EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Despite hours-long waits at area ports of entry, thousands of people continue crossing the border for non-essential reasons every day, city officials say.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection last March began enforcing non-essential international travel restrictions to minimize the threat of COVID-19 spread. The mandate initially reduced traffic at ports of entry in the region, but traffic picked up in May, city officials said Monday during a City Council special work session.
Around the 21st of August, CBP cracked down on non-essential travel, shutting down several vehicle lanes at ports of entry and sending some travelers to wait for additional periods of time at secondary inspection. This has resulted in average vehicle waits of 2-3 hours according to CBP, or up to eight hours, according to El Paso city officials.
The vehicle congestion at the international bridges is such that the mayor of El Paso has asked CBP Port Director Hector Mancha to reconsider stepped-up enforcement of international travel restrictions.
“(The port director) said 70% of the traffic is still not essential, irrespective of the delays,” Mayor Dee Margo said at Monday’s virtual Council session. “I told him I would like to see it (the traffic) go away. If it’s not changing anything, I would like to see it go away and staff the bridges appropriately.”
Margo, however, said he still supports having the overall travel restrictions and even extending them another month.
Delays in crossing the border have frustrated commuters with strong family ties in the El Paso, Texas-Juarez, Mexico metroplex.
Some commuters have told Border Report they consider visiting and providing for family members in Juarez to be essential travel; others have said they’re routinely sent over to Juarez by their employers on errands and aren’t given the chance to not wait in line with non-essential border crossers.
Margo said the bottleneck could increase at the ports of entry once El Paso schools begin in-person classes. Some 6,000 secondary education students who are U.S. citizens live in Juarez and will be crossing into El Paso every day, while another 1,000 attend classes at the University of Texas at El Paso, he said.
Margo said he’s been told that CBP is staffing “a little over 50% of the lines” at the ports of entry every day and that port directors will be meeting with their leadership in Washington, D.C., this year to discuss the situation.
“Maybe we’ll have a change then,” he said. “We gotta get this thing worked out appropriately, and if it’s not changing the behaviors of non-essential travelers …”
Margo added he’s been told it’s likely that the federal government will extend the travel restrictions on Sept. 21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic still not being under control. He said he agreed with the part of extending the restrictions because the coronavirus, indeed, is still not under control in El Paso or in Juarez.
In a statement sent to Border Report, CBP’s Mancha said the agency’s goal is merely to slow the spread of the coronavirus and that he believes measures taken at the ports of entry will benefit residents of El Paso and Juarez.
“We value our ongoing relationship with Mayor Margo and the city staff who work directly with CBP on matters of mutual concern regarding the international crossings. I did speak with the Mayor and listened to his concerns regarding wait times. I am traveling to D.C. in the days ahead and will share the Mayor’s concerns with my CBP leadership.
Mancha confirmed the efforts to reduce non-essential travel are resulting in longer than normal wait times, especially during weekend and off-peak travel hours.
“Despite this it appears many members of our community continue to travel in numbers consistent to what we experienced before this initiative was implemented. We hope that members of our community reassess their need to cross the border and limit their trips accordingly for the common good,” he said.
International Bridges Director David Coronado showed Council charts documenting spikes in bridge congestion, beginning with the migrant surge early last year that forced CBP to take officers off the ports of entry to help the U.S. Border Patrol manage processing thousands of asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants.
“We are essentially at the same levels we had during the migrant crisis,” he said.
Coronado added that city officials have asked customers and employees if border wait times are as high as eight hours, as various news outlets have reported, and that those individuals have said yes.
City charts distributed as part of the Council session show that the largest portion of Americans who cross into Mexico are older men, those who cross for social and family reasons and to shop. Only 9% cross for work or business reasons.