U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, during a roundtable Tuesday said he remains optimistic that U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials could “partially lift” travel restrictions for non-essential travelers during the holiday season.

In a letter dated Oct. 6 to DHS, Cuellar requested the agency “establish and implement a community-based program to partially lift COVID-19 travel restrictions,” for those travelers deemed “non-essential.”

In late March, amid COVID-19, the U.S. and Mexico entered into a joint agreement restricting non-essential travel along the U.S.-Mexico border. Non-essential travel includes travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature.

The current restriction, which has been extended monthly since its inception, is currently in effect until Oct. 21.

Cuellar explained that part of his proposal requires DHS officials to consult with “local community leaders,” to determine criteria to partially lift travel restrictions, as well as “restoring non-essential traveler lanes and reinstating U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to oversee traffic in those lanes.”

But ultimately, Cuellar said it would be up to the leaders in each border community to make the final call on lifting any travel restrictions.

“It’s basically local control, if a community says, no our (COVID-19) cases are too high, and we don’t want to open up, they don’t have to engage (U.S. Customs and Border Protection),” Cuellar said.

In late August, Cuellar announced the deployment of roughly 600 CBP officers, many of them from airports around the country, to ports of entry in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. The additional officers were sent in part because of personnel shortages because at that time more than 1,200 officers had tested positive for COVID-19.

Delays for non-essential travelers had become the norm since August, when Cuellar said those who are not deemed “essential,” would likely face delays at ports of entry.

He said as of Tuesday, CBP was told they could begin “engaging” local communities about the idea of lifting some restrictions, but that will be on a community-to-community basis, as each “border community,” would have to decide if it’s in their interest.

“… Every community has a different scenario, every community has different challenges, every community, if they want to, can engage with CBP,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said he hopes DHS Secretary Chad Wolf will agree to the request as October, November and December are important months in border communities.

During the roundtable, Cuellar said three possible outcomes are expected as response to the letter. DHS reopens under his plan, which includes dialogue between community officials and federal government officials, DHS delays implementation of the reopening for a week, or lastly, DHS decides to extend the restriction an additional 30 days — something Cuellar is hoping does not happen.

Cuellar, who emphasized that the idea was for a partial lift, not a full one, said he is now waiting to hear back from DHS officials as to whether they would be on board with a partial lift.

He said he was hoping to have a response from DHS before Oct. 21, when another extension of the restriction could be announced.