Sen. John Cornyn is the latest to join a chorus of border officials asking the federal government for a plan to safely reopen the U.S.-Mexico border to “non-essential” travelers, but their efforts might just be in vain given the political climate.
The Texas Republican’s push to reopen the land ports of entry came just five days after he visited the Rio Grande Valley, where he held a roundtable with dozens of local elected officials who publicly endorsed him at the event.
In a Thursday letter addressed to Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cornyn and six other federal lawmakers expressed concern with the continued travel restrictions — which have been in place for nearly seven months — and demanded a plan to restore normal operations.
“We fully appreciate the difficult balance that DHS must strike between protecting its officers and the public against COVID-19, and facilitating the economic and social needs of border communities,” the bipartisan letter stated. “However, DHS has provided little public insight into how it weighed the costs and benefits of these extended travel restrictions.”
To further complicate the issue, U.S. Customs and Border Protection decreased vehicle and pedestrian lanes in August to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. The move, however, created longer lines and wait times for those who can cross the border.
“We worry the longer lines at ports of entry and inability to social distance in pedestrian lanes may actually increase the risk of spreading COVID-19, and DHS has not provided sufficient information to show how they are mitigating these risks,” the letter continued.
Still, similar correspondence has been sent by local officials and lawmakers, who have grown tired from months of trying to obtain clarity from the federal government.
Just last week, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, asking them to include language in the next COVID-19 Emergency Response Relief Package that would require Wolf to implement a community based program to lift the restrictions at land ports of entry.
Cuellar’s proposed language would require Wolf to consult with local leaders and their medical personnel, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, to determine the criteria necessary to lift the restrictions, and it would also require him to provide an update on the implementation of the program within seven days of the Act’s enactment.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Part of the problem is that the issue only really affects four states: California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said during a meeting last week with members of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.
“It doesn’t get a lot of traction except in the border states. That’s one of the issues for it and that’s a real problem,” the mayor said. “We don’t get a lot of help from anybody else.”
Business owners that participated in the virtual meeting said they were concerned about the restrictions and the resulting lack of Mexican shoppers.
“And here’s the stupid irony about it, Mexicans can fly to Austin, but they can’t drive to McAllen. What sense does that make,” Darling asked rhetorically.
Cornyn’s letter — which was also signed by Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and U.S. Reps. Will Hurd (TX-23), Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15), Michael McCaul (TX-10), Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-2) and Cuellar — also addressed that issue, noting the travel restrictions will have an especially pronounced effect during the holidays.
“Data show that Mexican cross-border shoppers sharply increase their purchasing during the months of November and December, spending hundreds of millions of dollars along the border and even in cities such as San Antonio,” they wrote.
The lawmakers also noted the steep drop in revenue local governments are experiencing at their international bridges, pointing specifically at those in Hidalgo County.
“For example, the McAllen-Hidalgo International Toll Bridge Fund has reported a drop in more than $2 million in revenues relative to budget through July 31, 2020, and additional revenue losses are expected,” the letter stated. “Losses like this cut into the funds that cities including McAllen and Hidalgo receive from the toll bridges, and mean that they have less money to support health, public safety, and other essential functions.”
Darling said McAllen’s bridge traffic was down 90%, though he noted commercial traffic has only been slightly affected.
He said last week he’s been on a weekly call with the White House for months and doesn’t expect those restrictions to be lifted any time soon.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen until after the election,” Darling said.