As the United States lifts travel restrictions at the border, residents of Juarez eager to cross
By Lauren Villagran / El Paso Times
Kelly Maing, 46, has spent much of her life working in the downtown El Paso clothing store, established 33 years ago by her parents, who emigrated from South Korea.
“See how sad it is?” It’s so quiet, âshe said on a recent weekday, wearing a blue work apron and face mask. âWe basically survive. â¦ Many stores have closed.
The store she runs, Pinochio, sells a range of handbags, necklaces, bracelets, other accessories and women’s clothing. She and other Korean-American store owners on South El Paso Street catered to Mexican shoppers, who regularly crossed the Paso del Norte, or Santa Fe Bridge, connecting the shopping districts of downtown El Paso and of JuÃ¡rez.
Under normal circumstances, about 22,000 shoppers per day visited El Paso from northern Mexico, according to pre-pandemic investigation data from the City of El Paso City’s Department of International Bridges.
They accounted for up to 14% of total retail sales in El Paso, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In 2019, this translated to $ 1 billion in so-called âretail exportsâ.
The loss of these sales particularly affected downtown stores.
Maing said about 80% of her pre-pandemic sales went to Mexican customers, including many Juarez business owners who purchased merchandise for their own stores, she said.
âWe don’t make money without them,â Maing said.
Although many of Maing’s customers have texted her confirming that the bridges will truly reopen on November 8, she is anxious.
âThe problem is, we’re expecting so much,â she said, âbut we might be disappointed. “
Cindy Ramos-Davidson, executive director of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said retailers were expressing a mixture of excitement and skepticism.
Could there be another border closure at the last second? Will there be enough products for JuÃ¡rez buyers? Will they come back to the numbers before?
âRight now, retailers in this arena are really scrambling to find some products that they would normally be in abundance with during this time,â Ramos-Davidson said. “But they are worried about taking the risk of being classified because they weren’t sure the border would open as it has been closed for 19 months.”
Children cross alone
El Pasoan Maritza Lozano, 27, said she worries every school day for her 15-year-old cousin, a U.S. citizen and sophomore from El Paso High, who crossed the bridge alone from JuÃ¡rez from the return from classes in person.
âMy uncle used to get up early to take her, but now she has to find a way to come and walk on her own,â Lozano said. âSometimes she stays with me. And now that it’s cold, I tell her she should stay.
Border restrictions forced many U.S. citizen children to grow up quickly, as they found themselves crossing the border on their own, tasked with getting to school.
Lozano worries during the interval when his cousin is disconnected, waiting in the line of the Santa Fe Bridge inside customs, where cell phone use is prohibited. She worries that her cousin will walk through the busy streets of the city center and take the city bus to school.
“I’m still texting her, asking her ‘are you cruzaste?“where are you?” she said. “I know sometimes they won’t let you use your phones.”
Lozano said it was difficult for his extended family to be physically divided and not be able to see each other much.
âMy aunt lives alone there. She fell into depression about three weeks ago and was taken to hospital, âshe said. “So now my cousin has stayed there so that (her mother) is not alone.”
Divergent pandemic strategies
When the US Department of Homeland Security announced border restrictions on March 20, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic left the world in limbo with a deadly and unpredictable virus. Authorities on both sides of the border quickly followed the restrictions with stay-at-home orders and mask warrants.
But neighbors’ strategies to fight the pandemic quickly diverged, creating friction in the Borderland.
Relying on seemingly limitless resources, the United States has relied on testing and ultimately massive vaccine distribution to fight the virus. Slow to buy vaccines in a competitive global market, Mexico has used the blunt tools of business closings, restrictions on large gatherings and mask warrants. Inequality emerged this spring, when JuÃ¡rez faced a wave of contagion even as El Paso vaccinated residents by the thousands a day.
Mexicans in Borderland 18 and over gained access to vaccines over the summer, in part thanks to donations of American vaccines to Mexico and local efforts to vaccinate workers at the JuÃ¡rez factory at the Tornillo entry point. .
âThere should be a lot of lessons learned,â said. US Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who called for a unified binational strategy to fight pandemics. âWe need to create standardized policies to keep the interest of public health at the forefront. “
Return of a binational weekend ritual
Mike Santillanes used to get up early on weekends and cycle from his home in JuÃ¡rez to the Bridge of the Americas. There he would meet other Mexican cyclists to cross the bridge to the United States. They would pick up more cyclists along Copia Street in El Paso and then start their training.
