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Biden opening U.S.-Mexico border for fully vaccinated travelers, ending COVID restrictions

Pandemic restrictions at the Mexican and Canadian borders will be lifted by the Biden administration in November for travelers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, allowing travel by tourists and separated family members who've been unable to cross since March 2020.

Senior federal officials told reporters Tuesday that foreign travelers will be allowed to enter the United States if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Those who cannot provide proof of vaccination will continue to be banned if their travel is still considered "non-essential." While the restrictions have blocked most travelers coming from Mexico, U.S. citizens, green card holders, and those traveling for medical care have been exempt.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration required new immigrants to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, adding the shot to a list of required vaccinations against such illnesses as polio, measles, mumps and hepatitis as part of their visa applications.

Officials said that starting in January 2022, the U.S. will require all travelers, including those previously exempted from the restrictions, to show proof of vaccination before crossing the border. This would cover people like truck drivers, who were allowed to cross into the U.S. to support the movement of cargo along the Canadian and Mexican borders. "This phased approach will provide ample time for essential travelers such as truckers and others to get vaccinated, enabling a smooth transition to this new system," said a senior administration official CBS News reported.

The shift was met with immediate praise from officials in Arizona.

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva said he welcomed news that the administration "finally heeded my call and reassessed the stringent closures and travel restrictions alongside the U.S.-Mexico border."

"For border communities, including Southern Arizona, these indeterminant border closures have caused great financial hardship to borderland residents and businesses that rely on the influx of tourism and trade for their livelihoods," Grijalva said. "This announcement comes at a time when local border businesses continue to reel from the impacts of the pandemic, with far too many forced to close their doors indefinitely."

"Not only will this provide a lifeline to so many of those businesses, but it will allow our borderlands region to regain its ​vibrancy. As the holiday season approaches, it will also mean that families will once again be able to connect with their loved ones on both sides of the border," Grijalva said. 

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Tucson Mayor Regina Romero made a similar comment, writing that this was "welcome news for Tucson's economy, for our border communities, and for many families who have loved ones on both sides of the border."

"This is the right decision and a long time coming," said Danny Seiden, the president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Seiden said that the resumption of travel will "help revive our border community economies that have been so badly damaged due to the severe restrictions on border crossings that have been in place throughout the pandemic."

"Before the pandemic, Mexican nationals contributed an estimated $7 million per day to the Arizona tourism economy. As travel resumes, we would urge Customs and Border Protection to ensure our ports of entry are adequately staffed to facilitate legal, safe and efficient crossings," Seiden said.

Arturo Garino, the mayor of Nogales, Arizona, called the move an important step, but worried that it might be too late for businesses along the city's downtown.

"Well, I hope it's not too late, because our usually good months are gone, but we'll take anything, even if its close to December, to get some movement along the border and let people shop in Nogales. It will help, it will help the economy and the cross border travel and give us the flow that we need, especially in the downtown area."

Garino said the closure of the border since March 2020 has been bad for business along Nogales' downtown corridor. Along with the closure at the busy Dennis DeConcini border crossing, U.S. officials also closed the Morley gate, a pedestrian crossing that flows right into the city's downtown area once packed with shops.

"Not to have people come across and shop here has really hurt the business," he said. Garino also said that the closure of the border has meant some families remained separated for nearly 19 months.

"Arizona border mayors and small business owners have been making clear the devastating impact that the pandemic and these travel restrictions have had on our local economies," said Senator Mark Kelly. "It’s about time Washington listened to Arizonans."

"Arizona will once again be able to welcome customers and tourists who come through ports of entry to visit our state. I will continue working with Republicans and Democrats to ensure smart border security and support border communities through this pandemic to make sure they recover quickly," Kelly said.

Kelly noted that in May, he and several other members of Congress—including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick—had asked the Trump administration for a detailed plan that would outline when and how Homeland Security officials would reopen U.S. land ports. In October 2020, Kelly and the others, asked Chad Wolf, then acting Secretary of DHS to "develop and publicly articulate a detailed plan," but never received a response.

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Kelly, along with Sen. John Cornyn, also introduced the Border Business COVID–19 Rescue Act, which would require the Small Business Administration to set up a loan program to help border businesses directly impacted by the pandemic.

Garino said he understood the closures because early in the pandemic, "we had to look at this through health, we had to make sure that people in were safe from being infected by cross-border travel."

However, in recent months, Santa Cruz County has managed to attain one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, vaccinating 99 percent of the eligible population, he said.

"Once we got to the high 90s in vaccinations, our interest was to make sure that anyone who came across was vaccinated," he said, adding that officials in the City of Nogales and Santa Cruz County had worked with the U.S. Consulate to help vaccinate people in Nogales, Sonora. Garino said he expected that effort to expand from the first volley of vaccinations and begin working on boosters.

Helping aid Sonora with vaccinations was also on Grijalva's mind, who pushed for the Biden administration to make sure that vaccines heading toward their expiration date be used, asking for them to "make their way to border communities."

"Donating these vaccines is mutually beneficial and will allow us to bolster the health of the region. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues and the Biden administration to facilitate the process," he said.

Mexico has administered more than 107 million shots since it began vaccinations earlier this year, covering roughly 42 percent of the population. 

Title 42 will remain

Administration officials were quick to note that while travelers will be allowed, this will not affect the administration's use of Title 42— a CDC policy instituted by the Trump administration that allows U.S. border officials to rapidly deport those who crossed into the U.S. after they have traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.

Under Title 42, U.S. officials have expelled people nearly 938,000 times this fiscal year, which began in October 2020 and ended on Sept. 30, 2021. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have also used Title 42 restrictions to refuse asylum seekers at U.S. border crossings telling them that they cannot enter the U.S. Advocates have argued that Title 42 is unlawful because it allows the "summary expulsion of non-citizens, including vulnerable families seeking asylum in this country, without any of the procedural protections guaranteed by Congress—even if the families show no sign of having COVID-19."

A Biden administration official said that Title 42 would remain because CBP facilities are not set up for a pandemic. "The Title 42 restrictions are really about protecting the migrants themselves, the DHS workforce and local communities," the official said, adding that there's a "strong public health basis" to keep Title 42 in place.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association also welcomed the announcement of the opening of the border, but called on the Biden administration to lift Title 42.

"AILA has urged the Biden administration to lift these restrictions for months and it is welcome news that come early November we will see these changes in action," said AILA President Allen Orr. "Businesses, families, and communities have suffered from the points of entry being closed. Cross-border travel is a key part of how we will build back from the pandemic's impact."

Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, the group's director of government relations. said that the reopening was "one of many recommendations" they gave the administration for "concrete changes that would allow our country to reopen and ensure the immigration system contributes to economic and social prosperity."

"As the administration implements this decision, we urge it to ensure that mechanisms are in place for all individuals who do not have ready access to approved vaccines to travel to the United States safely and revisit its decision on Title 42 restrictions," said Dalal-Dheini. "Our country needs solutions that are science-based and equitable for all individuals."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dozens of people wait to enter the U.S. at the Dennis DeConcini border crossing in Nogales, Sonora in September.

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