Since mid-March, the U.S. land ports of entry shared with Canada and Mexico have been closed to non-essential travel, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as a joint cooperative measure between the three countries to “limit the further spread of coronavirus.” (Non-essential travel includes travel that is considered “tourism or recreational in nature.”) Each month since the initial announcement, DHS has extended the closure for an additional 30 days. Most recently, the governments have agreed to extend the closure through September 21.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and sister cities along the border like El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are hit especially hard, DHS announced it would further tighten its restrictions.
These days, usually all northbound lanes but one are closed, turning an average wait of 90 minutes into several hours in order to try and discourage non-essential travel. Our ambassador also took to Twitter to ask U.S. citizens living on the Mexican side of the border region to refrain from traveling to the U.S. for eating out and other non-essential activities. But the U.S.-Mexico border is the busiest land border in the world, with nearly one million crossing northbound on foot or in vehicles daily.
The open source image below from 2016 shows the heavy flow of traffic northbound, during more normal times.
Of course, I’m not here to talk about policy or politics. I’m here to talk about my personal experiences as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) posted to U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez. We live only a handful of miles from the border. Many own homes on the Texas side, have children in school full-time on the Texas side, and have their medical and veterinary care set up on the Texas side. In addition, my work in American Citizen Services can necessitate me, in certain situations, to be able to cross the border quickly.
The coronavirus border restrictions, while certainly not intended to prevent U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) from returning home, have particularly affected officers here without Global Entry; I applied more than six months ago and was conditionally approved, but unable to schedule my interview due to coronavirus shutdowns. As a result of not having Global Entry, I cannot buy the Línea Express stickers from the Mexican government for my vehicles which would allow me to drive in the SENTRI expedited crossing lane northbound at the border. And thus, my border crossings have been few, and tedious. I sit in line with the engine running and my diplomatic passport in the center console. I sit with all the other U.S. citizens, dual-nationals, or Mexicans with U.S. visas, all awaiting their chance to make the case to Customs and Border Protection (CBP, a part of DHS) that their crossing is essential.
This isn’t anyone’s fault. It isn’t my fault, it isn’t CBP’s fault, and it isn’t the consulate’s fault. I’m not upset about it. I know it’s not forever. It’s just is the way things are right now. And to be clear, CBP is the arbiter of granting entry to our country. So, I consider my lack of Global Entry and getting caught in the mess just one of the unfortunate bumps of trying to set up life in a new country, similar to my experiences at the beginning of my tours in Tashkent and Australia.
Here is the tale of three of my recent northbound border crossings.
I had ended my 14-day arrival quarantine period and had started coming to the office every day. After my second day in the office, I came home and was paying bills at my desk when I inadvertently knocked my iPhone 11 ProMax onto the hard tile floor. It fell right onto its face with a sickening smack. The screen didn’t break, but it did go black. The audio I had been listening to on speakerphone faded abruptly. I tried every trick and tip on the internet for hours to reset it, but nothing worked. Yes, the same phone I just got in February. And yes, the same phone I almost smashed to bits when I randomly fell down a hill in Arlington in July. Says the person who had never lost or broken a cell phone, never dropped a cell phone in a toilet, and never had a cell phone stolen, EVER, in the roughly 25 years since I started having cell phones.
It didn’t take long for the consequences of this mistake – during a largely remote work posture for our team – to become clear; two-factor authentication for my personal email accounts tied to my phone meant I couldn’t get security codes to log in. I could backstop code receipt with my iPad, as long as I was at home, but my iPad only works on wifi and there’s no wifi in the consulate. And there is no bringing my laptop or iPad to work. Fortunately, I had set up my work computer the day before as a trusted computer for my primary Gmail account, and most of the time I could get in.
But the apps I use to authenticate my remote work logins from home were gone. I couldn’t use mobile banking. I set up as many of my meetings through WhatsApp video as I could, because surprise, surprise, my work desktop computer has neither a camera or a microphone. And the time of working at home had ended. I needed to be operational outside the house.
Cue fretting about the enormous work phone bill I was probably running up to facilitate my attendance at all these check-ins, as my boss and I triaged emergencies in the office and most of the rest of our team worked remotely. And probably worst of all, I no longer had a U.S. phone number or access to any of our local WhatsApp chats, right at the time my boss decided to switch all our unit meetings from Teams to Google Meet, which I couldn’t set up on my work iPhone due to… Google two-factor authentication that was sending codes to a dead phone.
I made an appointment to get my phone fixed in El Paso, but the next available slot was seven days out. I tried to get my phone “unofficially” fixed in Juárez. Colleagues frowned and advised against it. This is not Mexico City. Sigh. For a week I duct-taped my comms together, missing meetings and trying to create as many redundancies as I could on my work phone. And then the day before I was supposed to cross, CBP announced the new lane restrictions. It was the perfect storm.
To be sure I would make my 16:00 appointment at Best Buy in West El Paso, I rolled up to the border line at 08:52. It took until 11:05 to pay my exit toll of 31 pesos ($1.44) on the Mexican side; prior to that day, I had never waited more than 10 minutes to get to that point. But the line was backed up on the Mexican side because the whole bridge was full of northbound cars that weren’t moving.
