Today, the border reopens to “non-essential travel” for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. After twenty months of restrictions, fully vaccinated Mexicans will now be able to enter the U.S. to shop or visit friends and family. | Lea esta nota en español
By Annie Rosenthal
Lately, things at the Dollar General on the edge of Presidio have been pretty quiet. The store is just a few minutes’ walk from the international port of entry, and pre-pandemic, it was a magnet for cross-border commerce. But in early November, there were only a few customers inside, and employees restocking the shelves.
Manager Azucena Romero says it’s been like this since the border closed to Mexican shoppers in March of 2020. She estimates that 70% of her customers come from across the border.
“We used to have like 700 customers a day,” she says. “And now it’s like 300 customers a day. So that’s a big difference.”
Romero still doesn’t quite believe travel restrictions are lifting today, after months of rumors. She’s slow to get her hopes up. But she has a message for shoppers in Ojinaga: “We’re ready. We need you guys!” She laughs. “Yes, we need ‘em. We definitely need ‘em.”
That’s true for businesses across Presidio. The local economy relies heavily on Ojinaga, just across the river, where the population’s close to 25,000 — about five times that of Presidio.
During the pandemic, multiple businesses in town closed, and local officials estimate Presidio has lost up to $350,000 in sales tax revenue — which is a lot for a town with a total budget of just under $4 million.
On the Mexican side of the border, the economic impact of the travel restrictions hasn’t been as intense, especially since U.S. citizens were still allowed to travel into Mexico.
Melissa Franco, who represents the Mexican federal government in Ojinaga, thinks the restrictions may actually have helped local businesses there. “We learned to value the local market more, because before if something occurred to you, you could go to Presidio to buy it,” she says in Spanish.
Still, she says, Ojinaga residents are eager to be able to visit the U.S. again, and to help their neighbors in Presidio.
City ombudsman Dr. Usmar Lara agrees. “We’re very excited for the opening because we’ll be able to visit our family members and friends,” he says in Spanish. “We’re waiting anxiously for the eighth of November, because sister cities have to live together.”
Figuring out how to live together over the last twenty months has been complicated. But the cities have managed to stay connected in small ways.
In May, Ojinaga parents got special permission to cross into the U.S. to see their kids graduate high school in Presidio. And a few times, the Ojinaga fire department has been allowed to come to Presidio to help fight wildfires.
Still, the exceptions were few. And the toll of the restrictions went beyond economics: For many families with relatives on both sides, like Presidio Mayor John Ferguson’s, they meant the loss of crucial moments together.
“Back in June, I asked US Customs, specifically the port director, if there might be any allowance for my son-in-law to be able to come over to see the birth of his daughter,” he says. But Ferguson wasn’t able to get permission. And his son-in-law, who lives in Ojinaga, couldn’t meet his newborn daughter until she was brought to Mexico.
At the port, Mexican truckers like Efrain Olivas Mendoza are gearing up for the big day at the port. Olivas Mendoza’s job –– transporting merchandise to the U.S. –– was deemed “essential,” so he was allowed to keep crossing during the pandemic. Now, he’s worried about the increase in traffic. Even as travel restrictions reduced the number of people crossing, it took several hours to cross into Presidio on a busy day.
“It’ll be a little difficult,” Olivas Mendoza says in Spanish. “We’ll have to be patient, because the line is going to be long.”
Port Director Jesus Luis Chavez does expect to see an increase in wait times. He says visitors can help by having all their documents –– including, for foreigners, proof of vaccination –– ready. And he says customs officers at the port plan to do everything they can to make things move quickly.
“We do have four lanes that are available, and if we need to open them up, they will be open,” Chavez says.
In the meantime, Presidio city administrator Brad Newton says the town is ready for things to get back to normal.
“Presidio and Ojinaga, despite politics and international borders and everything, we kind of locally think of us as being all in the same town, with an inconvenient border between us,” he says.
After nearly two years of restrictions, he adds, “We’re glad to have our family come home.”