U.S. lawmakers raise concerns as border restrictions turn transit hubs into ‘ghost towns’
Restricted tourism and recreation travel along the southern border causes economic decline in border towns.
Southern border leaders, frustrated with long lines and failing economies, are urging the federal government to find a permanent solution to restrictions that limit tourists and shoppers from crossing between the U.S. and Mexico by land.
The restrictions on nonessential travel across the southern and northern borders, implemented in March to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, have been renewed monthly. On Friday, restrictions along both borders were renewed until Oct. 21.
"We will continue to base our decisions on the best public health advice available to keep Canadians safe," Public Safety Minister Bill Blair tweeted from Ottawa.
A tweet from the Mexican Embassy in Washington also pointed to continuing fears about the spread of Covid-19: "The restrictions will remain in effect in the same terms as developed since their initial implementation on March 21st. & will continue coordinating sanitary measures in the border region."
The southern border ban has led to significant economic decline in towns that depend on consumers from across the border, and lawmakers say a month-by-month extension does not provide a long-term solution.
“Over 18 million Mexicans would come over to the U.S. to spend over $19 billion. Those tourists are now called nonessential. We call them essential,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). “We need a strategy and extending every 30 days is no strategy.”
Cuellar says the decline in shoppers in his district has turned large cross-country transit centers, such as Laredo, “into ghost towns.” He says visitors from Mexico are essential to businesses, especially in the upcoming holiday shopping season.
Sales taxes in Laredo are down 6 percent so far in 2020 over 2019, largely because of a lack of Mexican shoppers, and many business remain closed because of the drop in customers, Mayor Pete Saenz said.
“We are so dependent on Mexican shoppers,” Saenz told POLITICO. “I have seen 40 to 60 percent dependency on Mexican shoppers.”
While the U.S. State Department lowered its travel advisory for Mexico to a Level 3 "Reconsider Travel" from its highest possible Level 4 "Do Not Travel," nonessential travel for tourism and recreation by land remain prohibited. Cuellar said it is unfair to allow nonessential travel through airports but not land ports.
The pandemic has hit both the U.S. and Mexico hard. The U.S. has posted over 200,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19 with an average 2,050 cases per 100,000 people. Mexico is nearing 73,500 deaths with an average case count of 553 per 100,000.
Cuellar’s concern about the economic impact is shared by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), who says it's not unusual for people to go back and forth across the border every day, even just for lunch.
“It is safe to assume that revenues will be noticeably lower this year. This is, of course, a concern, and serves as another example of how the pandemic has harmed our economy,” Kirkpatrick told POLITICO.
A University of Arizona study found that in 2014, Mexican tourists contributed about $2.5 billion to Arizona’s economy, supporting around 30,000 jobs. Kirkpatrick said many border towns rely on mom-and-pop shops that haven’t received nearly the same attention or resources from the state as more populated cities.
“As we know, cross-border travel is a key pillar of our economy in Southern Arizona — we shouldn’t have to stifle the back and forth that propels prosperity in our state and beyond,” Kirkpatrick said. “On the other hand, we need an aggressive strategy for preventing the spread of Covid between county, state and country lines.”
The problems have also reached California, where border crossings at San Ysidro, the busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere, have only now increased to 50 percent their normal capacity. From a daily count of 200,000 crossings, the now 100,000 crossings can lead to up to 10 hours of delays due to lane restrictions and decreases in staff, according to Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).
Peters said businesses near the border have seen a 50 percent decline in revenue, and about 13 percent of small businesses have closed permanently.
“The problem with [border restrictions] being indefinite is it's very difficult for businesses to plan. Our businesses are depending on border crossings on both sides. We need a nationwide strategy,” Peters said.
The economic strains are not isolated to the southern border. Representatives from Washington, Minnesota and New York have asked the federal government to do more to find a more permanent solution as their border towns lose millions in sales and tax revenue from Canadian consumers.
Canada’s restrictions are also blamed on the pandemic, but the country has a much lower case count than both the U.S. and Mexico with 9,300 deaths and 395 cases per 100,000.
“Canadian officials are concerned about the health and safety of their people,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.). “They consider Americans to be super-spreaders. Until that changes, the border won’t be open.”
At the southern border, Cuellar is pushing the Department of Homeland Security to pilot enhanced health screenings at a minimum of two land ports of entry on both the northern and southern borders to detect sick travelers while permitting nonessential travel.
The pilot program would include rapid testing that turns away those who test positive and lets in those who test negative.
While fellow representatives are supportive of increasing testing, they are concerned about the availability of enough tests and whether it would get DHS support.
“Unfortunately, even our own hospitals can’t get their hands on enough tests and resources right now, so it remains unclear how and if we will get the resources needed to fully enact this screening proposal in a meaningful, effective way,” Kirkpatrick said.
DHS declined to comment. On Friday, Acting Secretary Chad Wolf tweeted that all three countries agreed on the extension. "We continue to work with our Canadian and Mexican partners to slow the spread of #COVID19," he wrote.
Peters said cities and towns along the southern border should not continue to suffer economic hardship because of Covid-related border restrictions.
“We shouldn't try to punish the border. The border is an economic generator,” Peters said. “We would like to see a strategy that would support businesses and control the spread like we put forth for other businesses in America that also generate economic output.”