As the United States lifts border travel restrictions, Juarez residents want to cross

By Lauren Villagran / El Pas Times

Kelly Maing, 46, has spent much of her life working in the downtown El Paso clothing store that began 33 years ago for her parents, who emigrated from South Korea.

“You see how sad it is? It’s very quiet,” he said one recent workday, wearing a blue apron and a face mask. “We’re basically surviving. … Lots of shops closed.”

The store she runs, Pinocchio, sells a variety of bags, necklaces, bracelets, other accessories and women’s clothing. She and other Korean American store owners on South El Paso Street served Mexican customers, who regularly crossed the Paso del Norte Bridge, or Santa Fe, which connected the downtown shopping districts of El Paso and Juarez.

Under normal circumstances, about 22,000 daily shoppers visited El Paso from northern Mexico, according to data from the pre-pandemic survey by the Department of International Bridges in the city of El Paso.

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 into a billion dollars in what is known as “retail exports”.

The loss of these sales especially affected the downtown stores.

Maing said about 80 percent of his pre-pandemic sales were to Mexican customers, including many Juarez businessmen who bought merchandise for their own stores, he said.

“We don’t make money without them,” Maing said.

Although many of Maing’s clients have texted her to confirm that the bridges will actually reopen on November 8, she is uneasy.

“The concern is that we expect a lot,” he said, “but we could be disappointed.”

Kelly Maing, who runs her family’s Pinocchio women’s clothing and accessories store at 612 S. El Paso St. in downtown El Paso, it helps guests on October 27th. (Omar Ornelas / El Paso Times)

Cindy Ramos-Davidson, executive director of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said retailers express a mixture of emotion and skepticism.

Could there be another border closure at the last second? Will there be enough products for buyers visiting Juárez? Will they be back in the numbers from before?

“Right now, retailers in this area are really struggling where to get certain products that they would normally be in abundance with during this time,” Ramos-Davidson said. “But they are afraid to risk going up in rank because they were not sure the border would open because it has been closed for 19 months.”

The children believe on their own

Pasoan Maritza Lozano, 27, said she worries every day at school about her 15-year-old cousin, an American citizen and sophomore from El Paso who has been crossing the bridge from Juárez alone. since the face-to-face classes returned to the session.

“My uncle used to get up early to take her, but now he has to find a way to come walking alone,” Lozano said. “Sometimes he stays with me. And right now it’s cold, I tell him he has to stay.”

Border restrictions forced many U.S. citizen children to grow up quickly, as they found themselves crossing the border on their own, responsible for going to school.

Lozano worries during the breach when her cousin is out of touch, waiting at the Santa Fe Bridge line inside customs, where cell phone use is prohibited. She worries that her cousin will cross busy streets of downtown and take the city bus to school.

“I’m always texting you, asking ‘do you think so?’ or where are you? ” she said. “I know sometimes they don’t let you use your phones.”

Lozano said it has been difficult for his extended family to be physically divided and not be able to see each other much.

“My aunt lives there alone. She got depressed about three weeks ago and was taken to the hospital, “she said.” Now my cousin has stayed there so that (her mother) is not alone. ”

Divergent pandemic strategies

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced border restrictions on March 20, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was plunging the world into uncertainty about a deadly and unpredictable virus. Authorities on both sides of the border quickly followed the restrictions with house arrest orders and mask warrants.

But neighbors ’strategies to fight the pandemic soon diverged, creating friction in Borderland.

Leveraging seemingly limitless resources, the United States relied on testing and ultimately on the mass distribution of vaccines to curb the virus. Slow to buy vaccines in a competitive global market, Mexico used the blunt tools of trade closures, restrictions on large meetings, and mask mandates. The inequality occurred this spring, when Juárez faced a wave of contagion even though El Paso vaccinated residents by the thousands daily.

Borderland Mexicans aged 18 and over had access to vaccinations over the summer, thanks in part to U.S. vaccine donations to Mexico and local efforts to vaccinate workers at the Juarez factory at the port of entry. of Screw.

“There have to be a lot of lessons learned,” he said. El Paso Democrat Veronica Escobar has called for a unified binational strategy to fight pandemics. “We 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 ride a bike from his home in Juárez to the Bridge of the Americas. There he would meet with other Mexican cyclists to cross the bridge to the United States. They would pick up more cyclists on Copia Street in El Paso and then begin their training trip.

