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Despite ‘closed’ border, Americans travel freely to Mexico, increasing virus dangers

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – Cristina Garcia, a burrito maker, diplomatically sidestepped questions about the persistent presence of U.S. shoppers on the city’s main avenue, bumping up against the border, seemingly putting her life at risk.

In some ways, a worrisome Garcia said, “it’s like they never really left.”

“And I’m grateful for that,” she said, as she pointed to lines of vehicles stretching along Juarez Ave., most with Texas license plates, waiting to cross back into El Paso. “But we need to remind each other that the virus doesn’t know borders. Keep coming, but please be careful.”

President Donald Trump takes credit for closing down the border, praising his own actions and claiming his wall is a success, stopping the coronavirus from spreading north. But only a few miles of all-new wall have been built. And orders to seal the border have huge gaps in them: While the border has been ‘closed’ for nearly four months to all but “essential” travel and trade, Americans continue to moving freely between the two nations, putting lives in danger.

Americans are welcomed south of the border in Mexico, but Mexicans are banned from shopping and visiting family in the U.S. Where Mexico once had a far lower number of coronavirus cases than its northern neighbor, now the crisis is blooming in Mexico’s border cities.

The population of Mexican towns and cities directly across the border are typically almost twice as large as those in Texas. But data compiled by The Dallas Morning News show that those Mexican communities register more than three times as many coronavirus fatalities.

For instance, even though Ciudad Juarez’s population is twice that of El Paso, there are more than four times as many deaths. The same goes for Reynosa, across the border from McAllen in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

El Paso-Juarez had a combined 660 deaths as of Friday. Were the two cities the equivalent of single Texas county, with a combined population of about 2.3 million people, its deaths would easily surpass that of major Texas counties of similar size:

  • Dallas County, population about 2.6 million, has reported 393 COVID-19-related deaths.
  • Tarrant County, population about 2.1 million, has reported 233 deaths.
Venders carry lucyÕa libra masks and face masks to sell to travelers waiting in line to cross the border into El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on Friday, June, 26, 2020. (Joel Angel Juarez/Special Contributor)
Venders carry lucyÕa libra masks and face masks to sell to travelers waiting in line to cross the border into El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on Friday, June, 26, 2020. (Joel Angel Juarez/Special Contributor)(Joel Angel Juarez / Special Contributor)
Vehicles wait in line to cross the border to El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on Friday, June, 26, 2020. Majority of the vehicles waiting in line had Texas license plates. (Joel Angel Juarez/Special Contributor)
Vehicles wait in line to cross the border to El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on Friday, June, 26, 2020. Majority of the vehicles waiting in line had Texas license plates. (Joel Angel Juarez/Special Contributor)(Joel Angel Juarez / Special Contributor)

Even Texas’ largest county, Harris, where Houston lies, pales in comparison: With a population of about 4.7 million, as of Friday it has had 384 deaths.

The data underscore a growing concern among diplomats and political leaders on both sides of the border. U.S. and Mexican ambassadors have urged their countrymen to use caution in the age of coronavirus, but with little effect. In Juarez and ElPaso, health experts are alarmed. When it comes to COVID-19, the two cities stand as one, despite the giant wall between them.

The issue is further confounded by a lack of PPE and testing on the Mexican side. Testing and reporting methodologies vary, communities along the border are in different phases of having their economies reopen, and there is limited contact tracing in border cities, say health experts.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, for every 1,000 people in the U.S., 95 get tested for Covid-19. In Mexico, for every 1,000 people, 4 get tested, according to Mexico’s Health Ministry.

In Texas, for every 1,000, 95 get tested, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. And in the state of Chihuahua, for every 1,000 Chihuahuenses, 5 get tested.

“Without enough information, you can call this a black hole or operating in the dark,” said Dr. Richard Lange, president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and dean of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine. “Without that information, this is a vacuum.”

In fact, Lange believes Juarez is undercounting deaths by 25 to 30 percent, listing many only as as “COVID probable.”

Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, director of the Ministry of Health in the Northern Zone of Mexico, which stretches along the border, responded that during a pandemic “it is too risky to ensure percentages or numbers in this regard.” He said, because the pandemic is ongoing, there will be frequent revisions of the case numbers “as they are confirmed or discarded.”

Lange said there needs to be better communications on both sides of the border to stem the spread of the virus. “I’m not sure where the truth lies,” he said.

Americans are largely moving freely across the border — their “essential travel” explanations are often to see a doctor, or visit a pharmacy. But Mexican shoppers and tourists have been barred from the U.S.. They’re considered nonessential, and their absence has severely hurt economies along the border but done little to stop the spread of COVID-19.

