Arizona CBP Operations

CBP officers check vehicle travelers at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in this file photo.

Six months after implementing restrictions that primarily stopped Mexican tourists from crossing through the Southwest land ports of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it’s “taking measures” to discourage non-essential travel to and from Mexico by U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well.

However, aside from references to “measures” and “adjusting operations” with the aim of discouraging crossings and limiting the spread of COVID-19, a statement CBP provided to the NI last Wednesday didn’t specify what changes had been implemented or if local border-crossers would be affected.

A follow-up statement said, “Individuals who are traveling for non-essential purposes should expect more disruption to their travel, including increased wait times and the potential for secondary inspection.”

CBP’s border wait times app showed short delays on Wednesday and Thursday last week for travelers going through the DeConcini and Mariposa ports of entry. On Thursday morning, a half-dozen travelers who spoke to the NI after entering the country through DeConcini said they hadn’t been subjected to any unusual screenings by CBP officers.

By Friday afternoon, the wait time for pedestrians at DeConcini was 90 minutes and lines for both passenger vehicles and pedestrians stretched for hours over the weekend. On Sunday evening, the line was four hours long for cars and three hours long for pedestrians, according to the CBP app.

But weekend waits of a few hours aren’t out of the ordinary at the local port and, on Monday morning, the wait time app showed waits of about one hour for both pedestrians and passenger cars crossing through DeConcini.

Last week’s statements appeared to be part of a larger campaign by CBP to discourage travelers from making the trip across the border while COVID-inspired restrictions remain in place.

On Aug. 25, the Mexican Consulate in Nogales issued a news release stating that the U.S. government had implemented measures that would slow crossings at Nogales and other ports, including a “system of double inspection,” as well as reducing open lanes for pedestrians and vehicles.

For its part, the Mexican government has never clamped down on U.S. citizens crossing the border during the pandemic, though the Sonora state government briefly turned back non-essential travelers at its ports of entry with Arizona over the July 4 holiday weekend.

An NBC news report dated Aug. 23, citing a statement provided by CBP, said measures had gone into effect on Aug. 21 and would result in longer wait times at the port. At least in California, the agency appears to have delivered on its promise – The Associated Press reported on Tuesday, Aug. 25 from San Diego, Calif. that drivers there waited up to 10 hours to enter the country over the weekend.

CBP’s messaging comes in advance of the long weekend leading up to Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 7. After Memorial Day weekend, cars and pedestrians coming to the United States waited in line for six hours or more in Nogales, according to the CBP app.

The Trump administration, and even Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, have repeatedly suggested that travelers crossing between the United States and Mexico have contributed to COVID-19 infections. The second CBP statement also asserted that “Mexico continues to experience spikes in positive COVID-19 cases along the Southwest border.”

But new confirmed infections have declined for several weeks in all six Mexican states that border the United States. In Nogales, Sonora, infection rates have fallen dramatically since reaching a peak in mid-June, in line with a declining trend of new infections in Santa Cruz County.

The vague messaging about recent operational changes also points to a larger dilemma for CBP: The agency has sought to clamp down on “non-essential” cross-border travel by U.S. citizens and residents in the context of the pandemic, even though the agency’s own guidelines state that citizens and residents returning to the country is considered essential travel.

In the statement sent last Wednesday, CBP asserted that “the vast majority of cross-border travel by U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents is for purposes that are not deemed essential.” But a CBP rule published in the federal register includes a nine-point definition of essential travel that begins with: “U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States.”

After travel restrictions were implemented along the U.S.-Mexico border in March, it became clear that CBP port staff were primarily using the policy to turn away travelers looking to enter the country on short-term tourist visas.

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