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Families, communities reunited as US-Mexico border reopens

Land ports along the U.S.-Mexico border reopened Monday to “non-essential travel” for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

In March of 2020, then president Donald Trump restricted all “non-essential” travel through U.S. border land ports in response to COVID-19. That designation included tourism, shopping, and visits to see friends and family.

Related: The Feds Targeted The Border For Pandemic Enforcement. Did It Work?

DHS prepared for major volume on Monday as bridges across the U.S.-Mexico border reopened to fully vaccinated travelers. The U.S.-Mexico border is the busiest land border in the world, with more than one million people crossing every day before the pandemic struck.

“Today marks a significant day for this community’s road to economic revitalization," said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez. "With the opening of our international ports of entry to our neighbors for non-essential purposes we begin the process of reuniting families and providing a welcome jolt of economic activity to our businesses. We have been calling for this day to happen for months and I am happy that it is finally here.”

Congressman Henry Cuellar has been working with the federal government on planning the re-opening for the past six months.

"We're here for two reasons. One: its economics. Two: its family," Cuellar said at a press conference Monday in front of the Gateway of the Americas International Bridge in Laredo. "We understand here on the border that the Rio Grande — or the Rio Bravo as the Mexicans call it — doesn't divide us but actually unites us. We want to make sure Mexicans come over here and spend money. Before the pandemic, they were spending over $19 billion. So if you do the math, we've lost over $30 billion."

At the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, Amalia Lopez was excited to be able to visit once again after 20 months of COVID restrictions.

“I’m going straight to go drink a coffee at Whataburger, which I used to love," she told TPR Monday. "And then I’m going shopping before heading back.”

Lopez said she plans to return over the weekend to visit relatives in Texas.

While the DHS reopening announcement has been broadcast widely since mid October, some border residents who have been waiting for the travel restrictions to end are just finding out.

Maricela De Leon has two brothers who are not yet citizens like she is, but have been in Mexico since last year — unable to use the border crossing cards that allowed them to visit her in the US before the pandemic.
For Maricela, finding out about the end of travel restrictions was welcome news.

“We knew of course that we couldn’t cross. But we didn’t know they’re about to open,” she said in Spanish. “Thank god! How wonderful! That’s very good news, yes.”

Other residents in the region have been preparing since the day DHS announced the change.

Josefina Martinez, a resident of Reynosa just south of the largest international bridge in Hidalgo County, said she’s been the only individual in her family with the proper documentation to cross both ways between the two countries during the pandemic.

In the past two years, she’s acted as a go-between as her family endured the loss of three lives from COVID on both sides of the border.

“I’ve been running back and forth to help take care of my niece whose mother died from COVID in the United States,” she said in Spanish. “In my family in Reynosa, people died as well. Two brothers. Three family members died one after the other, month by month.”

But Monday, her family’s situation changed dramatically as several of her relatives will be able to visit the U.S. using a border crossing card.

“My mother hasn’t been able to see her grandchildren in all this time,” Martinez said. “For her this is great news because she’ll finally be able to be with them after the loss of their mother. She feels they have been alone.”

Martinez said her relatives in Mexico sought vaccinations since the day of the DHS announcement and are eagerly waiting to cross Monday.

The non-essential travel restrictions were based on a part of the U.S. Health Code called Title 19, one of two health codes enacted by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Biden administration continues its use of another part of the health code, Title 42, to expel asylum-seeking migrants arriving at the border.

Pablo De La Rosa