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EL PASO — After 19 months of closure, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Monday reopened its ports of entry to vaccinated travelers from Mexico, a long-awaited event for business owners who depend on tourists and Mexican nationals who had not been able to visit family on the American side for more than a year and a half.
In March 2020, in an effort to fight the spread of COVID-19, the Trump administration closed the land borders to all but U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and any other travelers considered essential, such as health care workers or students. Mexican nationals with tourist visas were barred from entering the U.S.
From Brownsville to El Paso, pedestrian crossings at ports of entry dropped drastically, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.
Some ports of entry that are operated 24 hours a day reopened at midnight. Others were set to reopen at their previously scheduled hours of operation.
To enter the U.S., Mexican nationals with visas will need to prove they have received a COVID-19 vaccine approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The proof, such as a vaccination card, can be in English or Spanish and in physical or electronic format. Travelers need to have the proof of vaccination with them at all times.
The requirements do not apply to children 17 years old or younger, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said.
Starting in January, non-U.S. citizens and non-permanent residents traveling for essential purposes will also have to start showing proof of vaccination at land crossings to enter the U.S.
El Paso, which operates some of the busiest points of entry into the U.S., reported 3 million pedestrian crossings in 2020, a 60% drop compared with the year before. In Brownsville, pedestrian crossings plunged 53% from 2019 to 2020. Both cities saw vehicle crossings drop by roughly half over the same period.
Border Patrol officials warned that wait times to enter the U.S. will likely be lengthy on reopening day and asked potential travelers to have their documentation ready to ease the process.
“We do anticipate more travelers, especially as we head into the holiday season. Everybody should expect longer wait times. That’s the reality of what we’re going to see,” Ray Provencio, acting El Paso port director, said Friday in a statement. “By being prepared to the point where every traveler can save just a few seconds in the process will add up into real-time savings for all travelers at our local border crossings.”
This story will be updated; check back for more.