Santillanes, 28, has been cycling on the road and in the mountains for eight years. Better roads and bigger mountains drew him to El Paso.
âThe hardest part of being a cyclist in JuÃ¡rez is the traffic,â he said. âThe driving culture in the United States is a little more respectful than in Mexico. “
Santilles, 28, has been practicing this binational weekend ritual for almost two years, and he says he misses the camraderie of the mixed group. Some of his friends from El Paso crossed paths to ride in JuÃ¡rez during the pandemic, but others he hasn’t seen since early 2020.
But when the bridges reopen, Santillanes will not make the trip to El Paso. Like thousands of others juarense whose border crossing cards expired during the pandemic, Santillanes is waiting for the American consulate in JuÃ¡rez to renew his visa.
The backlog of visa applications has pushed back consular appointments until 2023.
Once his visa was renewed, he wanted to cross the Transmountain Ditch of the Franklin Mountains, a difficult route that climbs to over 2,000 feet.
“It will be great to be able to cross back,” he said. âWe have already traveled all the roads here in JuÃ¡rez and are ready for a change. “
Family, church visits on the horizon
News of the reopening fueled a wave of activity in JuÃ¡rez, as people tracked down their border crossing cards, unused since March 2020, or prepared documents to renew their visas. Those who may cross paths have made plans to see their loved ones in the United States or take their first trips to favorite stores like Walmart, the Cielo Vista Mall or the Ross Dress for Less discount store affectionately known by juarense like “La Ross”.
Currency exchange offices around JuÃ¡rez announced their rates in flashing red and green lights, 19 or 20 pesos to the dollar – the Mexican currency near an all-time high.
In the storefronts of Grupo Francie, people lined up with files and documents in hand, hoping that the US and Mexican passport and visa service provider could renew their border crossing cards.
Sergio Tejeda, an industrial engineer, waited outside Grupo Francie in a shopping center in the center of JuÃ¡rez to renew his border crossing card.
âI have family there,â he said, âmy mother, my brothers. They come here but not very often.
Manuela CastaÃ±eda, 63, has made her wishlist of what she will do when the border reopens: shopping, traveling, visiting family. She has close cousins ââliving in Las Cruces that she can’t wait to see. She will give him a few days, she said.
“We will see how the situation is” at the border, she said.
Olga Beatriz Lugo, a resident of JuÃ¡rez, crossed the border on her visa on school days to bring her daughter to the Lydia Patterson Institute in Segundo Barrio, which CBP tolerated because students are considered “essential.”
But what Lugo is really looking forward to, she said, is crossing Sunday again to attend church at the Abundant Living Faith Center in El Paso. Sunday was her day to practice her faith and relax in the security she feels in El Paso, she said.
She misses her religious community, she said.
After those difficult two years, she said, âWhat we all need more than anything right now is God.
The ‘little life’ of the border
How US Customs and Border Protection handles the reopening could determine what is restored to “normal” Borderland life and what can be lost, said Joe Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
CBP officials warned last week that travelers should expect longer-than-normal wait times at points of entry.
El Paso’s CBP field office trained new customs officers during the pandemic, often doubling down on new hires to learn from experienced officers on Sunday. Still, visa holders are urged to show their COVID-19 vaccination cards, which will likely slow border traffic.
It’s the crossbreeding that makes this community distinctive, Heyman said. When legitimate border crossings are made difficult – as was often the case under the Trump administration and as it has been throughout the pandemic – people tend to stay on “their” side.
âWhat is lost is the normal day-to-day, the ‘little’ life on the border,â Heyman said.
Visiting a cousin in El Paso. The cup of coffee or the evening with friends in JuÃ¡rez. The shopping spree at mayor Yes menoreo downtown wholesale and retail stores. The race for a Whataburger jalapeÃ±o. Sundays with the abuelita in Juarez.
“The ‘little life’ is only small in each individual act,” he said, “but collectively it adds up.”
Cristina Carreon, Maria Cortes Gonzalez, Anthony Jackson, Vic Kolenc, Trish Long and Martha Pskowski contributed to this report.
Cover photo: U.S. visa holder Bertha Armendariz will have the opportunity to travel to the United States to attend a Ricky Martin concert as the border reopens to Mexican citizens on Monday. (Omar Ornelas / El Paso Times)