As US land borders reopen for vaccinated foreign visitors, some worry about waiting times
U.S. land borders are reopening on Nov. 8, after an 18-month lapse, to fully vaccinated foreign visitors.
The development is a relief for border communities' economy, Arizona's tourism industry, and families whose bonds cross the border.
"It has a huge impact on tourism and sales, but we also know, on personal basis, that many families haven't seen each other in more than a year and a half," said Felipe Garcia, Executive Vice President of Visit Tucson.
Someone wanting to visit a family member in the sister city of Nogales, Arizona, couldn't cross the metal gate that kept them 10 blocks apart. However, they were hypothetically able to travel 173 miles to the capital of Sonora and take an international flight to Tucson with no requirement other than a negative COVID-19 test.
The reopening, many say, is overdue.
“This is the right decision and a long time coming," Danny Seiden, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry's president and CEO, said in a written statement. "Before the pandemic, Mexican nationals contributed an estimated $7 million per day to the Arizona tourism economy.”
While the economic spill from tourism in Tucson might take even more than a year to recover, business are optimistic about the spike that Christmas sales will bring, Garcia said.
People coming into the U.S. with a tourist visa will have to show proof of vaccination for COVID-19.
This loosening of border restrictions applies to individuals with World Health Organization-approved vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Sinopharm and Sinovac. There is still no approval for the millions of Mexicans who have received the CanSino or Sputnik-V vaccines.
Many questions remain unanswered. What documents will be accepted as proof of vaccination? Will unvaccinated children ages 12 to 17 be allowed to cross? Will people using falsified vaccination cards face legal consequences?
Once the guidelines become clear, Visit Tucson will use its platform to inform Sonoran visitors and help them prepare to speed the crossing process, Garcia said.
'Uncertainty is always an enemy of business'
The changes to border crossing requirements could mean longer waiting times at the ports of entry, Arizona officials and business people suggested.
Customs officers for the first time will have to check Mexican vaccination forms.
"It's unprecedented. Now we have the complexity of having a provision that requires vaccination checks. It adds work to customs," Garcia said.
Douglas Mayor Donald Huish said the main concern that government officials at the borderlands have is about staffing. Also that customs has "clear and concise protocols to make the determination in a timely manner to get traffic flowing quickly."
There is still no information about how much longer it might take for officers to perform checks or any plans the agency may have to increase the number of officers on the lanes.ess
"It's still going to be a challenge because they are asking (U.S. Customs and Border Protection to do additional work," Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker said. "We are hoping they allocate additional dollars for personnel so that they can keep all the lanes open."
That particularly is a concern for produce distributors.
Jaime Chamberlain, president of Chamberlain Distributing Inc., said that "there is an appetite to come" because of the long closure and the separation of families during the pandemic. That will cause travelers to overwhelm ports of entry and increase waiting times — a situation that may not only become a "terrible touristic experience," but jeopardize business if they have to take officers off the commercial lanes.
"We have about 72 hours to get everything in and out. That's the rotation of our transportation network in Mexico," he said. "It's not just produce; we have shrimp, fish, cattle, all kinds of things that are going in the trucking system."
The company, which has been in business for about 50 years, handles more than 100 million pounds of produce every year.
Inside the industry, there has been talk about fears that the port will take customs officers off from the commercial lanes, Chamberlain said.
"Every single one of those men and women in blue have a value to the GDP of the American economy," he said, explaining that custom officers are highly specialized.
Chamberlain said he feels frustrated when he sees officers at checkpoints or providing backup for agents making detentions. That has become an issue with the lack of a strategy to address illegal immigration and process asylum requests in an orderly manner, he said.
"Uncertainty is always an enemy of business. If we have a rush of migrants in Yuma and (customs) is called to help Border Patrol somewhere, that is an issue," he said.
"You are pulling them off a pedestrian lane, or a vehicular lane or, God forbid, a commercial lane."
The director of field operations in Arizona and port directors understand the importance of the efficiency of commercial crossings, Chamberlain said.
Last year, fresh produce imports at the southern border were valued at $14.9 billion; nearly 23% came through Nogales. The relationship that fresh produce importers have with port authorities in Arizona is unique.
Still, he has concerns that the ports of entry will have enough officers in the lanes.
A CBP spokesperson said that all ports of entry at the Tucson Field Office are fully staffed.
CBP uses incentives to attract more employees to those ports of entry. CBP's website advertises that officers are eligible for extra pay if they select Douglas, Lukeville, Nogales or San Luis as their duty location.
The Arizona Republic asked the Department of Homeland Security if there are plans to allocate extra resources and personnel, but did not receive a response. CBP declined to comment on the ports of entry preparation for reopening.
Have news tips or story ideas about the Arizona-Sonora borderlands? Reach the reporter at email@example.com or send a direct message in Twitter to @ClaraMigoya.
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