Border travel restrictions, immigration court shutdown extended because of COVID-19

Vehicles wait to cross the International Bridge I from Laredo into Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas on March 30, 2019. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

EL PASO — The Trump administration on Tuesday extended travel restrictions between the United States and Mexico as both countries continue to grapple with increasing cases of the new coronavirus.

But border officials say the move will add to the negative financial impact the regional economy has experienced as travelers — and money — from Mexico are blocked from crossing the border.

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced in March that travel between the United States and Mexico would be limited to essential travelers to help decrease the virus' spread between the two countries. The restrictions exclude commercial trade with Mexico, which provides about 1 million jobs to Texans, according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

The policy affects “individuals traveling for tourism purposes” like “sightseeing, recreation, gambling or attending cultural events” — but it does not apply to U.S. citizens. The same restrictions are in place on the northern border.

The restrictions were set to expire next week but will be extended for at least another 30 days, Reuters reported. The DHS statement did not specify when the policy will be reviewed again.

The lack of visitors from Mexico for another month will likely add to the multi-million dollar losses border counties have already experienced after seeing revenue from bridge tolls steadily decline during the pandemic.

Last week the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and community and business leaders from the Texas-Mexico border, urged Wolf to lift the restrictions as the Texas and Mexican governments have started to reopen their respective economies.

“As the United States and state governments work toward easing stay-at-home restrictions, foreign travel suspensions limiting entry to the U.S. have not seen a similar easing,” Cameron County Judge and TBC Chairman Eddie Treviño, Jr., wrote to Wolf. “We must protect minority-owned small businesses, cross border trade, and the influence of daily travelers between our countries who invest in binational commerce through the goods and services they acquire.”

Since the travel restrictions were announced about three months ago, County Cameron has seen a loss of about $2.1 million compared to the same time period in 2019, the TBC said in an email.

Officials in Laredo reported a drop in bridge revenue of more than $4.3 million, or more than 35 percent, for April and May compared to the same months in 2019.

The administration also announced Tuesday it is again postponing hearings in the United States for asylum-seekers under the Migrant Protection Protocols program. The policy, also called "remain in Mexico," requires that most asylum-seekers, especially those from Central America and Cuba, wait in Mexico until their hearing dates in the United States.

Homeland Security officials said they will revisit the issue next month to determine whether courts can reopen and operate according to federal guidelines.

“When conditions are deemed safe, the Departments will provide notice 15 days prior to resumption with additional, location-specific information,” the department said in a written statement.

Since the MPP program began in late 2018, more than 60,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico, including more than 20,000 in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez area.