HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) — Right after border restrictions with Mexico were lifted at midnight on Monday, taxi cab owner Vega Rojas said he saw an immediate increase in customers wanting rides.
Stationed at the McAllen-Hidalgo-International Bridge in South Texas, Rojas said he took Mexicans to visit families, some to restaurants and others to the downtown McAllen bus station where they were heading out to other U.S. cities.
“It was a steady stream of people coming over,” Rojas said in Spanish as he tried to hail down his next fare on Monday morning. “It’s great because more people are starting now to come from Mexico. They are coming to shop and for us (families).”
After nearly 20 months of border restrictions — put in place to help stop the spread of coronavirus between the United States, Mexico and Canada — the reopening of the borders to fully vaccinated Mexican tourists and non-essential personnel was a relief to border communities in South Texas that have suffered economically during the shutdown.
“This will be good for our businesses,” Rojas said. “We need more people for our taxis.”
Edgar Hernandez, 27, of Pharr, Texas, returned home on Monday morning after a weekend visiting family and his girlfriend in Coahuila, Mexico. And while he said he’s excited that his girlfriend can now come to visit him, he said the lines were long at the port of entry in Hidalgo for those crossing from Reynosa, Mexico.
He waited nearly an hour in what usually has taken him 25 minutes. And because he is a U.S. citizen, he was not required to show his COVID-19 vaccinations, however, he said he is fully vaccinated.
“There were two lanes: one for U.S. residents and citizens and the other for tourists, and the tourists were all with their papers and with their visas and vaccines from Mexico,” said Hernandez, a restaurant worker. “But they were taking super long for us, as U.S. residents and citizens. The tourist lane was faster.”
The Biden administration has lifted the Trump-era border restrictions — implemented in March 2020 — for travelers with proper visas and who are fully vaccinated for coronavirus.
“Travelers who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and have appropriate documentation are now permitted to enter the United States via our land and ferry border crossings for non-essential reasons such as visiting friends and family and engaging in tourism,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday in a statement.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are being added to land ports of entry on the Southwest border to help screen and more quickly process those coming into the United States, several officials told Border Report.
And Mayorkas said travel will be resumed as efficiently as possible “while protecting our communities and economic security.”
Border communities have suffered since the border restrictions went into place.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, estimates $30 billion in goods and services were lost during the closure.
The restrictions “had a devastating impact on retail sales in our border communities. The reduction of Mexican shoppers resulted in a decrease in labor, income, and demand for goods and services, our economies lost billions of dollars,” he said in a statement. “Now our economies are on a path to full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Every year, an estimated 18 million Mexican nationals come across the border to shop and for other U.S. services and spend about $19 billion.
“Here on the border, the Rio Grande, and the Rio Bravo — as Mexicans call it — it doesn’t divide us, but it unites us together,” Cuellar said during a Monday morning news conference in Laredo with several Mexican and U.S. officials.
“This is a very special day for us. The fact that the restrictions have been lifted on non-essentials,” Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said.
Cuellar said he and Saenz on Monday met with CBP officials who vowed to try to streamline tourists as quickly as possible.
In order to move lines along, not everyone is required to show their vaccination card, but they should be prepared to do so if asked.
“So what we are doing is we make sure Mexicans come over here and spend money,” Cuellar said.
Travelers at the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge on Nov. 8, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
“Today marks a significant day for this community’s road to economic revitalization. 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,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said.
With nearly 20 months of border closures, many mom-and-pop businesses along the border went under.
Perfume shop owner Kish Mansinghani said 10 stores on the McAllen street where he has his shop have shuttered their doors since restrictions began.
“We’ve been waiting for a year and a half for the tourists to come from Mexico. We’ve been kind of getting by. It’s been really tough,” he told Border Report when the White House announced restrictions would finally be lifted on Nov. 8.
Martin Gonzalez, 59, of Victoria, Texas, is in the oil and gas industry and says he crosses every two weeks to Mexico on business. On Monday, however, as he was preparing to go south of the border, he said he was prepared for longer lines during his return trip home.
“It’s going to change. It’s going to be a lot more people and that’s good for the businesses over here because it was almost empty over here. I think it’s going to be good for everyone,” Gonzalez said.
Twenty-year-old university student Sherley Fajardo, of Reynosa, Mexico, crossed at 7 a.m., expecting longer lines. She was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t swamped as she waited to catch a ride to a store.
She has not been to the United States since restrictions were imposed and she has saved up to buy a new computer and other necessary school supplies, she told Border Report in Spanish.
“It was very calm this morning. There weren’t that many people on the bridge but it’s the first day,” Fajardo said.
Along the Southwest border, there were reports of a relatively calm opening to the border. But most border communities expect shoppers will be in full force this weekend.
Fajardo said she proudly showed her vaccination card to CBP officers and she said “they looked at it quickly and let me cross. I’ve waited many months to cross to shop.”