In Laredo, shoppers from Mexico came to a screeching halt – the economic effects rippling in malls along Interstate 35. But places like the La Posada Hotel are still buzzing with American guests, staying overnight at the historic inn before they cross the Rio Grande to shop in Nuevo Laredo.

“We’re not seeing shoppers from Mexico, but we’re just as busy with Americans coming south,” said Gaby Ramirez, who works at the front desk at La Posada.

In El Paso, Dr. Hector Ocarranza and his staff at the City-County Local Health communicate on a regular basis with Juarez health officials. Regularly, he issues a plea for Americans going south: “The border is closed to nonessential travel to foreign nationals; however, traffic among legal permanent residents and US citizens is unrestricted. I strongly urge the communities to avoid family gatherings on both sides of the border.”

Heeding the call is complicated. Consider Ernestina, 32, who didn’t want to give her last name for fear of getting in trouble with U.S. authorities. She confessed: “I’m buying some medicine, but I’m also seeing my family, including grandmother. That’s probably considered illegal right?”

Europe has banned Americans from entering because of the U.S. failure to control the spread of COVID-19, but Mexico doesn’t have that luxury, experts say. Both sides of the border feed off of the same economic pie.

In fact, three months after the border restrictions were announced, some experts are coming to the defense of mobility, claiming further restrictions will damage social and economic order.

“Migration is vital for human and economic development, and it reduces global inequalities,” said Jim Hollifield, academic director and professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

Some are also warning that politics should not be part of any equation for reopening. There’s growing speculation that the border will remain closed at least until the November presidential elections in the U.S.

Martha Bárcena, Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said: “Our position as the Mexican government is that these measures will continue based on sanitary and health to protect the health of the citizens of the border and not for political reasons.”

Meanwhile, many along the border struggle to adjust to dramatic disruptions.

“It’s difficult to change our routines,” said Augusto Juarez, 22, a music major at the University of Texas at El Paso. He works as a customs agency employee in El Paso. “A lot of people, myself included, were used to crossing every week to, aside from going to school, buy clothes, things for home, eat in restaurants and visit family or go out with friends.”

Reopening economies also presents thorny challenges. Most of the border cities analyzed on the Mexican side have had to delay their reopenings even as the rest of their states start to open up. Mexican health authorities cited proximity to the U.S. as one of the reasons to remain closed.

People wait in line to cross the border to El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on Friday, June 26, 2020.
People wait in line to cross the border to El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on Friday, June 26, 2020.(Joel Angel Juarez / Special Contributor)

Last week, key Mexican cities switched from ‘code red’ to ‘orange’ and began a gradual reopening that included restaurants allowing customers at 50% capacity. Restrictions continue for bars, casinos and shopping malls. Last Friday, following Gov. Greg Abbott’s pause on reopening, long lines of vehicles with Texas plates roared onto Juarez avenue as a flood of Americans arrived.

As usual, Americans going into Mexico faced few, if any questions about their travels, although they are normally asked to walk through a “sanitizing tunnel” which sprays a light disinfectant over them. Sometimes, visitors also had their temperatures checked. On a recent visit, the sanitizing tunnel didn’t appear to work, and no one was taking body temperatures.

What’s clear is that while their American neighbors contend with the importance of individualism, a sense of solidarity reigns in Juarez. The use of masks underlines that. Chihuahua state has long mandated the use of masks. Texas strongly urges the use of the face coverings without making them mandatory.

Quiet resentment is growing among border residents like Garcia and others who can’t travel north from Juarez like they usually do.

“We’re not even allowed to cross to El Paso,” laments Garcia, who complains she has not been able to shop in the U.S. for months, where some items are generally cheaper. “But El Pasoans can come back and forth and without cubre bocas (face masks). Is that fair?”

At a pharmacy in Juarez an American without a mask walked in on Father’s Day weekend to pick up his monthly medical supplies. Pharmacist Luis quickly filled the order and politely ushered him away.

Luis, who declined to give his last name because he is fearful of alienating his clients, says he is even more wary than usual because holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the Fourth of July always bring more Americans. Chihuahua health authorities on Friday asked them to stay away this year.

Mother’s Day brought a lot of traffic. There’s a tongue-and-cheek saying in Mexico that mothers are more cherished, more pampered by their children than fathers. Luis hopes that’s the case and that the recent Father’s Day holiday doesn’t prove him wrong with another, bigger wave of infections, especially with Americans making masks a political issue.

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