SANTA EULALIA, Mexico — Rogelio Martinez is fully vaccinated and eagerly waiting for the border to reopen so he can return to work hundreds of miles away in Midland, Texas, where he toils in oil fields.
“Texas is reopening its economy, but I have not been able to get back,” said Martinez, 35, outside his ranch in this mining town nestled outside Chihuahua City. “I’m ready to get back to work.”
But despite a massive vaccination campaign underway, Martinez and other Mexican residents will have to wait at least another month, maybe longer, before they can resume their normal lives of crisscrossing the border to visit families, shop, or work, say senior Mexican officials.
“At this point, we don’t have all the vaccines needed to meet the goal for lifting restrictions by July 21,” said Roberto Velasco, director general and Acting Undersecretary for North America at Mexico’s Foreign Ministry. “I feel the end of the restrictions is not far off, maybe not the 21st, but we’re not so far away.”
Land border crossings have been closed to most Mexicans since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted travel restrictions along the 2,000-mile border. The reopening date is conditional on Mexico’s vaccination rollout and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. U.S. authorities have set a goal for vaccination levels in border municipalities of at least 70% before reopening.
“It’s going well, but not as we had hoped for,” added Velasco. “We were aiming to vaccine people within weeks, but it’s taken so much more time.”
Another senior Mexican official said, “we’re looking at several more weeks, perhaps months, and a reopening may happen in phases,” as in gradual segments of the population fully vaccinated. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The delay in reopening comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges across the United States and Mexico. Only 16% of Mexicans have been fully vaccinated and 28% have received at least one dose. In comparison, 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated and 67% have received at least one dose.
Efforts to meet vaccination parity with the United States to lift travel restrictions are frustrating residents along the border and beyond, underscoring regional economic and cultural ties. Border leaders, including El Paso’s County Judge, Ricardo Samaniego, are frustrated by disparities in how Mexicans and Americans are allowed to cross. As residents living along and near the border wait, for example, Americans are freely making a beeline via air flights for Mexico’s pristine beaches with little hassle.
Three of the five Mexican states with the highest infection rates are popular tourist destinations, including Quintana Roo, home to Cancún and the Riviera Maya; neighboring Yucatán; and Baja California Sur, home to Los Cabos.
Economic pressures in the tourism industry have led to lax regulations. For example, traveling by air to Mexico has no testing or quarantine mandates. Hotel guests are required to go through temperature checkpoints and told to wear masks, but not all guests, the majority of them Americans, comply with the rules. One recent day in Cancún, one American smoked his cigar and drank whiskey with his mask nowhere in sight.
“You either die of hunger or of the virus,” said Juan Felipe Solís, 32, a waiter at one of Cancún’s high-end beachfront hotels, as he took drink orders from cigar-stomping Americans and others frolicking on white sand and lounging around a pool. “It’s not an easy decision.”
Regional border ties
Communities like Santa Eulalia, population 20,042, highlight those ties that go beyond the border. The town is a mining jewel, some 250 miles from the Texas border. Economically, however, it couldn’t be closer. Residents here travel north to work in El Paso’s service industry and at the oil rigs of the Permian Basin.
Vaccination represents a glimpse of hope for many with strong ties with the United States. Consider Patricia Hernandez, 41. She works as a maquiladora worker here in Santa Eulalia. She has a sister in El Paso and says she crosses the border regularly with a tourist visa to buy supplies, or “from time to time” works as a babysitter, or to take care of the elderly to “make a few extra dollars.”
Near the town square is El Calorón, a corner convenience store on the main street. The store is run by Elizabeth García, 30, and her aunt Clara García, 42. The store also sells fresh-baked tortillas, homemade chile colorado and new handbags and shoes brought from the U.S.
García has not seen her mother for more than a year. Her mother moved to Fort Worth in January 2020. She started dating a man she met through a friend who also lives in Fort Worth. So, she decided to take a chance and move to Texas to start a new life.
García’s mother planned to get married, apply for a green card to come and see her family in December of 2020. But, then, the pandemic hit.
“I really miss her so much. It has been so tough without her. When she left, we said, ‘OK, we will go and visit you in Semana Santa (Holy Week), but then everything was shutting down,” said García. “Before we used to go and buy running shoes, handbags, clothes and other things to the stores in the U.S., like Ross and Marshalls to sell them here, and it was good money, but now we can’t go.”
According to an investigation by José Iván Rodríguez Sanchez, an analyst at Rice University’s Baker Institute Center, the impact on the economy of communities on the U.S. side of the border amounts to about $10 billion in losses since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, as reported by aldiadallas.com.
To date, nearly 79.9% of El Paso County residents age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to Texas Department of State Health Services figures. Nearly 59.6% of Texas’s population is fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, in Ciudad Juárez, nearly 48% have received at least one dose according to Verónica Villegas, the spokeswoman for Chihuahua’s department of social services.
Efforts are underway across the private sector to get the border reopened, including through the first Texas-based binational effort to get people fully vaccinated. Last week, Mexican workers from U.S.-owned companies traveled 40 miles to the Guadalupe-Tornillo International bridge to get vaccinated.
Index Juárez, a maquiladora industry association, is paying for transportation and operations at the site. The effort is expected to cost $500,000. That figure does not include the cost of the vaccines, which Texas is providing at no charge, said Samaniego, the El Paso county judge, calling the experience “very rewarding.”
Martinez, who raises cattle while he’s in Santa Eulalia, hopes similar efforts will eventually help get the border reopened so he can return to Texas to work because, citing labor shortages rippling through the United States, he added, “They (Americans) need us and I certainly need them. We just all need to get vaccinated.”
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