Blanca Escalante spends much of her time taking care of seniors, crisscrossing between work and family obligations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, the El Paso Times, a USA TODAY Network publication, reports.
The 53-year-old works weeknights assisting an elderly couple in El Paso, where she lives as a legal permanent resident. On weekends, she helps her sister in Juárez care for their 84-year-old mother — a commitment that has become increasingly onerous as travel restrictions at the border head into a seventh month.
“My mother and sister have a tourist visa and can’t cross,” Escalante said. “So I’m the one that has to go there.
“I don’t go to drink beer. I don’t go to shop,” she said. “I go to take care of my mother. For me, it’s essential. I can’t not go.”
As family and financial obligations mount for those whose lives bridge the U.S.-Mexico divide, so does the pressure to cross the border — even at the risk of unpredictable lines, record-long wait times and rapidly shifting border policies that some worry could leave them trapped on one side or the other.
The added misery on the border could endure until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, not expected until after mid-2021.
President Donald Trump first restricted travel at the U.S.-Mexico border March 21 to slow the spread of COVID-19, limiting crossings to U.S. citizens and permanent residents for “essential” visits only, for work, school or health care.
The partial closure has divided the lives of Borderland families in ways few could have imagined before the pandemic.
The sort of family visit Escalante makes doesn’t fall into the U.S. government’s category of “essential” travel, but she says her responsibilities weigh heavily.
“My son is afraid they’ll close the bridges on me,” she said. “We’re all afraid. But it’s my mother. I have to go see her.”
Some trips across the border are worth the risk
Escalante and thousands of others continue to cross despite the anxiety and helplessness. A pesar del coraje — despite the fury — they feel at not knowing whether their commute home might be the equivalent of the 40 minutes from El Paso to Las Cruces or five hours to Lubbock.
More: Border wait times surge at El Paso crossing as CBP cracks down on ‘non-essential’ travel
Leonardo Escobosa, a 22-year-old economics graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso, fell in love a year ago with Yailin Espinoza, 23, who lives in Juárez. They spent five months of the pandemic apart, hoping the government would loosen the restrictions. Finally, in August, Escobosa decided to risk crossing.
He surprised Espinoza by arriving earlier than she expected at her mother’s house, with flowers.
“We hugged each other for like five minutes there on the sidewalk,” said Escobosa, who had almost zero physical contact with anyone since the pandemic set in. “I felt completely relieved. I needed a hug from my girlfriend.”
More than once, 25-year-old Grecia Luna arrived late to work at an El Paso coffee shop after the restrictions made bridge wait times less predictable. The dual citizen found independence working on the U.S. side of the border while living with roommates in Juárez, where she grew up. The coffee shop, Fahrenheit 180, didn’t survive the pandemic and she lost her job.
“It was a stressful situation from the moment I would leave my house,” Luna said. “You have to organize your time around the border crossing. When I’m there waiting, I feel as if I’m getting older.”
If there is a measure of how intertwined lives are in El Paso and Juárez and other border communities, it may be this: After U.S. Customs and Border Protection intensified the crackdown on “non-essential” crossings in August, wait times skyrocketed to six, seven or eight hours.
And crossings barely budged, according to CBP.
“The efforts to reduce non-essential travel are resulting in longer-than-normal wait times, especially during weekend and off-peak periods,” said Hector Mancha, who oversees ports of entry as director of field operations for CBP’s El Paso field office. “Despite this, it appears many members of our community continue to travel in numbers consistent to what we experienced before this initiative was implemented. We hope that members of our community reassess their need to cross the border and limit their trips accordingly for the common good.”
August crossing data isn’t yet available. But personal vehicle crossings at El Paso’s international bridges dropped hard after the restrictions were put in place, to fewer than 400,000 crossings in April from a monthly average between 900,000 to 1.2 million, according to the Borderplex Business Barometer, a monthly analysis produced by UTEP researchers. By June, the latest month for which data is available, they were up to 550,000.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) said she has been advocating for a binational testing strategy that would allow border communities to co-exist safely.
“The fact that this effort (to close bridge lanes) hasn’t worked proves how deeply interconnected our communities are,” she said. “We should refocus our efforts on a bi-national COVID plan. Trying to create extra hardship for people isn’t going to solve the problem.”
The weekend of the crackdown, Escalante endured an eight-hour bridge line overnight, with her daughter at the wheel. Escobosa spent Saturday with his girlfriend, then six hours on Sunday locked in his car, inching north toward the international line.
“It’s a feeling of helplessness,” Escalante said. “CBP didn’t even ask why we went.”
Escobosa said of Espinoza, “I love her and I want to spend as much time as I can with her. If it’s raining, if there’s lightning, if I have to make a 12-hour line, nothing is going to change. I will still want to spend time with her.”
‘We thought it would be temporary’
On the second-to-last Friday in March, Downtown El Paso was breezy, cool and uncharacteristically empty.
The city’s stay-at-home order was still four days off. But that morning, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would restrict travel at the U.S.-Mexico border, starting at midnight.
