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Binational community of El Paso, Juarez eager to rejoin after nearly two years of border restrictions

Lauren Villagran
  • At midnight Sunday, Homeland Security is expected to lift the COVID-19 restrictions on non-essential travel at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Under normal circumstances, about 22,000 shoppers per day visited El Paso from northern Mexico.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the number of days the border n closed.

Five hundred ninety-seven days. 

That's how long Kelly Maing has kept her women's clothing store on life support in Downtown El Paso without her loyal Mexican customers. How long 48-year-old Juárez resident Bertha Armendariz has waited to shop at the store she considers her neighborhood Walmart, even if it is in El Paso. How long juarense Mike Santillanes has wanted to make the 2,000-foot climb on his bike over the Transmountain pass where the Borderland appears seamless from on high.

Bertha Armendariz, a U.S. visa holder, will have an opportunity to cross into the U.S. to attend a Ricky Martin concert as the reopening of the border will resume on November 8, 2021 to Mexican citizens on the border.

At midnight Sunday, Homeland Security is expected to lift the COVID-19 restrictions on non-essential travel at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The international traffic never stopped: U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, considered "essential" under the rules, crisscrossed between El Paso and Juárez, as did those with U.S. work authorization or student visas. But the restrictions shut out tens of thousands of Mexican nationals with tourist visas known as border crossing cards. 

News of the reopening came as a welcome, but bitter, pill to many in the Borderland.

Excitement over families reuniting and shoppers returning was tempered by feelings of apprehension, mistrust and even anger on both sides of the border built up over the nearly 20 months the ports were partially closed.

More:Mexican tourists eager to cross U.S. border find yearlong wait for visa renewals, applications

Kelly Maing, who manages her family's Pinochio women's clothing and accessories store at 612 S. El Paso St., in Downtown El Paso, helps customers on Oct. 27, 2021.

"It should have happened a long time ago," El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said, adding that federal officials have left Borderland leaders in the dark over what criteria they used, or could use in the future, to restrict crossings.

"I feel we are playing a basketball game and there is no scoreboard," he said. "At the end they tell you you lost or you won, and you don’t know why."

The restrictions on non-essential travel spanned two presidential administrations. They outlasted by many months the reopening of the economy in Texas and in northern Mexican states. They endured even after COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. border counties such as El Paso topped 70%.

And they were historic.

The U.S. government has rarely stopped legal travel at the Mexican border. It happened briefly following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, again after the killing of Drug Enforcement Agency agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in 1985 and in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001. Individual ports have been closed when unauthorized immigration has become an issue, as happened in Del Rio, Texas, last month.

More:Assassination, torture, drug smuggling fuel history of US-Mexico border closing, scrutiny

Never have there been restrictions on legal travel this broad or long-lasting.

Traffic heading into Ciudad Juarez backup at the interchange of Intestate Highway 10 and State Highway 54 on a Friday afternoon on Oct. 30, 2021.

"We are a binational and bicultural community and have deep and longstanding relationships on both sides of the border," El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said. "This is great progress, just in time for the holidays."

Juárez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuellar called the reopening "a relief for the majority of the fronterizos who wanted the possibility to cross to El Paso."

Cross-border traffic has climbed in recent months, as the pandemic has ebbed and those who were considered “essential” traveled more frequently. Passenger vehicle crossings at El Paso-area international bridges neared 800,000 in August, according to a study by the Border Region Modeling Project at the University of Texas at El Paso. That's just shy of the roughly 1 million vehicle crossings per month pre-pandemic.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Director of Field Operations Hector Mancha said he has hired new customs officers in recent months and “is in a better position” than before the pandemic to meet what’s expected to be a surge in traffic in the coming weeks.

“There are many, many people that have been waiting for this moment,” Mancha said.

“Nobody anticipated that this pandemic would last as long as it has," he said. "People have not crossed over to visit with family in going on two years. So this is critical for all international border crossings but especially communities like El Paso, which is really one community separated (from Juárez) by a bridge.”

Downtown El Paso shop owner 'basically surviving'

Kelly Maing, 46, has spent much of her life working in the Downtown El Paso clothing store started 33 years ago by her parents, who emigrated from South Korea.

“See how sad it is? It’s so quiet,” she said on a recent weekday, wearing a blue work apron and a face mask. “We’re basically surviving ... A lot of stores closed.”

Kelly Maing, inside her family's Pinochio women's clothing and assessories store at 612 S. El Paso St., in Downtown El Paso on Oct. 27, 2021. Her parents founded the store 33 years ago after emigrating from South Korea.

The store she manages, Pinochio, sells an array of women’s purses, necklaces, bracelets, other accessories and clothing. She and other Korean American store owners on South El Paso Street catered to Mexican customers, who regularly crossed the Paso del Norte, or Santa Fe, bridge connecting the downtown shopping districts of El Paso and Juárez.

