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'We feel like we're back home': Wait times drop as US-Mexico border reopens to tourism

El Paso Times staff

The bridges were as quiet as a hushed holiday morning, as if nothing monumental had happened.

Although it had: On Monday, Nov. 8, the U.S. lifted COVID-19 restrictions on non-essential travel at the U.S.-Mexico border after nearly 20 months. Yet on the first morning of the reopening, one of the busiest land crossings on the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border was uncharacteristically empty. 

Monday mornings are typically busy crossing times, as students and workers return to El Paso from weekends in Juárez. But many commuters rushed to cross on Sunday night, anticipating morning crowds of visa holders that never materialized. 

Juárez resident Susana Hernández used her tourist visa to cross the Downtown Paso del Norte bridge for the first time since March 2020, to buy clothes in El Paso for her business in Juárez. She smiled and flashed her vaccine card.

“We’re happy,” she said. “We feel like we’re back home.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffed nearly every vehicle and pedestrian lane at El Paso's three busiest bridges: the Paso del Norte, Bridge of the Americas and Ysleta-Zaragoza. The signs for the fast-pass "Ready Lanes" glowed green, with few of the red-lit "closed" signs that border commuters dread.

"The CBP leadership in El Paso understood just how important today was," said CBP El Paso spokesman Roger Maier.

"Significant effort went into to making sure we could deliver the best possible service on a day when the potential for being tested was very high," he said. "A lot of planning went into it to make sure we were as prepared as possible. It appears the hard work is paying off."

Short border wait times surprise travelers

Vehicle and pedestrian traffic was light between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez during rush hour when there is nearly always a snarl of bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks, and people stepping forward at a snail's pace.

Cars headed north sped up El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas freely at 8 a.m.

“I’ve hardly sold anything,” said newspaper salesman José Fierro, whose rack was still filled with El Diario newspapers and PM tabloids at 8 a.m. He had been there on the curb since 3 a.m., he said. There was some traffic before dawn, then nothing. “Everyone crossed yesterday, panicked about how the lines were going to be today.”

'I am so happy':US border reopens to vaccinated Mexican tourists

Passenger vehicle and pedestrian wait times fell to about 10 minutes at El Paso’s three busiest crossings by 10 a.m. Monday, according to the CBP Border Wait Times application.

Margarita Sanchez, 48, walked up the Paso Del Norte bridge to ask CBP officers stationed at the top if her COVID-19 vaccine card was sufficient to cross. She carried a card that marked down the two Pfizer shots she obtained in Denver.

The answer was yes.

After a year and a half without being able to cross the border bridges, in July, Sanchez said she traveled to Chihuahua City four hours south of Juárez and flew to Denver to help a friend with her newborn. While travel by Mexican tourists was restricted at the land border, air travel was never similarly affected.

She stayed a month and got vaccinated while there.

She wouldn’t go to El Paso today — but soon.

“The important thing is they reopened bridges,” she said, marveling at the lack of traffic. “I wish the bridges were like this every day.”

People cross the Paso del Norte international bridge on Nov. 8, 2021, in El Paso. The U.S.-Mexico border reopened to vaccinated Mexican nationals after almost two years of restrictions.

Shopping and Chinese food

It had been more than a year since Juárez resident Rosi Barcenas, 61, had set foot in El Paso. On Monday morning, she was back for the first time since March 2020, sitting by the Mexican artist Sebastián's blue “Aguacero” sculpture on the north side of the Paso Del Norte Bridge Downtown.

She had missed shopping and visiting her two sisters, who live in El Paso, and who would take her to eat Chinese food.

Although Barcenas' sisters would go see her in Juárez, their visits had become more infrequent as the pandemic took its toll. On Monday, she walked over the bridge and waited about 20 minutes to cross.

“I am very happy,” Barcenas said. “I can come shopping here in El Paso. I can come eat the things I like here, and I can see my sisters more frequently.”

Q&A:CBP Field Operations Director Hector Mancha talks border bridge staffing, Nov. 8 reopening

Thin border crowds on Monday morning made it easy for students who cross the U.S.-Mexico border to get to school on time. 

It was 'wear your pajamas' to school day at the Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso's Segundo Barrio. Parents and their children crossed together — no need for special permission or exceptions — on the first day the U.S.-Mexico border reopened to non-essential travel.

Stay-at-home Juárez parent Sandra Chagoga said she wasn't surprised it took very little time to cross. She saw how people began lining up Sunday afternoon and how the lines were heavy into the night.

Thinking there would be fewer people crossing Monday as a result, Chagoga woke up at her normal time to do her routine and take her daughter to school. She said she expects it will be easier take her daughter to school now that the border has reopened.

Alicia Tagle, 60, second from left, and others line up on the Paso Del Norte International bridge awaiting the reopening of the border for Mexicans with U.S. tourist visas on Nov. 7, 2021.

Hunting for US quality, bargains

Vehicles with Mexican plates again filled El Paso store parking lots — a familiar site in El Paso before the pandemic.

Miguel Picaz, 62, from Juárez, Mexico, wearing a T-shirt with the U.S. flag’s Stars and Stripes, said he was happy to again be able to shop at the Cielo Vista Walmart in East Central El Paso after more than a year absence.

“I like the United States. I have three grandchildren who are American citizens,” he said. “I have a picture of George Washington in my house.”

“I will buy some food, clothes,” and other items, he said. His son was with him.

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

Haydee Gonzalez and Antonio Silva shopped at the Ross Dress for Less clothing store at the edge of the Bassett Place mall in East Central El Paso. Clothes and electronics have a better quality and better price in El Paso than in Juárez, they said.

They also planned to go to Burlington and the Cielo Vista Walmart — stores they frequented, along with Ross, before the border was closed to Mexican shoppers. Sometimes they also shopped at the Outlet Shoppes of El Paso in far West El Paso County.

“It (border) was closed too long,” Gonzalez said.

People cross through the Paso del Norte International bridge Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in El Paso. The U.S. - Mexico border reopened to vaccinated individuals after almost two years of restrictions.

'Way too lonely'

Sunrise Wigs, on El Paso Street, opened an hour early on Monday anticipating the return of their Mexican customers. But at 9:30 a.m. the store was empty except for two employees.

Genesis Alvarado, one of those employees, is a U.S. citizen who lives in Juárez and crosses by foot four or five time a week to come to work. She arrived at the Paso del Norte bridge Monday at 6:30 a.m. and made it across in an hour and a half. That’s been the average wait time for the past three or four months, she said.

“There wasn’t the number of people that I expected,” she said. “Hopefully people start coming back little by little.”  

The pandemic dealt a triple blow to Sunrise Wigs. The border restrictions took away their Mexican customers, the pandemic lockdowns cut off business for their hairdresser clientele and the economic downturn limited shoppers’ budgets for beauty supplies.

“We used to have five or six employees on the floor working before the pandemic. Now we only have two,” said employee Gisel Barraza. “I was nervous all day yesterday and right now we’re just anxious to have everyone back. The last two years here has been way too lonely.”

Daniel Borunda, Cristina Carreon, Vic Kolenc, Mónica Ortiz Uribe Martha Pskowski and Lauren Villagran contributed to this report.