Everyone thought that when the U.S. border reopened to tourists, people in Juárez were going to line up at ports of entry like it was Black Friday already.
But fewer than a dozen Mexican nationals with border crossing cards showed up before the 10 p.m. reopening Nov. 7 at the Downtown bridge. The next day, vehicle and pedestrian lines at El Paso-area international bridges were shorter and faster than usual.
Border crossers from both sides marveled at all the empty pavement.
Cross-border traffic has been creeping up from that weak start, keeping hopes alive for a stronger holiday shopping season at El Paso stores. But there are obstacles, economists say, that are holding Mexican shoppers back from rushing north of the border.
A weak Mexican peso is making dollar-based goods more expensive. Middle-class household income declined in Juárez during the pandemic, meaning family budgets are tighter than usual. And price inflation has hit hard on both sides of the border.
The pool of people in Juárez able to cross the border under current rules has also shrunk.
Tens of thousands of people watched their border crossing card visas expire during the pandemic and either didn't renew the cards or were unable to because the U.S. Consulate in Juárez had reduced services. Mexican public school teachers were also left out: They were among the first to get vaccinated in Juárez, but the Mexican government gave them doses of Cansino, a vaccine not on the U.S. list of accepted brands.
In the days since the U.S. lifted restrictions on non-essential travel for fully vaccinated foreign nationals, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seen a steady increase in traffic at the El Paso area crossings, according to Ray Provencio, CBP acting El Paso Ports Director.
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Passenger vehicle traffic ticked up 10% in the week after restrictions were lifted compared to the prior week, while pedestrian traffic rose about 25%, he said.
The volume of Mexican customers "is edging up slowly," said Tom Fullerton, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Besides the economic obstacles, Fullerton said, the border was closed to Mexican tourists long enough that people developed different shopping habits. He estimates that El Paso lost as much as $300 million in sales, as northern Mexican shoppers bought locally and online from retailers including Amazon, Alibaba and Mercado Libre.
"For 19 months, many of these customers figured out ways to obtain goods without coming to El Paso and they simply have other habits ingrained," he said. "They are slowly reincorporating trips to El Paso among their routines."
Weak peso nips spending power
The peso hit 25 to the U.S. dollar in late March 2020, plummeting as the global pandemic shut down economic activity and curbed expectations for demand for crude oil production, a cornerstone of the Mexican economy.
In recent months, the peso has been floating closer to 20 to the U.S. dollar. That's still historically weak for the currency. As recently as 2016, 15 pesos would buy $1.
On the morning after the U.S. ports of entry reopened to Mexican tourists, a Juárez police officer monitored traffic at a street corner near the Paso del Norte international bridge and mused about how the expected line of border crossers hadn't materialized. He pointed to one answer across the street: A currency exchange house selling the dollar at 20 pesos and change.
"The dollar is so expensive," he said, adding that most workers hadn't received their holiday bonus yet known as the aguinaldo.
Goods are more expensive, too.
In Texas, a key measure of core inflation in the price index for personal consumption expenditures hit 5.1% in September, the fastest one-month rate since August 1990, according to the latest figures from the Dallas Federal Reserve.
Fullerton noted that household income in Juárez has also declined, even as goods have gotten more expensive. The take-home earnings of business services professionals like bookkeepers, attorneys and other office workers "have all taken pretty big hits."
"A lot of the middle class doesn’t have the same amount of disposable income available that allowed them to visit El Paso as frequently as before the pandemic," he said.
From a few weeks' wait to '679 days'
Mexican nationals in Juárez cross the border with a visa known as a "border crossing card," a type of B1/B2 tourist visa that typically last 10 years and are available to qualifying Mexicans who live in the border region.
The coveted cards look like a driver's license but carry biometric information and allow holders to crisscross the border and travel up to 25 miles into Texas and 55 miles into New Mexico.
The U.S. Consulate in Juárez in fiscal 2011 issued about 125,000 combination B1/B2 visas and border crossing cards. With a 10-year expiration date, that's roughly how many would have expired in fiscal 2021, but the U.S. Consulate issued fewer than 22,000 in the 12 months through September – suggesting that tens of thousands of people who would normally be able to cross now cannot.