I sat on the bridge until after 13:00. I saw three people give up and make a U-turn but most were bound and determined. The person in front of me at one point got a flat tire on his truck but kept on rollin’. The lady behind me opened her car door and threw up on the ground. It was close to one hundred degrees. I sat calmly, so dehydrated that I could feel my contact lenses sticking to my eyeballs. But I had planned to be without a bathroom for several hours, and the longer I sat there alternately catching up on podcasts and jamming out to tunes, the more determined I became to make it. Every time I had to steer the Toyota between a set of barriers that I wouldn’t be able to get out of, I felt the beginning of a small panic rise in my throat. “I’m trapped,” I thought. “This is an experiment,” my right brain replied soothingly. “If you have to go to the bathroom, you can give up. But you’re not going to give up. You’re going to fix your phone.”
I made it. Four hours and 16 minutes to cross. “Hang in there,” I said to the CBP agent after she admitted me, and she smiled at me and said, “Thank you, you too.”
I bogarted my way into my Best Buy appointment two hours early, and as it turned out, they had a new mainframe for me, but had some kind of technical difficulty releasing it from their inventory. They called another Best Buy half an hour away, and there they managed to replace the guts of my phone and get me back up and running. I had been on work email all day, attending whatever meetings I could technologically join from my Mexican phone on the wrong side of the border, and by dinner time I was back home, exhausted but happy.
I received my Global Entry conditional approval on Friday, March 13. That was kind of the last fully normal weekday of my life, and as it turned out, the last week of normal operations for CBP, because every appointment I scheduled in March and April got cancelled until they sent me a notification that their centers nationwide would be closed, UNTIL. Until what, none of us knew. Until further notice. We were scared to go outside.
CBP here last week was kind enough to invite me to the El Paso Enrollment Center for an expedited interview, although they technically don’t reopen for interview until next week. I am so appreciative of that professional courtesy they extended to me as an officer of the consulate.
They suggested I walk across the bridge to avoid the vehicle wait, and that sounded good to me. I requested that a consulate motorpool driver bring me to the bridge and drop me off, and then wait for me on the other side. He dropped me off just before he went through the exit toll. It was before 09:00, but already hot outside. I got out of the truck and walked to the turnstile. A little sign said 7 pesos ($0.32). Of course, I realized. It costs less to walk across.
I dug in my coin purse and to my astonishment, I had seven one-peso coins and a 50 centavo piece. I put my coins one by one into the slot until the light turned green. A nice lady sprayed my hands with hand sanitizer and told me to have a good day. I hiked up the foot bridge, trying to breathe slowly and not inhale my cotton mask. A mourning dove sat high on the fence surveying the scene in no-man’s land. I’m in no country, I guess.
A Hispanic man walked quickly past me, wearing a florescent yellow vest and two paper masks, one layered over the other. He carried his lunch in the kind of thin plastic sack you buy vegetables in at the grocery store. I walked across the bridge, went downstairs, turned left into the enrollment center, and within an hour I was approved. I also have to say that I received the utmost courtesy from everyone I met. When I left the CBP officer walked and chatted with me through immigration, out to the parking lot, and then I got in the consulate truck and was driven right back to Mexico. Probably my shortest visit to the United States in my life! I will call this border crossing wait time eight minutes.
This weekend I had to attend to some medical and personal needs in El Paso, so I decided to wake up around 05:30 to beat the line. I took a shower, packed a thermos of ice water and a thermos of hot coffee, checking the border crossing wait time app as I went through an abbreviated morning hair and makeup routine. The wait crept from 10 minutes up to 45 and I thought, It’s time to go.
I jumped in the Toyota and made haste for the border only a few miles east, noticing that drivers all sped up as we hit the last straightaway towards the exit booths. I only waited five minutes to get to the bridge, and about an hour and 10 minutes later I pulled up to the CBP entrance booth.
“Good morning sir,” I said to the officer. “Good morning,” he replied, looking at my diplomatic passport. “How’s it going?” He raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Why don’t you use the SENTRI lane?” I explained the situation and he rolled his eyes knowingly and nodded. “You’re almost there,” he told me, handing me back my passport. “Take it easy.”
“Stay safe,” I replied, smiling through my mask.
Later that day when I returned home to Juárez, I was dismayed to see the line on the Mexican side to cross northbound stretched for miles. It was nearly 16:00 and I am pretty sure that none of those people would have made it across before at least 22:00.
There are 1.3 million people who call themselves Juarenses. Many of them live their lives on both sides of the international border between these two dusty border towns. Anytime I can get what I need here, I will stay at home, and hide from the virus. And when I must go north, I will rise before dawn, and wait.
The long lines of cars are symbolic of something broader, more existential. We are waiting for our lives back. We are waiting for some hope. A vaccine. A chance to embrace our friends and loved ones without fear. We are waiting for safety, normalcy. We are keeping our chins up, even though we are all thinking the same thing while we wait: this sucks.