EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The last time Juarez resident Elizabeth Solis visited El Paso it took her an hour and a half to clear the Paso del Norte U.S. port of entry on foot. That was nearly two years ago, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and a U.S. ban on non-essential land border travel.
On Monday, the day the U.S. lifted those restrictions on fully vaccinated foreign visitors, she was able to legally cross the border in about 20 minutes.
“People were saying not to come because the lines would be long and wait times frustrating. But, honestly, there are no pedestrian or vehicle lines,” Solis said.
Her comments came as anticipated hours-long waits because of the rollback on travel restrictions did not immediately materialize in the El Paso sector.
City officials attributed that to a combination of factors – from people’s fears of getting caught in the long waits to Mexican citizens not having valid vaccine certificates.
“We’ve heard that’s a factor potentially impacting the number of people who can cross into El Paso today. We’ve heard there’s a lot of people that don’t have an official certificate – it’s missing information or they’re waiting for the final document to come to show up at the (border),” said David Coronado, the city’s managing director of international bridges and economic development.
Another factor could be border crossing visas that expired and have not been renewed.
“A lot of folks we’ve heard don’t have their visas ready. We’ve heard many stories from friends and families that a lot of people have been unable to renew their visas because of delays due to the pandemic,” Coronado said. “There’s a lot of backlog in processing applications. The consulate processes those applications. There’s lengthy delays and that is perhaps driving the low number of crossings.”
But things could turn on a dime. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection web page that tracks wait times at ports of entry showed a spike in traffic between 1 and 3 p.m. at the Bridge of the Americas and Zaragoza-Ysleta border crossings.
Coronado said city and CBP officials are anticipating higher traffic by Saturday morning and on through the weekend, as Mexican residents take time off from work to shop and engage in family and leisure activities in El Paso.
In fact, he said the city is prepared to reimburse federal officials’ overtime so CBP can keep more border inspection lanes open at those times and avoid bottlenecks. That’s part of the P3 (Public Private Partnership) program between the city and CBP.
“Right now, we have requested (overtime) Saturday morning for pedestrians and Saturday and Sunday evening for vehicles,” he said. “We’re being as flexible as we can. We will continue to monitor conditions and see where we go from here. […] We much rather overprepare than be caught off guard, to be honest.”
The city has about $1.6 million for the P3 program, which it activates as needed to reduce peak-hour waits at the border.
“If (CBP) determines they have the personnel to take our petition, they open two (additional) lanes and send us a bill at the end of the month.” Coronado said. “But there’s times we make the petition, and they tell us it’s not necessary (to open additional lanes). They cancel and don’t bill us for it. Other times we ask for more open lanes, CBP determines it’s necessary but they don’t have the personnel.”
Coronado said El Paso’s border crossings periodically experience profound change due to extraordinary events. The oft-casual nature in which American citizens were able to return to the U.S. after dinner in Juarez totally changed with the post-9/11 security crackdowns at all federal facilities, for instance. Nineteen years later, the Central American migrant wave again drove border wait times up as CBP officers were reassigned to process asylum seekers.
“Bridge users learn to adjust,” he said. “There’s always going to be different events” that affect the normalcy of the border.