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The downtown pedestrian Port of Entry on First Street in Calexico is shown on July 21. It was announced on Tuesday night, Oct. 12, that essential travel restrictions between the United States and Mexico, as well as Canada, is to end in early November. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Border Travel Limits to Lift for Vaccinated in November

Imperial County Official Says Change to Bring “Much Needed Oxygen” to Economy; Added Calexico East Hours “Likely” to Follow

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CALEXICO — Nonessential travel restrictions at the U.S. ports of entry are due to be lifted to the fully vaccinated starting in early November, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but more details are expected to be released by federal officials on Wednesday, Oct. 13.

After 19 months of international travel limited to trade and essential workers, the preliminary report comes as welcome news to one Imperial County officials who had advocated for the lifting of the restricting for at least six months.

Imperial County District 1 Supervisor and Vice Chair of the Board of Supervisors Jesus Escobar speaks during an event in front of the Calexico down Port of Entry on July 2. Escobar expressed his elation on Tuesday night, Oct. 12, to learn that the federal government’s nonessential travel restrictions between the U.S. and Mexico would be ending. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

“Assuming this is official, this is wonderful news. Looking forward to exact details on specific dates and requirements,” said Calexico-area Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Escobar, who is also vice chairperson of the county Board of Supervisors.

“This will allocate to our local economy much needed oxygen as we continue to move forward from the COVID pandemic,” Escobar said on Tuesday night, Oct. 12, about an hour after news began to break on national news sites like the New York Times.

Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña agreed when told of the news late Tuesday. “What I would say, essentially, is this comes just in time.”

The new rules will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the U.S. regardless of the reason for travel starting in early November, when a similar easing of restrictions is set to kick in for air travel into the country, according to The Associated Press. By mid-January, even essential travelers seeking to enter the U.S., like truck drivers, will need to be fully vaccinated, the AP reported.

A press release posted to Homeland Security’s website late Tuesday night gives the same information that was earlier attributed to anonymous federal sources, but no additional in-depth information.

“In alignment with the new international air travel system that will be implemented in November, we will begin allowing travelers from Mexico and Canada who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to enter the United States for non-essential purposes, including to visit friends and family or for tourism, via land and ferry border crossings,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas stated in the press release. “Cross-border travel creates significant economic activity in our border communities and benefits our broader economy. We are pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner.”

The news was made public Tuesday evening after senior administration officials previewed the new policy on the condition of anonymity to speak ahead of the formal announcement.

Both Mexico and Canada have pressed the U.S. for months to ease restrictions on travel. The latest move follows last month’s announcement that the U.S. will end country-based travel bans for air travel, and instead require vaccination for foreign nationals seeking to enter by plane.

As Imperial County has struggled mightily with lengthy border travel times in recent weeks, county officials, led by Escobar, have called on U.S. Customs and Border Protection to extend the hours of operation at the Calexico East Port of Entry to help spell the gridlock that has occurred at the West Port in the interior of Calexico.

How Wednesday’s anticipated announcement will affect the Calexico East wasn’t immediately known by Escobar.

Vehicles head north from Mexico through an inspection point at the Calexico East Port of Entry in May. Hours of operation at the port have been curtailed to a 2 p.m. closure since March 2020, and Imperial County officials are working to end that. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Since March 2020, the hours of operation at the east port have been limited to 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, which causes massive backups within the city of Calexico as essential workers and southbound U.S. travelers head to Mexicali through the west vehicle crossing.

“We will likely have more info mañana,” Escobar texted on Tuesday night, but he added that CBP would “likely” restore a “second shift from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.”

“But again, that’s a guess on my account based on previous conversations with CBP,” Escobar added.

Recently numerous Imperial Valley officials had mounted a letter campaign to compel federal legislators to intervene. The county board sent a strongly worded letter to Congressman Juan Vargas, D- Chula Vista, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kevin Padilla, both Democrats.

The Calexico City Council did the same during its most recent meeting on Oct. 6, also forwarding the letter to President Joe Biden.

Jesus Escobar talks about border travel about 8 minutes into podcast | COURTESY OF JOSE ALEJOS

Besides the early closures at the Calexico East port, construction on Highway 98 in Calexico and work by the U.S. Government Services Administration to expand the West Port of Entry private vehicle lanes from 10 lanes to 16 has snarled traffic at certain point in the evening southbound commute, and the early-morning northern commute for essential workers has also been slowed and lengthened significantly.

