’s time to lift the restrictions on non-essential travel and redeploy the extra CBP personnel to land ports-of-entry, Treviño urged.

“This will allow for our border region to recover some of its economic vibrancy,” he wrote. “Local experience demonstrates that, even among essential travelers, there is no evidence of Mexican nationals bringing the virus to the United States.”

Treviño requested that a sufficient number of lanes be reopened at land ports-of-entry and a full complement of CBP personnel be redeployed to “maintain efficient traffic.” He also asked that CBP ensure all its personnel are “adequately outfitted with personal protective equipment… to protect the health of our officers, their families, their border communities, and all individuals seeking to cross the border.”

TBC represents U.S.-Mexico border communities from Brownsville to El Paso on issues affecting commerce, public policy and quality of life. The organization is made up of elected leaders on the city and county level as well as business and community leaders.

“Instituting efficient and safe operations at our land ports will ensure that international travelers are able to contribute to our bi-national economy,” Treviño wrote. “We need international travelers conducting crucial commercial activities to reinvigorate our economy, not waiting in line at the international ports of entry.”

Rather than help expedite the crossing of what little commercial traffic the bridges are seeing now, the additional CBP contingent has actually slowed things down by doing more lengthy and secondary inspections of commercial traffic, Treviño told The Brownsville Herald Tuesday. He said he had one or two previous letters to Wolf asking that DHS stop extending the travel restrictions, but that “so far those requests have fallen on deaf ears.”

The upshot is that non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents are essentially barred from entering the United States for purposes the government deems non-essential—shopping for instance—which has exacerbated the pandemic’s negative economic impact on this side of the border, he said. U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are returning from Mexico, meanwhile, face more questioning from CBP agents about their reason for traveling to Mexico, Treviño said.

“They’re allowing them in, but they’re just making it longer so that I guess people will think twice about going back,” he said.

Mexico has travel restrictions of its own aimed at U.S. citizens and legal residents, and is turning some people away if their reason for crossing isn’t considered essential, Treviño said. He noted that the U.S. government’s push to reopen the country hasn’t included the border region.

“The administration has been adamant about reopening the entire country to get the economy going again,” Treviño said. “But for whatever reason, our border communities and our cross-border trade and commerce has not been a priority for this administration. It’s obviously impacting all of the border communities and our ability to get our economies back in gear. … All of our retail, our downtown merchants, they’ve been dealing with a very difficult situation since all of this started. I hope this ends soon.”