State Department statistics don't differentiate between renewals and new applications. But the sharp decline in cards issued could be attributed, in part, to people waiting for the border to reopen before re-applying and to the consulate operating with minimal staffing and hours during the pandemic.
"We're looking at appointments in March of 2023," said Fernando Aguirre, who manages a Grupo Francie location in Ciudad Juárez, a third-party business that helps residents apply for tourist visas with the U.S. Consulate. "People, obviously, want to start renewing their visas. And even though the wait is until 2023, they are saying, 'Let's get started.'"
For a process that used to take a few weeks, the U.S. Consulate in Juárez now lists a wait time of 679 days for a visitor visa.
'Hoping for another opportunity'
Left out of the border reopening because their vaccine wasn't on the list of accepted shots, public school teachers in Juárez were among thousands of people who showed up for a dose of AstraZeneca last week.
Nallely Saucedo, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher, spent six hours in a vaccination line that wrapped around the Indios baseball stadium multiple times. With vaccine access extremely limited in Juárez, tensions were high, she said.
"I was there on the first day, fighting with all the people," she said. "Nine other teachers from my school were in line, too. We're just hoping for another opportunity."
The U.S. rules require foreign travelers be fully vaccinated and show proof. Saucedo and other teachers who got the first AstraZeneca shot will have to wait for the Mexican government to announce another clinic. She expects it could be months.
"The truth is, I am very upset," she said. "The government didn't think about the impact (the Cansino vaccine) would have on us teachers at the border."
Feelings of discontent
Other juárenses may have given up on El Paso, for now.
The U.S. kept its land border closed to Mexican visa holders without restricting air travel – disproportionately impacting border communities. The ports stayed closed months after economies on both sides had fully reopened.
"A lot of times workers and households, if they are treated badly, they harbor resentment for an extended period of time," Fullerton said. "It wouldn’t surprise me if people felt like they were being treated like they were criminals and weren’t allowed to visit the United States" and are skipping out on trips to El Paso.
A meme circulated on Facebook in the days after the border reopened, when cross-border traffic was unusually light.
It juxtaposed a photo of an empty Bridge of the Americas tagged with the phrase in Spanish "You can cross already" beside a painting of a figure, possibly Antonio López de Santa Anna, with his arms crossed, a contemptuous look and the phrase, "No, ya no."
"Eventually that type of resentment should ebb away for most people," Fullerton said.
Wait times fall, 'avanza bien'
What's probably not hurting traffic is bridge wait times.
The Trump presidency was especially tough on frequent border crossers, as the administration pulled CBP officers from their posts facilitating legitimate trade and travel to aid Border Patrol with unauthorized crossings. With staffing thin at the bridges, wait times surged in 2019 to an average of nearly two hours.
Wait times spiked again mid-pandemic, when CBP elected to crack down on U.S. citizens who were considered "essential" under the border restrictions but who may have been crossing for a variety of reasons not involving work, school or medical emergencies. Family visits, so important to Borderland residents, weren't considered essential under the rules.
Since the border reopened, CBP has kept staffing high through peak hours and reports suggest that wait times have been generally stable for passenger vehicles and pedestrians, running between 30 minutes and an hour.
There have been isolated reports of three-hour plus wait times in recent weeks.
"I’m very attuned to wait times and the impacts to our regional and national economy and even global economy," Provencio, the acting ports director, said. "There are public studies that talk about the impacts if there are wait times out there. During the time we are in right now, with the economy where it’s at, I think CBP has a significant role to play to help bounce back our economy."
CBP continues to advise the public that wait times could increase heading into the holidays, as traffic flows rise and the agency manages its other core responsibilities, including intercepting illegal narcotics.
More than 260,000 people belong to a Facebook group that serves as a platform to crowd-source the El Paso-Juárez bridge wait times. Although members posted photos of occasionally long vehicle and pedestrian lines, many came with positive feedback.
"The universe conspires in your favor when you are happy and you don't complain in the line," said one user last week with a laugh-crying emoji and a time stamp of 11:57 a.m., just five cars out from the crossing.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: El Paso hopes Mexican shoppers boost Black Friday, holiday sales