It’s becoming a traffic jam quite unlike any other.
Drivers are now reporting waits of up to 10 hours to cross the U.S.-Mexico border as a federal crackdown on nonessential travel is underway to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“There is a price to pay (for commuting from Mexico), but it should be reasonable,” Andrea Casillas, who works at a Bed Bath & Beyond store in San Diego and lives in Tijuana because it's less expensive, told the Associated Press Monday after waiting four hours himself. “This is going too far.”
The crackdown comes after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said it surveyed about 100,000 travelers coming from Mexico by car or on foot and found 63% of U.S. citizens and legal residents traveled for reasons that were not essential.
U.S. citizens and legal residents cannot be denied entry under a partial ban that the Trump administration introduced in March. Going to work, school and medical appointments are deemed essential travel, but going to shop, dine or socialize is not.
On Friday, CBP began redirecting staff at 14 larger crossings in California, Arizona, and Texas to get people through quickly on weekday mornings, when essential travel is heaviest – but it’s leading to big backups on the weekends, the Associated Press reports.
One employee at a company that provides support for businesses with Mexican operations saw the huge lines Sunday night from his home in Tijuana, Mexico. A U.S. citizen, he lined up at midnight for his 8 a.m. shift Monday in San Diego and still arrived 90 minutes late.
“I hope that it’s just startup fits... and that it will be a little more streamlined down the road,” said Ross Baldwin, the man's boss and president of TACNA Services Inc.
Tijuana police said some people ran out of gas in line. An 87-year-old woman also died of a heart attack in her car as she waited Sunday to get through the nation's busiest border crossing, in San Diego, according to the Associated Press.
But on Tuesday traffic was unusually light, with pedestrians wearing masks and keeping a short distance from each other.
Drivers getting stuck in the traffic jams have taken to social media to vent about the delays.
One of them, Yadir Melendrez, said he waited five hours to cross for work Monday.
“The crossing is being slowed down to exasperate people on vacations or non-essential trips!” he wrote in a text message to the Associated Press. “The bad thing is that those of us who go to work get hurt!”
Anne Maricich, deputy director of CBP field operations in San Diego, said the wait in California peaked at six hours by the agency's count, yet witnesses reported longer waits.
Before the pandemic, about 200,000 people a day entered the U.S. at California crossings with Mexico, according to CBP. The daily average plunged to about 70,000 people after the ban was announced in March but has since climbed to about 120,000.
CBP is also under pressure to ease restrictions as border economies dependent on Mexican consumers come under more strain.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, says downtown Laredo, in his district, is a “ghost town.”
Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, said 13% of businesses in the area near the San Diego-Tijuana crossing have permanently closed and those that are open have seen their revenue more than halved.
Wells wrote to members that “the arbitrary border restrictions, and punitive actions against those not fitting some whimsical definition of ‘essential,' is causing more harm than good.”
CBP, meanwhile, is emphasizing public health considerations.
“We need people to think twice about nonessential travel and to ask themselves if the travel is worth risking their lives and the lives of others,” CBP spokesman Rusty Payne said.
Christopher Landau, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said many people are crossing the border to visit family, shop, or dine out.
“Such irresponsible behavior is exacerbating the health crisis,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.