MCALLEN, Texas – McAllen Mayor Jim Darling is proposing that Mexican shoppers be allowed to cross the border but not the checkpoints 40 miles inland.

Darling believes this would boost the border region’s economy while at the same time pacifying those citizens in northern states or other parts of Texas who are concerned about Mexican shoppers and tourists bringing COVID-19 with them.

McAllen and another border communities have suffered a huge loss in sales tax revenues, in part because the federal government has restricted travel for Mexican visa holders for the past three months. 

Darling spoke about the impact COVID-19 and the travel ban have had on the economy of his city at a McAllen Economic Development Corporation board meeting on Thursday. He pointed out that the month of April saw a 30 percent loss in sales tax revenues for McAllen.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling

“We always knew we were the center of restaurants and shopping. We found out there is a price for that. Our losses, year to year, are sometimes ten times those of other cities in our area,” Darling said.

“The good news is, we are the center. The bad news is we have been impacted probably more than anyone else.”

Darling said he expects the sales tax revenues for the month of May to be just as bad as April.

Darling then discussed the impact of the travel ban for Mexico shoppers, tourists and those visiting family on the northern side of the Rio Grande. He said the City of McAllen is working with the Border Trade Alliance and the Texas Border Coalition to get the travel ban lifted. Just this week, the Department of Homeland Security extended the “non-essential” travel ban to July 21.

“As far as what we are doing about it, the biggest problem for us is we are on the border and we depend so much on Mexico. Between 30 and 40 percent of our trade comes from Mexico, depending on what type of store or hotel you have.”

Darling said many people do not realize that while there is a ban on pedestrians and passenger vehicles coming from Mexico, there is no such restriction on air travel.

“Nobody else, including Washington, or the northern states cares about this issue, only border states do. That has been our problem in moving this,” Darling said.

“Because of the restrictions in place in Mexico, it is pretty safe. There are only two people per car and nobody over 60 can travel. But, you can jump on an airline and there are 100 people on an airline.”

Darling said that in his opinion it is far safer for cars to be traveling north from Mexico than it is airlines flying in to Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“We have been trying to get the government to understand that we do have a second border. It is called a checkpoint, 40 miles north of here. Lift the travel ban, but don’t let them (Mexican visa holders) pass the checkpoint. And then the northern cities would not have to worry about whether people (carrying the coronavirus) are coming to them.”

Darling said it has been hard to get state legislators and members of congress to understand the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border. He said many of them do not understand that the travel ban does not extend to airplanes. “We have been pushing that message out… (that from a healthcare perspective) it is actually safer for a vehicle to cross the border.”

Darling pointed out Americans have unrestricted air travel rights into Mexico. “They could bring back coronavirus into the United States,” he said.

Darling said border communities have a strong argument to make for re-opening the border to Mexican shoppers and tourists. The main thing getting in the way, he said, is politics.

“And that is where you come in,” Darling said to the MEDC board members. “Your organizations need to contact your congressmen and your senators, write to the White House and talk about the travel ban and what the problem is with it from the standpoint of the border.”

Darling said he has reached out to the Governor’s Office for help but to little avail.

“We are trying to get the state involved in it. However, the Governor’s Office has not participated in it. I spoke to Steve Ahlenius yesterday. We are going to do a montage of the closed businesses and send it to Austin and say, ‘Austin gets six and a quarter precent of every sale in the Valley. And 40 percent of the sales come from Mexico.’ They need to be involved in this process, if for no other reason than an economic standpoint for the State of Texas.”

Ahlenius is president of McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

“We do not expect a very strong response from Austin as it relates to lobbying in Washington,” Darling said.

Juan Olaguibel

Darling also spoke about the CARES Act, which earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for states, counties and cities.

“We are still waiting for the county to sign the orders and agreements with the cities to disburse that money. It has been a very political situation,” Darling said.

“We think we will be okay for this budget year. It is the next fiscal year that is going to be a challenge for everybody unless there is more federal participation.” 

Darling said the longer Congress talks about helping out cities, the more the dollar amount shrinks.

McAllen’s superintendent of bridges, Juan Olaguibel, also spoke about the impact the travel ban is having.

Olaguibel told McAllen EDC board members that pedestrians crossing the Hidalgo International Bridge have dropped by 70 percent this year. He said this is equal to 90,000 fewer pedestrians crossing the bridge, as compared to last year. 

Olaguibel said there have been 47,000 fewer vehicles crossing the Hidalgo International Bridge this year, which is equal to a 60 percent decrease.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas. The checkpoint is on U.S. 281, which connects the McAllen metro area to I-37. (Photo: Texas Tribune/Reynaldo Leal).

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