When non-essential traffic across the Texas-Mexico border started to increase over the summer, Customs and Border Patrol began artificially inflating the wait times to cross in order to slow it down. That has worked, but it’s also caused economic problems.
In March, the Department of Homeland Security adjusted crossing restrictions to include tourism and recreation as part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The virus has been very active in El Paso County, which was recently named one of the top 50 counties in the United States in terms of total cases. Nearly 500 people have died in the county since the outbreak started, and over 21,000 have been infected.
It’s understandable that DHS and CBP would want to address the problem, and inflating wait times does have an effect on how many people are actually crossing the border. CBP spokesperson Roger Maier said in a recent statement that the vast majority of people surveyed about their reasons for crossing were non-essential in nature. They were left with few options.
“What CBP and DHS observed was that when the essential travel restrictions were put into place, individuals and businesses adapted to the new rules,” says Thomas Fullerton, professor in the Department of Economics and Finance in the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Non-essential travel began creeping up month by month. Their objective seems to be to reduce the amount of non-essential traffic. If people are not observing the restrictions, it’s a fail-safe manner of backing up the regulations.”
However, El Paso and Juarez, Mexico are well-known for their economic traffic. Around 15 percent of the $300 billion in U.S.-Mexico trade comes right through the port of entry between the two cities, and many citizens cross the border for work. Increased wait times may slow the overall flow, but it doesn’t distinguish between those who are merely ignoring health guidelines and those on legitimate business.
“Unfortunately, DHS is helping Seattle by hurting Texas,” said Fullerton. “By making it difficult for customers to come across and shop in El Paso or San Marcos, it encourages them to purchase from Amazon or Alibaba in China.”
Fullerton has had his own experiences at the border as he frequently travels to study the economic activity between Texas and Mexico. He was stuck for over two hours at a dry land crossing between Chihuahua and New Mexico. He’s heard of trucking companies sending out relief crews for drivers stuck in their cabs in sweltering heat, as well as providing food as wait times stretched longer and longer with no movement. The set-up also leaves people as sitting ducks for robbers, traffickers, and blackmailers in his opinion, as the long lines of stuck cars offer no room to escape or to call for help.
Job losses are inevitable from the disruption. Jorge Marquez lives in El Paso but says he was being kept from getting to work by seven-hour waits at the border. Eventually, he was fired.
“The crossings are affecting Texans on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s affecting me to the point that I lost my job.”
It’s unknown how long the artificial wait time policy will remain in place. Unemployment in El Paso is somewhat lower than the rest of the state, but sustained traffic stalls can’t be good for jobs in the long term. It’s likely that pressure will soon be applied to the government asking it to lift the restrictions.
“This is wreaking havoc in a lot of people’s work schedules, but there’s not much that can be done,” said Fullerton. “I haven’t heard of anyone losing jobs yet, but it might occur at some point. If I had to guess, these restrictions will be lifted sometime in October because there are enough businesses that directly or indirectly profit from the fourth quarter holiday tourism visits from northern Mexico, and those businesses are going to start exhorting pressure on the Trump Campaign supporters and elected officials. At present the plan is to keep these regulations until December, but that risks roughly a billion dollars of the Texas economy at risk, including holiday sales.”