Under normal circumstances, about 22,000 shoppers per day visited El Paso from northern Mexico, according to pre-pandemic survey data by the city of El Paso International Bridges Department.

They accounted for as much as 14% of total retail sales in El Paso, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In 2019, that translated into $1 billion in what is known as "retail exports."

The loss of those sales hit downtown shops especially hard.

Maing said about 80% of her sales before the pandemic were to Mexican customers, including many Juarez business owners who bought merchandise for their own stores, she said.

“We don’t make money without them,” Maing said.

More:El Paso leaders hope expanded reopening of US-Mexico bridges brings renewed prosperity

Although many of Maing's customers have been texting her to confirm that the bridges really are reopening, she’s anxious.

“The worry is we’re expecting so much," she said, "but we might get disappointed."

Cindy Ramos-Davidson, chief executive officer for El Paso’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said retailers are expressing a mix of excitement and skepticism.

At center, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego speaks to Juarez Mayor Cruz Perez Cuellar as U.S. Consul in Juarez Eric Cohan listens at far left during a public event at the Parque Publico Federal Chamizal in October 2021.

Could there be another border closure at the last second? Will there be enough products for the shoppers visiting from Juárez? Will they return in the numbers from before?

“Right now retailers in that arena, are really scrambling on where to get certain products that they would normally be in abundance with during this time," Ramos-Davidson said. "But they are apprehensive to take a risk to rank up because they weren't sure that the border would open because it's been closed for 19 months.”

Children crossing on their own

El Pasoan Maritza Lozano, 27, said she worries every school day about her 15-year-old cousin, a U.S. citizen and El Paso High sophomore who has been crossing the bridge from Juárez alone since in-person classes came back in session.

"My uncle used to get up early to take her but now she has to find a way to come walking by herself," Lozano said. "She sometimes stays with me. And right now that it's getting cold, I tell her she should stay."

The border restrictions forced many U.S. citizen children to grow up fast, as they found themselves crossing the border on their own, responsible for getting themselves to school.

People begin to line up at the Zaragoza Bridge heading north to the U.S. from Ciudad Juarez. Hundreds of students cross the international border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso daily to attend public schools.

Lozano worries during the gap when her cousin is out of touch, waiting in the Santa Fe bridge line inside the customs house, where cellphone use is prohibited. She worries about her cousin crossing busy streets downtown and taking the city bus to school.

"I'm always texting her, asking her 'ya cruzaste?' or where are you?" she said. "I know sometimes they don't let you use your phones."

Lozano said it's been hard for her extended family to be divided physically and not able to see much of each other, as well.

"My aunt lives over there by herself. She got depressed about three weeks ago and was taken to the hospital," she said. "So now my cousin has been staying over there so (her mother) won't be alone."

U.S. citizen students in Juarez pack the Ysleta-Zaragoza international bridge ridge to enter the U.S. Hundreds of U.S. citizens, whose lives straddle the border, cross from Ciudad Juarez and El Paso on a daily basis to attend school.

Diverging pandemic strategies

When Homeland Security announced the border restrictions on March 20, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was plunging the world into uncertainty over a deadly and unpredictable virus. Authorities on both sides of the border quickly followed the restrictions with stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.

But the neighbors' strategies to fight the pandemic soon diverged, creating friction in the Borderland.

Drawing on seemingly limitless resources, the U.S. relied on testing and, eventually, massive distribution of vaccines to curb the virus. Slow to buy vaccines in a competitive global market, Mexico used the blunt tools of business shutdowns, restrictions on large gatherings and mask mandates. The inequality came to bear this spring when Juárez faced a wave of contagion even as El Paso was vaccinating residents by the thousands per day.

Chihuahua Public Health nurse Jesus Morales administers COVID-19 vaccines to factory workers that were bused-in to El Punto en el Chamizal during a vaccination drive for 50-to-59 year-olds on May 24, 2021 in the city of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

Mexicans in the Borderland 18 and older gained access to shots over the summer, thanks in part to U.S. vaccine donations to Mexico and local efforts to vaccinate Juárez factory workers at the Tornillo port of entry.

"There should be lots of lessons learned," said. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso), who has called for a unified binational strategy to fight pandemics. "We have to create standardized policies to keep the public health interest at the forefront."

Return of a binational weekend ritual

Mike Santillanes used to rise early on weekends and bike from his home in Juárez to the Bridge of the Americas. There he would meet other Mexican cyclists to ride across the bridge into the U.S. They would pick up more cyclists along Copia Street in El Paso and then start their training ride.

Santillanes, 28, has been a competitive road and mountain cyclist for eight years. Better roads and bigger mountains drew him to El Paso.

"The hardest part of being a cyclist in Juárez is the traffic," he said. "The driving culture in the United States is a little more respectful than in Mexico."