Santillanes, 28, has been a road and mountain competition cyclist for eight years. Better roads and bigger mountains attracted him to El Paso.

“The hardest thing about being a cyclist in Juarez is the traffic,” he said. “The 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 said he misses the camaraderie of the mixed nationality group. Some of his friends in El Paso have crossed paths to go to Juarez during the pandemic, but others he has not seen since early 2020.

But when the bridges reopen, Santillanes will not make the trek to El Paso. Like thousands of other Juarians whose border pass cards expired during the pandemic, Santillanes is waiting for the U.S. consulate in Juarez to renew its visa.

The delay in visa applications has pushed for consular appointments until 2023.

Once his visa is renewed, he wants to go through the Transmountain Gap in the Franklin Mountains, a difficult route that climbs more than 2,000 feet.

“It will be great to be able to cross again,” he said. “We have already done all the routes here in Juárez and we are ready for a change.”

Family, visits to the church on the horizon

The news of the reopening fueled a flurry of activity in Juárez, as people searched for their border crossing cards, which had not been used since March 2020, or were preparing procedures to renew their visas. Those who will be able to cross made plans to see their loved ones in the United States or make their first trips to favorite stores like Walmart, the Cielo Vista Mall or the Ross Dress for Less discount store affectionately known by the people of Juarez as “La Ross” .

Currency exchange houses around Juárez announced their rates with red and green flashing lights, 19 or 20 pesos per dollar, the Mexican currency near an all-time low.

Traffic to Ciudad Juárez goes back to the interchange on Interstate 10 and US Highway 54 on October 30. (Vic Kolenc / El Paso Times)

In Grupo Francie stores, people lined up with folders and documents in hand, hoping the U.S. and Mexican passport and visa service provider could renew their border crossing cards.

Sergio Tejeda, an industrial engineer, waited outside the Grupo Francie in a shopping center in downtown Juárez to renew his border crossing card.

“I have family there,” he said, “my mother, my brothers. They come here but not very often.”

Manuela Castañeda, 63, said she would do it when she reopened the border: go shopping, travel, visit her family. She has close cousins ​​who live in Las Cruces that she can’t wait to see. She will give it a few days, though, he said.

“We’ll see how the situation is” at the border, he said.

Juárez resident Olga Beatriz Lugo has been crossing the border with her visa on school days to take her daughter to the Lydia Patterson Institute in the Segundo Barrio, something CBP has tolerated since students considered themselves. ” essentials “.

But what Lugo really wants, he said, is to cross again on Sundays to attend church at the Abundant Living Faith Center in El Paso. Sundays were his day to practice his faith and relax with the security he feels in El Paso, he said.

He misses his church community, he said.

After those two difficult years, he said, “What we all need more than anything now is God.”

The ‘little life’ of the border

How U.S. Customs and Border Protection manages reopening could determine what Borderland’s “normal” life is and what can be lost, said Joe Heyman, director of the University of Texas Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at El Paso.

CBP officials warned last week that travelers would have to wait longer-than-normal waiting times at ports of entry.

El Paso’s CBP field office has been training new customs agents during the pandemic, often duplicating new hires to learn from experienced officers on Sundays. However, visa holders are required to show their vaccination cards against COVID-19, and this is likely to slow down border traffic.

It’s the crossover that makes this community different, Heyman said. When the legitimate crossing of the border becomes difficult, as it often did during the Trump administration and as it has been throughout the pandemic, people tend to stay by their side.

“What is lost is everyday normalcy, the‘ small ’life on the border,” Heyman said.

The visit to see a cousin in El Paso. The cup of coffee or the evening with friends in Juárez. The shopping trip to wholesale and retail stores wholesale and retail Downtown. The race for a jalapeño Whataburger. Sundays with the grandmother in Juárez.

“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 have contributed to this report.

Cover photo: Bertha Armendariz, a U.S. visa holder, will have the opportunity to cross into the U.S. to attend a Ricky Martin concert as the border reopens Monday to Mexican citizens. (Omar Ornelas / El Paso Times)

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