“It was shocking and we thought it would be temporary,” said Estefanía Casteñeda Pérez, a PhD candidate at the University of California Los Angeles who conducts research on transborder communities. “People had to choose for the first time which side of the border they were going to stay in.”
Overnight, the borderline — long regarded in border communities as little more than a threshold to home — suddenly hardened.
There was widespread confusion for days about whether Mexico had closed its border to U.S. citizens (it hadn’t) or whether Juárez residents with a tourist card could cross to the U.S. for “essential” reasons (they couldn’t).
The young couple, Escobosa and Espinoza, remained hopeful. “Time would go by and we would still hope to see each other next month,” Espinoza said.
In practice, six months on, the restrictions still bar most Mexican nationals from crossing the land border, including those who hold a tourist visa, while U.S. citizens and permanent residents face increased scrutiny by CBP at ports of entry.
But the restrictions didn’t end there.
Since the pandemic began, the Trump administration has floated or taken additional measures to curb movement at the U.S.-Mexico border, using the contagion to justify reducing legal cross-border flows.
In July, the Trump administration threatened to bar international students from living in the U.S. while taking fall classes online, a policy it rescinded after facing a rash of lawsuits by universities. The University of Texas at El Paso vowed to defend its students’ ability to stay in the U.S. — but fear kept many from daring to go home to Mexico or other countries.
More: Trump administration drops rule barring foreign students from taking online-only classes
Then, in mid-August, the Trump administration drafted a proposal that could have blocked U.S. citizens and permanent residents from returning to the U.S. at the Mexican border. That proposal, on dubious legal footing, never left the draft stage.
But 10 days later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it would crack down on non-essential travel at ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border. In El Paso, CBP closed all but two lanes at three major international bridges on a weekend, catching many unawares and provoking wait times that ballooned to six, seven and eight hours.
Escalante said the changes — both threatened and real — make her nervous.
She isn’t crossing as often as she used to, she said. She won’t go to Juárez during weekdays for fear of missing work; but, in her experience since the crackdown, weekends are when the wait times are worst.
“Last weekend, I sent money to my mother,” she said. “And I am praying that she doesn’t fall ill.”
Escobosa has resorted to logistical gymnastics to make his relationship work.
He plans for the uncertainty, he said — keeps the gas tank full, checks the oil in his car, thinks hours ahead about what awaits him.
“I don’t know if I’m going to cross in two hours or if I’m going to cross in six hours,” Escobosa said. “Why do we have to get to the point that I can’t eat or drink anything three hours before because I fear not knowing how long I’ll be there (at the bridge)?”
Luna, looking for a new job in El Paso despite the complications, doesn’t know what to make of the future.
“I’m in the middle and I can’t control this situation,” Luna said. “I feel like less and less is in my hands to know where I will be able to work and live.”
No relief in sight
As the pandemic wears on, the “temporary” restrictions are renewed like clockwork. Each month the Department of Homeland Security extends them another month. The restrictions currently run through Oct. 21.
In El Paso, Mayor Dee Margo said he recognizes the toll the restrictions are taking on Borderland residents and the city’s businesses, especially Downtown.
He said he has advocated for reducing wait times at the border but favors holding the restrictions in place until both sides have the pandemic under better control. He worries that tourist visa holders in Juárez would seek medical care in El Paso, where hospitals have been under intense strain for months.
“I’m very concerned,” he said, about the ongoing impacts. “This pandemic has a physical cost, a financial cost and a mental health cost on both sides.
“Until we get our arms around the pandemic and we have a vaccine, I don’t know what we can do. Our hospital capacity is my concern here in El Paso,” he said.
The decision to reduce or remove the restrictions lies at the federal level, in the hands of the Trump administration and Department of Homeland Security.
The Trump administration’s premise of keeping COVID-19 out of the U.S. by locking down the land border — when the disease exists on both sides and flights are still moving between Mexico City and airports nationwide — is “completely irrational in public health terms,” said Joe Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American Border Studies at UTEP.
Heyman has reviewed policies on binational approaches to combating contagious disease at the border, including how Mexico and the U.S. handle tuberculosis.
“What we do with contagious diseases takes a lot of effort,” he said. “It requires tracking individuals, quarantining individuals, and not whole countries or whole cities.”
The partial closure, he said, “doesn’t constitute a meaningful health measure. It does make people at the border miserable.”
Borderland residents are accustomed to adapting to the policies of governments in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City — policies that govern when and how El Pasoans and Juarenses can see each other.
Escobosa and Espinoza said they aren’t giving up.
For the five months they spent apart, the couple said they felt as if they were in a long-distance relationship despite living less than 20 miles apart. They fill in the time spent apart with video calls and text messages.
“I feel a little bit guilty because in these times I can’t do a lot from my part,” Espinoza said, wishing she could still go to El Paso.
“Now it takes more money, more time and a bigger effort,” Escobosa said. “We’ve been together for one year and three months and despite all the trouble we’re trying to do everything possible to keep seeing each other.”
Follow Lauren Villagran and Veronica Martinez on Twitter: @laurenvillagran and @vamartinez10.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: COVID-19 border restrictions weigh on borderland residents