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US-Mexico border to remain closed to ‘non-essential’ travel through June 22

A Border Patrol vehicle sits along the border fenceline separating San Diego and Tijuana Mexico watching for illegal crossings in March 2016. The border fence between San Diego and Mexico is a deterrent to illegal immigration, drug smuggling and human trafficking. The fence is regularly patrolled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents on the lookout for illegal crossings. (Donna Burton/Customs and Border Protection)

The U.S.-Mexico border will remain closed to “non-essential” travel through June, according to statements issued by the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday.

“Our efforts over the last several months to limit non-essential travel have been successful and now is not the time to change course,” said DHS Acting Sec. Chad Wolf in a statement.

“The president has made it clear that we must continue to keep legitimate, commercial trade flowing while limiting those seeking to enter our country for non-essential purposes. Non-essential travel will not be permitted until this administration is convinced that doing so is safe and secure.”

DHS first restricted all non-essential travel at the U.S.-Mexico border on March 20 and extended the restrictions April 20 for an additional 30 days. In a separate notification to be published in the federal register, DHS indicated the restrictions would remain in place until June 22.

“We have been in contact with our Canadian and Mexican counterparts and they also agree that extending these restrictions is prudent at this time,” Wolf said. “We appreciate our partnership with Mexico and Canada in ensuring that North America is working together to combat the ongoing global pandemic.”

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“Non-essential” travel includes travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature, DHS said. Commercial trucking and trade aren’t affected by the restrictions.

In practice, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have been able to cross the U.S.-Mexico border freely, as have those with valid U.S. work authorization, while Mexican holders of the B1/B2 visa — best known as a laser visa or border crossing card — have been largely prohibited from entering the U.S.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has encouraged Borderland residents who are legally permitted to cross to heed the recommendations of local health authorities: to stay home, wear a face covering when out and wash hands regularly.

Pedestrian and vehicle traffic at El Paso’s international bridges has plummeted over the past two months, as has toll revenue to the city.

With just 10 days of the restrictions in place, passenger vehicle crossings at the Bridge of the Americas — the most heavily transited international bridge in the region — dropped by a quarter in March. Traffic fell to 229,000 vehicles in March compared to more than 305,000 the same month a year ago, according to CBP data compiled by the New Mexico International Business Accelerator.

Pedestrian traffic at the downtown Paso del Norte bridge fell 79% in the March 21 to May 17 period compared to average monthly pedestrian traffic over the previous three years, according to the city’s bridges department.

El Paso charges a toll on southbound traffic at the bridges it maintains: Paso del Norte, Stanton and Ysleta. Passenger vehicles pay $3.50, while pedestrians pay 50 cents.

Revenue has evaporated as the restrictions curbed crossings.

Southbound bridge toll revenue dropped 39% in April to $991,849 from more than $1.6 million, according to the city bridges department.

That decline followed an 11% drop in March, to less than $1.7 million from more than $1.9 million in March 2019.

In its notification, DHS said, “the outbreak and continued transmission and spread of COVID-19 within the United States and globally … poses an ongoing specific threat to human life or national interests.

“Given the sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus, returning to previous levels of travel between the two nations places the personnel staffing land ports of entry between the United States and Mexico, as well as the individuals traveling through these ports of entry, at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19,” DHS said.

The COVID-19 case count in both Juárez and El Paso has continued to grow. Both cities are still at the peak of the coronavirus contagion, according to local health authorities.

There were 1,800 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 47 confirmed deaths in El Paso County as of Tuesday afternoon. In Juárez, there were another 696 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 163 deaths.

Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, head of the northern region for Chihuahua’s state health department, on Tuesday said during a news conference that the “peak” could last several days or a week — and that’s only if residents heed the protocol to stay close to home.

In a previous news conference, Valenzuela warned Juárez residents against traveling to El Paso as the city began its tentative economic reopening.

“If you, now that they are opening El Paso, go over there, you are going throw fuel on the fire that we have here in Juárez,” he said. “And forget about flattening the curve. We’re going to spike like a rocket.”

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© 2020 the El Paso Times