LAREDO, Texas – A border congressman believes land port of entries could be partially re-opened on Oct. 21 to allow in Mexican shoppers and tourists – if border communities want them to be.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar has devised a plan that appears to have the backing of Customs and Border Protection. The plan includes two health screenings for Mexican visa holders, one conducted by Customs and Border Protection at the port of entry and one by the city or county that owns the bridge, outside of federal facilities.

“We can open up the border,” a confident Cuellar told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “Not to open it up completely but to do it in phases.”

Land ports of entry have been closed to “non-essential” travel since late March, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. The travel ban was initially instigated by the Canadian government to U.S. residents coming in and spreading the virus. The U.S. government then followed suit on the southern border, with the approval of Mexico.

The ban is due to be reviewed by the U.S. and Mexican governments on Oct. 21.

The inability of Mexican shoppers and tourists to visit border communities has led to a decline in business for shopping malls, restaurants and hotels. It has also meant tens of thousands of families have been split for more than six months.

“After hearing from my constituents, local community leaders, and other Border Representatives in Congress, I believe that the U.S. can safely reopen its Land Ports of Entry to “non-essential” travel, on a localized basis,” Cuellar said, explaining his plan.

“If a community feels that they can safely open their economy to ‘non-essential’ travelers, then they can engage DHS through this proposal. If a community wishes to continue to restrict “non-essential” travel through local border crossings, then they have the option for DHS to maintain its current restrictions at that location. This is an ideal approach because it will allow local communities to maintain control over their public health decisions.”

Cuellar has taken the lead in pushing for the re-opening of border bridges on the Southwest border to Mexican visa holders. In the summer he proposed a pilot program involving health screenings but got no response from CBP. Slowly attracting the support of other members of Congress, Cuellar wrote to the federal government again. Sure his plan had merit he then visited Mexico City to “sell” the idea to the Mexican federal government. The visit included a meeting with Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard.

Cuellar said his plan ensures “local control.” In a letter to the acting secretary of homeland security, Chad F. Wolf, Cuellar said the plan involved a two part process:

  1. (1) Consult with local community leaders and their medical personnel, along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to determine criteria necessary to partially lift COVID-19 travel restrictions within border community jurisdictions that accommodate international Land Ports of Entry; and
  2. (2) Partially lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions for “non-essential” travelers and safely resume all cross-border operations, at both the southern and northern U.S. borders, for those communities who meet the pre-determined criteria. This includes restoring “non- essential” traveler lanes and reinstating U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to oversee traffic in those lanes. Border communities will subsequently enforce their own jurisdictional COVID-19 public health orders.

“This means that ‘non-essential’ travelers will be screened twice when entering the U.S: first, through medical screenings by CBP officers, pursuant to federal protocols; and second, through community health screenings by local personnel,” Cuellar said.

In his conference call with reporters on Thursday, Cuellar said he has discussed the plan with CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan. 

“I have to say there have been different CBP commissioners I have worked with but Mark Morgan has been very receptive,” Cuellar told reporters.

Cuellar also thanked Morgan in his letter to Wolf.

“I want to extend my sincere gratitude to Mark Morgan , and your entire Department, for continuing to work with me to solve this ongoing issue. Today, I also met with Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, who was receptive to this proposal. I felt encouraged by our conversation and I urge you speak with him, as this is a bilateral issue which our countries can best solve through coordinated efforts,” Cuellar wrote.

In the letter, Cuellar said the six-month halt to DHS discretionary travel at land ports of entry had “left local communities, across both the southern and northern U.S. borders, struggling to maintain their livelihoods and way of life.” He said the federal government “must find a balance between the health of the individual and the health of the local economy.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar meeting Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign secretary, in Mexico City.

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