Angel Paez, a vendor who has worked at the Puente Libre since 1988, doesn’t expect for things to change much once the border reopens. He believes most visa holders will wait to see what kind of reception will be given to the first Mexican nationals crossing with U.S. visas.

It has been nearly two years since Santillanes has practiced this binational weekend ritual, and he said he misses the comradery of the mixed-nationality group. Some of his El Paso friends have crossed to ride in Juárez during the pandemic, but others he has not seen since early 2020.

But when the bridges reopen, Santillanes won't be making the trek to El Paso. Like thousands of other juarenses whose border crossing cards expired during the pandemic, Santillanes is waiting on the U.S. Consulate in Juárez to renew his visa.

The backlog of visa applications has pushed consular appointments well into 2023.

More:Mexican tourists eager to cross U.S. border find yearlong wait for visa renewals, applications

Once his visa is renewed, he wants to ride over Transmountain gap of the Franklin Mountains, a challenging route that climbs over 2,000 feet.

"It will be great to be able to cross back over," he said. "We've already done all the routes here in Juárez and are ready for a change."

Family, church visits on the horizon

News of the reopening stoked a flurry of activity in Juárez, as people hunted down their border crossing cards, unused since March 2020, or readied paperwork to renew their visas. Those who will be able to cross made plans to see loved ones in the U.S. or make their first trips to favorite stores like Walmart, the Cielo Vista Mall or the Ross Dress for Less discount store affectionately known by juarenses as "La Ross."

Currency exchange houses around Juárez advertised their rates in red and green blinking lights, 19 or 20 pesos to the dollar — the Mexican currency near a record low.

At Grupo Francie storefronts, people lined up with folders and documents in hand, hoping the provider of U.S. and Mexican passport and visa services could get their border crossing cards renewed. 

Sergio Tejeda, an industrial engineer, waited outside the Grupo Francie in a strip mall in central Juárez to renew his border crossing card.

Bertha Armendariz, a U.S. visa holder, will have an opportunity to cross into the U.S. to attend a Ricky Martin concert as the reopening of the border will resume on November 8, 2021 to Mexican citizens on the border.

"I have family over there," he said, "My mother, my brothers. They come here but not very often."

Bertha Armendariz, 48, posted a message to the 262,000 members of the Facebook group Reporte de Puentes: "See you soon. Been missing you. Ajuaaaa!" She can't wait until she can shop at the Walmart in El Paso, she said, which is closer to her eastside Juárez home than the one in her city.

Plus, she has tickets to the Ricky Martin concert in El Paso on Wednesday, which she was about to sell before the U.S. announced the reopening. She cut it close.

"Estamos pasando de panzazo," she said. "We're getting through by the skin of our teeth." She added in English, laughing: "I'm ready."

Manuela Castañeda, 63, rattled off her wish list of what she'll do when the border reopens: go shopping, travel, visit her family. She has close cousins living in Las Cruces that she can't wait to see. She'll give it a few days, though, she said.

"We'll see how the situation is" at the border, she said.

Juárez resident Olga Beatriz Lugo has been crossing the border with her visa on school days to bring her daughter to the Lydia Patterson Institute in the Segundo Barrio, something CBP has tolerated since students are considered "essential."

But what Lugo is really looking forward to, she said, is crossing again on Sundays to attend church at the Abundant Living Faith Center in El Paso. Sundays were her day to practice her faith and relax into the security she feels in El Paso, she said.

She misses her church community, she said.

After these challenging two years, she said, "what we all need more than anything now is God."

The 'small life' of the border

How CBP manages the reopening could determine what of "normal" Borderland life is restored and what may be lost, said Joe Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.

CBP officials warned last week that travelers should expect longer-than-normal wait times at ports of entry.

El Paso's CBP field office has been training new customs officers during the pandemic, often doubling up new hires to learn from experienced officers on Sundays. Still, visa holders are being asked to show their COVID-19 vaccination cards, and that will likely slow down border traffic.

More:US ports of entry are reopening to tourism; here's what you need to know

It is the crossing that makes this community distinctive, Heyman said. When legitimate border crossing is made difficult — as it often was during the Trump administration and as it has been throughout the pandemic — people tend to stay on "their" side.

"What is lost is the everyday normal, the 'small' life of the border," Heyman said.

The visit to see a cousin in El Paso. The cup of coffee or night out with friends in Juárez. The shopping trip to the mayoreo y menoreo wholesale and retail shops Downtown. The run for a jalapeño Whataburger. Sundays with la abuelita in Juárez.

"The 'small life' is only small in each individual act," he said, "but collectively it adds up."

Cristina Carreon, Maria Cortes Gonzalez, Anthony Jackson, Vic Kolenc, Trish Long and Martha Pskowski contributed to this report.