LAREDO, Texas – U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar says it is time to reopen the international bridges so that Mexican shoppers and tourists can cross in the United States.

He said this could be done safely by testing all visitors at the bridges for COVID-19. He said advances in technology mean the results of the tests could be known within five minutes.

“I stand in support of employees, owners, and customers of retail and tourism-based businesses that are in dire economic circumstances due to COVID-19,” Cuellar said, at a news conference in downtown Laredo on Friday.

“Along with essential businesses, those deemed ‘non-essential’ should have the right to reopen their doors immediately and continue serving their community.”

Although Cuellar and local business owners want Mexican shoppers and tourists to travel north, the congressman cited data on the drop-off in travel going south.

According to Texas A&M International University’s Texas Center for Border Economic and Enterprise Development, southbound pedestrian crossings in Laredo have declined by 65.7 percent, while southbound vehicle crossings in Laredo have declined by 48 percent. Southbound truck crossings in Laredo have declined by 2.5 percent.

On March 21, 2020, the United States temporarily limited inbound land border crossings from Canada and Mexico to “essential travel.” Cuellar pointed out that “non-essential” travel includes travel that is considered retail or tourism in nature. However, reflecting the views of local business leaders at the news conference, Cuellar said all shoppers and tourists from Mexico are essential.

Among those to speak at the news conference were Edelmiro Martinez, owner of Emex Financial Services Casa de Cambio, Miguel Inclan, owner of La Sabrosita Paleteria & Snacks, Gerry Schwebel, executive director of IBC Bank, and Mike Marasco, owner of local McDonald’s franchise.

The restrictions on “non-essential” travel have been extended on a month to month basis and are now due to expire on September 21. Cuellar fears the restrictions will be extended another month.

“Businesses on the border depend on these shoppers,” Cuellar said. “These travel restrictions only apply to inbound land border crossings. The restrictions do not apply to air, rail, or sea travel.”

Cuellar said he has asked the leadership of the Department of Homelands Security why land port crossers are being treated differently to those coming in by land or sea and they do not have an answer.

“Because the communities along the U.S. and Mexico border are so integrated, these restrictions have created an economic calamity for an already impoverished region,” Cuellar said. “Continuing these restrictions increases the likelihood of a prolonged economic downturn as a result of this disruption of cross-border commercial activity.”

Cuellar said the U.S. can safely end the current restrictions limiting all non-essential travel across borders by taking “necessary precautions” such as enhanced health screenings at U.S. land ports of entry. He said the technology is in place now for visitors at land ports of entry to be tested at the International bridges, with the results known within five minutes.

“I’ve submitted a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security that would help provide the necessary personnel, equipment, testing and medical expertise to help ensure CBP can safely resume cross-border operations,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said enhanced screenings at land ports of entry could be tested through a pilot program to demonstrate that DHS has the capability to reduce the potential for widespread transmission of the coronavirus by non-essential travelers seeking to enter the United States from Canada and Mexico.

He said DHS, working in close coordination with applicable agencies, would implement enhanced health screenings at a minimum of two land ports of entry on both the northern and southern borders to detect travelers that are unwell.

“This pilot program will evaluate feasibility, duration, cost, etc., so that DHS can fully implement enhanced health screenings at all land ports of entry,” Cuellar said. “These efforts will provide data necessary for the secretary of DHS to make an informed decision regarding the termination of current COVID-19 related travel restrictions for non-essential travelers and safely resume cross-border operations.”

Under Cuellar’s plan, there would be room for the private sector to get involved.

“The recommended solution is to leverage private contractors who have the capability to rapidly deploy skilled medical and support personnel to the pilot locations and incorporate CDC-approved screening and rapid testing protocols,” he said.

Those who test positive for the coronavirus would be dealt with in different ways. U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and their immediate families would be allowed into the United States and directed to a U.S. Quarantine Station. Foreign visitors would be denied entry and returned to Mexico in coordination with Mexican government.

Correction: This story originally misspelled the name of an executive director of IBC Bank. It’s Gerry Schwebel, not Jerry Schrewel. The name was misspelled in a news release from Congressman Cuellar’s office that was provided to the Guardian.

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