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Gilbert Perez talks about the donations received by the Alliance of Border Collaboratives on Tuesday, July 28, 2020, at 2524 Montana Ave. in El Paso.

El Paso Times

JUÁREZ — After three hours waiting to cross the international bridge to El Paso on Sunday — with a quarter mile covered and a mile still to go — Jessica Varela knew she was in for the long haul. 

As economies on both sides of the border have opened in recent weeks, border crossings have increased even as the pandemic has continued to grip both the U.S. and Mexico and border restrictions on non-essential travel have been in effect since March. CBP warned border residents Friday that a crackdown was coming.

More: CBP: Nonessential travelers will face greater scrutiny at US-Mexico border

Cross-border commuters reported wait times at international bridges of upwards of four hours, and as many as eight hours, over the weekend, as CBP closed inspection lanes and increased scrutiny to discourage non-essential travel.

Still, it caught Varela unprepared.

On her own — and hungry — she called for help. At 10 p.m., a friend brought dinner to her car, which was stuck among hundreds as a two-mile line of glowing tail lights crawled toward the Ysleta-Zaragoza bridge. At 2:30 a.m. she snapped a photo of the line still ahead of her.

The scene repeated itself across the city.

Passenger vehicles twisted into downtown Juárez, backed up from the Paso del Norte bridge and choking traffic down Avenida 16 de Septiembre to the home of the late singer Juan Gabriel a mile away.

A view of the passenger vehicle line at the Zaragoza international bridge at 2:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Photo: Courtesy Jessica Varela)

At the Bridge of the Americas — better know as the puente libre, or “free bridge” because there is no toll — the line wound back and onto Hermanos Escobar also a mile from the mouth of the bridge.

Varela finally made it through the Ysleta-Zaragoza port of entry at 3 a.m. Monday. 

“I think yesterday was the worst day I have ever had crossing the border,” she said. “Eight hours is too much ― totally excessive.”

But, she said, she understands the point CBP is trying to make: “I think that we’re not taking COVID seriously enough, and I count myself in, because I come and go on weekends.”

More: El Paso coronavirus update: Four new COVID-19 deaths, 145 more cases reported Monday

As a U.S. citizen, Varela said she has become a sort of family courier. She brings groceries and goods purchased in El Paso to family members in Juárez who can’t cross to shop under the current restrictions. Sometimes, she stays for the weekend.

“This plan by CBP — obviously I don’t like it,” she said. “But it will work.”

Longer waits, fewer crossings

CBP spokesman Roger Maier said in a statement Friday that the agency would “adjust operations” at Southwest border ports of entry to to “discourage non-essential travel to and from Mexico to limit the spread of COVID-19.”

The border restrictions issued by the Department of Homeland Security in March already prohibit crossing for tourism or recreation. In practice, Mexican nationals who hold a B1/B2 tourist card, known locally as a “laser visa,” have been barred from crossing to the United States, while U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have been permitted to return stateside.

Mexico hasn’t restricted travel through its land ports of entry in Juárez.

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“A recent survey of over 100,000 travelers on the Southwest border found that the vast majority of cross-border travel by U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents is for purposes that are not deemed essential,” Maier said in the statement.

The survey was conducted by CBP officers at ports in all four field offices, across California, Arizona and Texas, he said.

Maier said CBP expects that increasing wait times will have the desired effect: “that ports of entry would begin to see a reduced number of those traveling for what would otherwise be deemed a non-essential reason.”

Research suggests it’s true.

Every additional minute of wait time at an international bridge reduces the amount of traffic at that given port of entry, said Tom Fullerton, a professor with the University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Economics and Finance, who studies cross-border flows. 

For example, “four hours of wait time sustained over 30 days for the free Bridge of the Americas would lead to a 175,000-car reduction in the total number of vehicles coming north into El Paso,” he said. 

“Historically, the monthly average for the Bridge of the Americas is 507,000 cars per month, although recent months have fallen substantially below that volume due to travel restrictions, a weak economy and a weak peso,” he said.

‘Essential’ workers caught in the fray

CBP’s crackdown caught workers with “essential” jobs in hours-long lines, as well.

As Varela was finally pulling through the Zaragoza port of entry at 3 a.m., elsewhere in Juárez 35-year-old Miriam Martinez was waking up to her alarm to check the wait times. She saw the puente libre had a 90-minute line.

She told herself, “‘Later it’s going to be more.'”

“So I left,” she said.

Martinez had to get to her job at an El Paso call center that takes appointments for the city’s COVID-19 testing sites. Like many Borderland families, her life straddles the line: She works in El Paso but her husband and — since school went virtual — her three young children live in Juárez.

She lives in El Paso during the week, spends weekends with her family and crosses on Mondays.

“We are so scared (of coronavirus) we don’t even go out” in Juárez, she said.

Martinez spent nearly two hours waiting in a line to cross the Bridge of the Americas. She made it through just before dawn, at 5:26 a.m., she said.

In private Facebook groups dedicated to crowd-sourcing information about wait times — including one with more than 220,000 members — border residents posted their reports with a mix of anger, desperation and humor.

People uploaded shots of their smartphone timers ticking past five hours. They offered to let drivers sneak into the line for a burrito de chile colorado or their “best offer.” Tearful and furious emojis abounded.

One member of a group called “Reporte de Puentes” commented early Monday: “You win, CBP. I won’t go to Juarez for tacos.”

Lauren Villagran can be reached at [email protected]

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