BROWNSVILLE, Texas – There was excitement and relief among retail store and restaurant owners, chamber of commerce leaders and elected officials in South Texas on Monday as Mexican visa holders were finally allowed to revisit the region.

So-called “non-essential” travelers from Mexico had been unable to come into the United States since March 2020, a blockade installed in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Esmy Villarreal

Now, though, the U.S. and Mexican federal governments believe it is safe for travelers to cross, provided they can show proof they have had a Covid-19 vaccine. The bridges were re-opened to such travelers on Nov. 8.

“Non-essential travelers are essential to our economy,” said Esmy Villarreal, president and CEO of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce.

“At the border, we highly depend on our foreign travelers. They are our family. The make our business continue to grow. So we are excited about the re-opening of our port of entry. We have been waiting for 19 months.”

Villarreal said the number of cases of Covid-19 has been dropping in her city. However, she said the health authorities were right in remaining vigilant. She said the city of Brownsville is open for business. 

“We have been open for business for the last 19 months. We are excited and we welcome all of our visitors with open arms. Our businesses depend on their investments. Of course, our hotels and our motels, everyone depends on our visitors. From a small business to a larger corporation. Most importantly, we are happy that our families are getting reunited. Because we are a community that is driven by our families.”

Elias Rodriguez is a supervisor for Customs and Border Protection in Brownsville who handles public relations for the agency in Brownsville. The Rio Grande Guardian interviewed Rodriguez around midday at the Gateway International Bridge. He said the wait times for cars crossing into the United States was only 20 minutes or so.

“The real test will be at the weekend,” Rodriguez said, noting that in addition to checking for drugs and the correct visas, CBP officers must now check to see if visitors have been vaccinated.

“If they are a non-citizen we will be asking the questions and making sure that those we allow to enter have been vaccinated,” Rodriguez explained. 

“The travelers are happy to come and we welcome them, if they meet all the requirements. We are ready.”

Rodriguez asked that before Mexican visitors make their way to the International bridges, that they check to ensure their visas are still valid. As non-essential travelers have not been able to cross for 19 months or so, their visas may have lapsed.

Excitement in Laredo

U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar hosted an event to celebrate the re-opening of the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, in Laredo, to fully vaccinated non-essential foreign nationals. 

Cuellar was joined by Mayor of Laredo Pete Saenz, Mexico Senator Jose Narro,  Mexico Senator Americo Villarreal, and Mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico Carmen Lilia Canturosas Villarreal to discuss the effect of the reopening on local economies along the border. 

“I am thrilled to say that starting today, fully vaccinated foreign citizens traveling for non-essential reasons, who are able to provide proof of vaccination, will be allowed to enter the United Stated by land,” Cuellar said.

“It has been 19 months since restrictions were placed on non-essential travel through our land ports of entry. The resulting limited traffic along the Texas-Mexico border had a devastating impact on retail sales in our border communities.”

Cuellar said the reduction in Mexican shoppers had resulted in a decrease in labor, income, and demand for goods and services, with border economies losing billions of dollars. 

“With fully vaccinated non-essential consumers now being allowed to cross into the United States by land, our economies are on a path to full-recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cuellar predicted.

Cuellar provided reporters with a brief from Rice University’s Baker Institute which showed the economic impact of the coronavirus on Texas border communities. To view the brief, click here.

Mayor Saenz was thrilled to see Mexican visa holders crossing the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge.

“I feel ecstatic. After a long wait, these are extremely great times for the overall U.S-Mexico border,” Saenz said. “So many businesses have been affected that depend on Mexican shoppers, especially in the Laredo downtown area. From a local economic perspective, 30-40 percent percent of sales tax is derived from Mexican shoppers who visit our community on a yearly basis.”

Saenz said that on a personal note, he felt an “immense amount of joy” for those who will finally be able to reunite with family and friends after 19 months. 

“This is a true celebration especially with the holidays right around the corner. Our vaccination rates continue to be the best in the State of Texas, which represents more safety to those who will be visiting us in the upcoming months,” Saenz added.

Fully vaccinated non-essential foreign nationals entering the U.S. by land and ferry ports of entry will be required to provide proof of full vaccination. The vaccine must be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  

The following vaccines have been approved by the WHO: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Janssen/J&J, AstraZeneca, Covishield, BIBP/Sinopharm, and Sinovac. 

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