EDINBURG, Texas – As COVID-19 continues to sweep through the Rio Grande Valley, the question of whether to reopen the U.S.-Mexico border and in what manner has caused some division among local leaders.
Undeniably, cities along the border have been economically devastated by the pandemic. With most businesses depending on Mexican consumers, the Valley has seen record unemployment that has surpassed the state average. In McAllen, GE Engine Services alone laid off 350 workers as a result of the crisis, and many more small businesses face an uncertain future.
“Every time I see a closed business, it’s not [just] that closed business,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. “It’s the five or 10 people that work at the closed business. What are they going to do?”
Because of this, Darling has been vocal about lifting the travel ban and has called for allowing Mexican visa holders to cross into the U.S. He was soon joined by County Judges Eddie Treviño Jr., Richard F. Cortez, Eloy Vera and Aurelio Guerra Jr. of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy County, respectively. They believe reopening the border can be done safely with the cooperation of federal, state and local entities.
Dennis E. Nixon, CEO of the International Bank of Commerce and member of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas, echoed the sentiment. In a podcast with the Rio Grande Guardian, he and colleague Gerardo Schwebel, IBC’s executive vice president for the corporate international division, spoke about the consequences of an ongoing border shutdown.
“I think you’re basically killing businesses every day,” said Nixon. “We’re going to have more and more storefronts close, more and more people out of work permanently because there are no businesses to go back to. We’re going to be really, harshly damaged by that fact.”
Schwebel agreed, noting that the mandates and stay-at-home orders hurt all businesses initially, but with the border remaining closed, Valley businesses have not had a chance to fully rebound.
“The businesses on the border have been very resilient, but at the same time, we’ve been challenged over and over again,” said Schwebel. “Yes, we have prevailed, but this has been like a double whammy we’re getting hit with.”
Nixon added, “If we don’t get the border open here … we’re going to have damage we believe is irrecoverable.”
Following in the steps of the Texas Border Coalition, both Darling and Nixon said that they have appealed to state and federal leaders, but to no avail.
“The only problem is that we can’t get Washington [D.C.] or Austin to understand the way life on the border really is,” said Nixon.
In a meeting with acting Security of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf, Nixon proposed Darling’s idea of allowing Mexican shoppers to cross, but prohibiting them from passing the checkpoints. According to Nixon, Wolf found the plan reasonable and referred him to local U.S. Customs and Border Protection for coordination. Darling, for his part, even offered to assist CBP in setting up temperature checks and other precautionary measures at the bridges. In the end, it was decided to be too great a responsibility for the agency, and the issue was dropped.
“CBP didn’t have a particular problem with it,” said Darling. “So, it’s coming from the White House, and the further away you get from the Valley, I think, the less you understand what the situation is.”
As their petitions fell on deaf ears, the latest extension of the travel ban was passed. While many leaders expressed their frustration, not all were disappointed with the outcome.
“I’m of the opinion that we would not open the border for leisure travel,” said Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez. “Whether they’re going to commute at Pappadeux’s or they’re going to come play at Topgolf is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is we need to get this disease under control.”
Hernandez, like Rep. Henry Cuellar, wants to take into account the advice of medical professionals, who are alarmed by what they see as an exponential growth in COVID-19 cases. He believes opening the border now will only exacerbate the issue and overburden Valley hospitals that are already nearing their max capacity.
“We have limited nurses, doctors, beds,” said Hernandez. “We need to assure that we take care of this population first, and if we have excess capacity, we have no problem taking care of the rest of the world.”
The recent actions taken by Valley leaders, some of whom are calling for travel restrictions to be relaxed, seem to favor Hernandez’s point. Cortez has asked the state to send nurses to help with its overwhelming number of new cases, Treviño has closed access to South Padre Island beaches, and Darling joined three other mayors in asking the state to expand their power to tailor their COVID-19 fight. On the Mexico side, Reynosa Mayor Maki Ortiz, postponed planned phases for reopening as infections surged in the city.
“I think in an ideal time, we’re okay with the border being open,” said Hernandez. “In an ideal time. In a pandemic time, when we have spikes both in our community and what’s happening south of us, no.”
Nixon and Darling concede that the region has taken a step back when it comes flattening the curve, but say fear is overshadowing practical policy.
Nixon pointed to the numbers themselves, saying that people are panicked because they don’t understand them in context.
“It also has been exaggerated a bit because we are testing so much more,” said Nixon. “… The positives are being a little bit misunderstood in that sense as well. The old story is ‘figures don’t lie, liars figure.’ You have to kind of dig into the data to understand what the real facts are here.”
In the last few weeks, testing has more than doubled in the state, with around 37,000 tests being performed daily. And, more tests mean more positive cases.
“It is concerning, but I think it’s also part of the process that we expected,” said Nixon. “This concept of herd immunity that goes on with any kind of disease, it’s got to play itself out, too. The idea that we can stay put in our houses forever and somehow this disease is going to disappear over time I think also is not accurate.”
Darling took issue with the travel restrictions that seemed to target border cities, while leaving loopholes counterintuitive for COVID-19 prevention.
“The travel ban only applies to vehicular traffic,” said Darling. “It does not apply to air traffic. So, somebody can go from Mexico City to Austin, Texas, and get off the plane, and they’re not subject to the travel ban. We don’t understand why that makes sense.”
Darling also questioned the rationale of keeping the border closed when the data does not seem to support it. By examining the cases, only a fraction has been contracted through border travel. And, for those worried about the underreported numbers in Mexico, Darling says that the U.S. has proportionally more COVID-19 patients even after adjusting the figures.
“My concern is there’s businesses that really depend on Mexican [shoppers] that are going to close – completely close – and, have we done a really good analysis of why we’re doing it as opposed to a political statement?” said Darling. “When you say ‘okay, air travel is okay, but car traffic is not,’ and when you can limit the car traffic to [where] it’s just the border, that makes even less sense to me.”
Darling continued, “From the standpoint of health, nobody’s really documented that the travel ban is justified on real health issues or numbers. There’s no question that Mexico has a problem. We have a problem. And so, the question is, you know, do we allow that.”
In the interim between now and the July 21 deadline set for the travel ban, Darling simply asks that state and federal officials truly weigh the costs of remaining closed before making their next decision.
“Let’s do the analysis and really look at the economic benefit and the health detriment,” said Darling. “And if that can be balanced out, then we think it should be where we open it up again.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez.
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