EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Last week’s COVID-19 related travel restrictions weren’t supposed to discourage commerce between the United States and Mexico.
However, businesses in Downtown El Paso and in Juarez, Mexico’s popular Juarez Avenue remained nearly empty for a third consecutive day.
In numerous interviews this past weekend, Border Report documented widespread confusion among U.S. and Mexican residents who feared they would not be allowed to return home if they crossed the border.
On Monday, the Consul General of Mexico in El Paso set out to quell such fears and to shed clarity on what people can expect entering Mexico and trying to come back to the United States under the current restrictions.
Consul Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon said his government and the United States agreed to the restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while at the same time maintaining “essential commercial activity.”
You can’t cross the border on either direction for tourism, recreation, gambling or for cultural activities. That directly affects tourist visas. However, about a quarter of the population in El Paso County was born abroad, primarily in Mexico; many hold dual citizenship and some Mexicans live in El Paso as legal permanent residents. That has led to some confusion that Ibarra tried to clarify.
“U.S. citizens and Mexican residents can go to Mexico and return to the United States […] but it is important to state you were coming for a reason considered essential,” Ibarra said. “There is no closing of the border, just limiting travel to guard against the (coronavirus) pandemic while maintaining our binational way of life.”
The Consul General, in a question-and-answer session, addressed specific concerns brought up to Border Report by area residents. His answers can be found below:
Q. I’m a U.S. citizen living in El Paso, Texas. Can I go to Juarez, Mexico to shop for cleaning items and toilet paper I cannot find in El Paso stores?
A. Yes, you can go to Juarez for this commercial activity. The limitations are only what the United States allows you to bring back into your country. Also, take into account that businesses on both sides of the border are going through the same situation (shortages).
Q. What can I expect if I try to drive into Mexico today? Must I stop and tell Mexican authorities that I am an American citizen? Or, should I follow the green light/red light inspection protocol at southbound border crossings set before the health crisis?
A. We must follow the same protocol as always. If you get a green light (keep going) or a red light (stop for inspection); we must follow that protocol. It’s possible you may be asked questions — and you should answer them — but we’re operating in the same manner as always.
Q. Who determines what is an “essential trip” to Mexico?
A. The definition of essential travel is in the (U.S.-Mexico) accord. In the case of Mexico, we are not promoting tourism trips; in the case of the United States, they consider that non-essential travel. We are just not promoting tourism trips.
Q. I live in El Paso and do contract work on my own. Sometimes I go to Mexico to buy materials. Can I keep making these trips or, given I don’t work for a formal company, are these trips considered non-essential?
A. Again, we are promoting the continuation of commerce. You can go to Mexico, the only limitation is what the United States will let you bring back.
Q. I’m a Mexican citizen and legal permanent resident of the United States. As a Mexican citizen can I go to Mexico for any reason I consider as “essential” to me?
A. Yes, Mexican citizens can enter Mexico any time they want.
Q. I’m a Mexican citizen with a “laser” or frequent border-crosser visa, I often visit El Paso to see relatives on weekends. Can I continue to do this?
A. It depends. Some situations will be evaluated case-by-case. Most likely, if it’s not a matter of life and death, travel will be restricted. But all these family situations will be evaluated by U.S. authorities on a case-by-case basis.
Q. To be clear, so for Mexicans who have the “laser visa,” they can only cross into the United States under specific situations?
A. Yes. What is limited is tourism, recreation, gambling or cultural visits. Personal reasons, such as, “well, they invited me to a cookout,” are not reasons to be allowed (into the United States).
In addition, if you have a medical procedure pending on either side of the border, as of Monday that would be considered essential travel.
“Those are basically the limitations. Everything else is meant not to negatively affect life on the border,” Ibarra said.
Earlier, U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded to related questions from Border Report.
CBP officials say it’s okay to bring back personal-use quantities of toilet paper and cleaning supplies, as long as the person trying to enter meets the entry requirements specified by the agreement (U.S. citizen, legal permanent resident).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) personnel are responsible for enhanced health screening of international travelers, and CBP is working with the CDC to identify arriving travelers who have been in mainland China or Iran within the previous 14 days.
Travelers identified by CBP officers during their primary inspection for secondary screening are seen by CDC personnel who conduct enhanced health screenings. It’s up to the CDC to make any determination as to whether any additional measures must be taken.
“Agents and officers will maintain situational awareness while identifying individuals who have traveled from or transited through affected countries. If individuals are observed with symptoms of COVID-19 we will continue to work with the CDC to determine if a traveler is a possible public health risk by referring them for enhanced screening,” CBP said. “As the COVID-19 epidemic progresses, we are reminding all CBP employees to use proper procedures to prevent the spread of communicable disease.”
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