When asked about any potential changes to the hours of operation at Calexico East, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson on Wednesday stated that CBP “will continue to work closely with its international partners to determine how to resume normal travel safely and sustainably, and will be sure to announce any changes to hours of operation prior to the new hours being put into effect.”

Local officials have been working with the Mexican consulate in Calexico to intervene on this county’s behalf, but it wasn’t immediately known where that is in the process.

On the topic of wait times in general, Calexico Mayor Javier Moreno and City Manager Miguel Figueroa did apparently get an audience with the CBP’s counterpart in Mexicali, Lt. Col. Fernando Martinez, Moreno said during his mayor’s report at the Oct. 6 City Council meeting.

Martinez reportedly told city officials that he could not do anything to help speed along the northbound commute tying up Mexican essential workers trying to get to their jobs in the Imperial Valley, Moreno said, but then he did respond the next day.

“The next day I did put the thing to the test, and I did drive to Mexico and used the SENTRI lane,” the mayor said. “I did see six of those (12) lanes open, and it took me, wow, 12 minutes to cross, as opposed to what would take me an hour and 40 or 45 minutes.”

Moreno said he appealed to Martinez.

“Humbly, I told the lieutenant, I need your help. Calexico needs your help. Can you please open some lanes going south, and they did,” Moreno said on Oct. 6. “I think he did come through, Mr. Figueroa, which is pretty enlightening. Mr. Figueroa was there present with us also.”

As for the easing of travel restrictions, as of Tuesday night, no definite date has been attached to the “opening” of the border other than to “early November.”

Ultimately, the lifting of restrictions should breathe new life into a local economy that has been sucking wind for 19 months, especially in Calexico, where the ease of travel for day-trippers and shoppers — and their dollars — have been missed.

“We are literally running on empty when it comes to retail, because again, the vast majority of retail, especially if you look at Interstate 8 south, comes from Mexico,” Escobar said in July, as his frustration mounted with the extension of the restrictions. “They can’t cross the border and that adversely affects sales, adversely affects employment, adversely affects tax dollars. And again, it’s just a full circle effect that that we can’t get over.”

People wear face coverings (and some do not) while walking in downtown Calexico on Nov. 20, 2020. With the announcement on Tuesday night, Oct. 12, that travel restrictions for the fully vaccinated are to end in early November, county officials hope day tourism and shopping dollars will return from Mexico. | CALEXICO CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

In 2014, Imperial County saw 18.6 million people traveling into Imperial County from Mexicali through the Calexico area ports of entry, according to a 2017 Imperial Valley Border Economic Impact Study, the last known significant study done on the regional economy.

An average of 51,100 border-crossers entered the county each day during the study period, with 32,300 people entering Calexico daily through the downtown port alone.

Mexicali residents were believed to have spent some $380 million in Imperial County in 2016, accounting for 20 percent of all retail, food, and drink sales in the county that year (of $1.93 billion total), according to the study.

The decision to lift the restrictions on air travel has been celebrated by business leaders overseas and in the United States. Travel spending dropped nearly in half to about $600 billion in 2020 from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group, the New York Times reported.

“Border communities have been hamstrung because of port closures,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat who represents a border district, told the Times. “Not only did we suffer more significant health devastation in 2020, but the economic devastation has been longer for us because of those port closures.”

The new rules for travel only apply to legal entry to the U.S. Officials cautioned that those seeking to enter illegally will still be subject to expulsion under so-called Title 42 authority, first invoked by former President Donald Trump, that has drawn criticism from immigration advocates for swiftly removing migrants before they can seek asylum, according to the AP. One of the officials said the U.S. was continuing the policy because cramped conditions in Border Patrol facilities pose a COVID-19 threat.

The AP reports that according to the officials, travelers entering the U.S. by vehicle, rail and ferry will be asked about their vaccination status as part of the standard CBP admissions process. At officers’ discretion, travelers will have their proof of vaccination verified in a secondary screening process.

Unlike air travel, for which proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required before boarding a flight to enter the U.S., no testing will be required to enter the U.S. by land or sea, provided the travelers meet the vaccination requirement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That means that the AstraZeneca vaccine, widely used in Canada, will be accepted.

(This story was last updated at 3:50 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13.)

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