BROWNSVILLE, Texas – As another impending extension of U.S.-Mexico travel restrictions looms over the Rio Grande Valley, all four county judges came together in support of reopening the border. 

At a news conference held Thursday at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Judges Eddie Treviño Jr., Richard F. Cortez, Eloy Vera and Aurelio Guerra Jr. of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy County, respectively, agreed that travel restrictions on the border should expire by the current June 22 deadline. 

“The uniqueness of the border community is that we live and rely on one another on both sides of the border,” said Treviño. “… In the Valley, we live on the Mexican national who comes and spends their money, who invests and crosses on a daily basis.”

Vera added that while all businesses have been hit hard, because of its close economic relationship with Mexico, the Valley has been reeling more than most.

“If it’s not going to be open, then we need some help because our businesses are going under,” said Vera. “… A good percent of our trade or business is from people from Mexico … Their businesses are … doing a lot better, and ours are not.”

The four county judges of the Rio Grande Valley. From left to right, Eloy Vera of Starr, Richard Cortez of Hidalgo, Eddie Treviño, Jr., of Cameron, and Aurelio Guerra of Willacy. (Photo: Ron Whitlock/Ron Whitlock Reports)

Unemployment figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics seem to substantiate Vera’s claim. Texas’s unemployment rate increased from 3.5% in April 2019 to 12.8% in April 2020. For the same time period, the unemployment rate jumped from 3.2% to 13.6% for the Laredo metropolitan statistical area (MSA); from 5% to 18.2% for the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA; and from 4.7% to 17.1% for the Brownsville-Harlingen MSA

Treviño, who also chairs the Texas Border Coalition, wrote to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf last week, expressing his desire for an easing of restrictions similar to those seen at the state and local level. He reiterated his points during a press briefing at the Cameron County Courthouse the following day.

“As the state of Texas and the rest of the country opens up its economies, those of us who live on the border continue to be impacted severely as a result of not allowing the individuals to cross for economic trade,” said Treviño. “Sales tax is being impacted, obviously tourism, and everything else that we would normally rely on during this time of year. So, we’re asking that the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] please not extend it.”

Treviño also argued that as the rest of the state has moved to Phase III of reopening, the Valley remains constrained with no little to no financial help for businesses. 

“What we’re trying to say on the border is why are we being singled out and not being allowed to also reopen?” said Treviño. “You know, the businesses on the border reliant on Mexican trade, they ought to be allowed to utilize that … If they [state government] want to continue to impact the border economy, then maybe the governor can reconsider his allocation of funding, especially for border communities. We don’t have money to give to our local business, whether in the form of grants or loans or whatever. We don’t have that here in Cameron County. Hidalgo got over 160 million, 170 million. We’re nowhere near that.”

The travel restrictions, which were placed in March to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., have been extended twice thus far. U.S. Customs and Border Protection state that they have taken this “unprecedented action” in barring non-essential border crossings as a result of the World Health Organization’s designation of Latin America as the new epicenter of the global pandemic. 

Latin America now outpaces the U.S. and Europe in the number of daily infections. According to the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, Mexico alone reported 146,837 confirmed cases and 17,141 deaths as of Sunday. It ranks third in the world, behind Italy and the United Kingdom, for highest COVID-19 morality rate. At 11.7%, it is more double that of the U.S., and experts believe that because of limited testing, the numbers are most likely much higher.

Some were quick to point out this seemingly counterproductive approach of alleviating an economic crisis while potentially heightening a health crisis, especially in light of the recent spikes in COVID-19 cases in all four counties. 

On Sunday, Hidalgo County surpassed the 1,000-case benchmark as an influx of 83 people tested positive over the weekend, pushing their total number to 1,050 confirmed cases. In Starr County, five more people tested positive, bringing their total to 127 confirmed cases. Willacy County had a total of 54, and Cameron County had a total of 1,138 cases as of Saturday.

While they acknowledged the alarming rise in cases, all four county judges maintained their position, instead pointing to the population’s lax attitude in preventing the spread of COVID-19 amid loosening state guidelines.

“We’ve seen the spike. We’ve seen the increase,” said Treviño. “And, that’s more of the fact that people, I think, are not doing the things that we asked them to do previously.”

Vera concurred, “The governor superseded any order that we had, so, really, our hands are tied to a lot of things. We cannot mandate some of the things that certainly I would like to mandate. Can’t do it. So, what we’re trying to accomplish here is that our communities understand that this is a very serious situation that we’re in. And, like I said before, just because the governor says that you can do it, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do it. We’re asking that people do what they were doing two months ago. It was working. Right now, they’re not.”

As the costs of reopening the border are weighed, the judges reminded people to keep things in perspective and to take personal responsibility. Spikes in cases were expected as individuals adjust to this new norm, but the severity continues to depend on the public.

“Basically, the community is in control,” added Guerra. “… What we’re simply saying is that we are doing as best we can, and we are notifying the community to take extra precaution because of the trend that has happened here in a short period of time.”

“Opening our economy, we’re going to have to accept the fact that there are going to be positive cases,” said Treviño. “I would recommend and ask that everybody follow those recommendations and guidelines that we established from day one – social distancing, stay at home as much as possible, avoid crowds and wear a mask. If we do that, we’re not going to do away with the cases, but I think we’ll continue to see a leveling off.”

“We don’t want to sound alarming, but people need to understand that if they don’t help, there’s not much we can do,” added Vera.

Although the judges expressed some suspicions that keeping the border closed might be a political move, they preferred to believe it wasn’t, repeating their appeal for reconsideration. 

“What I would ask the president is to pay attention to the necessity and the importance that our trade with Mexico has to the overall economy of the United States, and, to the extent that there are procedures and possibilities of opening our bridges back in a safe way, that we should do it,” said Cortez. “We just shouldn’t arbitrarily say ‘no,’ and we shouldn’t arbitrarily pick a date. We should let science and best information dictate our actions.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows pedestrians crossing from Mexico to Texas at the McAllen Hidalgo International Bridge, on Friday, March 20, 2020, in Hidalgo, Texas. (Photo AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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