Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The United States and Mexico announced Friday that nonessential travel along their shared, 2,000-mile border will be severely restricted to control the spread of coronavirus, but trade activity, cargo shipments and work-related crossings will not be affected.
The new restrictions, which took effect at midnight Friday, prohibit recreational and tourist travel, similar to restrictions enacted earlier this week along the U.S.-Canadian border. But there will be no ban on people crossing between the U.S. and Mexico for work or other essential activities, and there will be no halt to commercial traffic, acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Friday morning.
“We want to make sure that cargo continues, trade continues, health care workers continue to be able to traverse that border,” Wolf told reporters at the White House on Friday, according to the Associated Press. “But tourism, some recreational activities and other things need to stop during this crisis.”
The announcement ignited rampant rumors that the border is being shut down, something local leaders are now scrambling to correct, said Jerry Pacheco, executive director of the International Business Accelerator and president of the Border Industrial Association.
“We’re trying to quell those rumors,” Pacheco told the Journal. “All of a sudden, there’s panic that the border is shutting down. But it’s not true.”
Commercial goods transported on trains and trucks won’t be affected, nor will citizens, legal residents, people with legal work permits, and people considered “essential” or who are traveling for medical or educational reasons, Pacheco said.
In fact, Santa Teresa Port Director Fernando Thome told Pacheco business at the border remains normal.
“Thome said cargo crossing and business will go on as usual,” Pacheco said. “There are no delays happening now.”
By excluding commercial traffic from the ban, the two governments substantially softened the economic effects.
Mexico and the U.S. have more than $600 billion in annual cross-border trade.
That’s critical for New Mexico, which shipped a record $2.39 billion in products to its southern neighbor last year, accounting for about 50% of all state exports in 2019.
Most of that trade is coming from southern New Mexico, particularly from the 60-plus companies now operating in the Santa Teresa border industrial parks, which continue to expand at a rapid clip, Pacheco said. Four new buildings are currently under construction at the parks and more businesses are also going up in San Jeronimo on the Mexican side of the Santa Teresa border crossing.
Union Pacific as well is investing another $20 million to expand its massive, intermodal rail yard, which operates on the north side of the parks.
“Most of the new developments are scheduled to come online over the summer,” Pacheco said. “Up until now, we’ve been doing exceedingly well. There’s more activity underway at Santa Teresa now than in the history of the parks.”
Still, Santa Teresa-based businesses, and many more in El Paso and Juárez, could be significantly impacted by the temporary shutdown announced this week by major automakers in the U.S., including Ford and General Motors, to protect workers and help contain the coronavirus.
“This area is very tied into the auto industry on both sides of the border,” Pacheco said. “We have a bunch of suppliers in Santa Teresa who make components that go into the automotive maquilas (factories) in Mexico and the shutdown will affect all that activity in the border region. That hasn’t happened yet, but if the shutdown extends for a period of time, it will certainly impact businesses here.”
Although trade between the U.S. and Mexico won’t be affected by the new travel restrictions, the border economy will feel the pinch as people in both countries stop crossing back and forth to shop at stores and patronize other businesses.
“For the tourism and retail sectors, that bites,” Pacheco said. “Businesses on our side that cater to shoppers will have repercussions. If you want to cross over from Juárez to shop at Walmart in El Paso, you can’t do that now.”
But with most people already working remotely and staying at home to avoid the coronavirus contagion, a lot of the impact from travel restrictions has already hit border businesses, said Paola Avila, chair of the Border Trade Alliance.
“People are not crossing, anyway,” Avila told The Associated Press. “This is the right thing to do. If you don’t have to cross, don’t.”
The U.S. State Department also issued a new travel alert on Thursday urging Americans not to go abroad under any circumstances and to return home if they are already abroad unless they plan to remain overseas.