McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — With border travel restrictions to be lifted in a couple weeks, several border communities in South Texas are organizing vaccination drives north of the Rio Grande to help get more Mexican neighbors vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccination will be a requirement to come into the United States.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, has asked local governments and nonprofits in his sprawling South Texas district to send him proposals for vaccination clinics along the border that he will try to run through DHS and work to launch.
On Thursday, he told Border Report that several communities, like Rio Grande City in Starr County, and Laredo, Texas, are actively involved in finding more outlets for Mexicans to get vaccinated quickly so they can cross when the border fully reopens and come and shop and visit families members on the U.S. side. This includes partnerships between municipalities and school districts on both sides of the border to boost vaccination rates.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that border travel restrictions will be lifted in November at land and sea ports on the southern and northern borders for those fully vaccinated for COVID-19. And in January, anyone who wants to cross — including “essential” workers, like commercial truckers and medical personnel — will also be required to show proof of vaccination before entering into the United States at these ports.
To get ahead of these deadlines, Cuellar said the best way is for leaders on both sides of the border to work with their sister cities to arrange vaccination sites.
“The better way, the fastest way, the most efficient way is to have local governments working with local governments, and the traditional ties they have with each other will be a more efficient and effective way to get people on the other side vaccinated than to send vaccines to the Mexican federal government,” Cuellar told Border Report.
Waiting for vaccines to go country to country will take too long, he said.
The U.S. State Department must approve all vaccines sent south of the border. Then, the Mexican federal government must also approve the acceptance and distribution of the shots. That can take several months and border communities say they don’t have that kind of time if they want to quickly get back Mexican shoppers for the Christmas buying season.
The United States has sent between 6 million to 7 million vaccine doses to Mexico, Cuellar said. But still only about 40% of Mexicans are fully vaccinated. And, some Mexicans got shots that are not listed on the World Health Organization’s official vaccine list. The list includes the following recognized COVID-19 vaccines:
Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company and a majority owner in the private international bridge, told Border Report on Thursday that there are still many questions about whether federal officials will allow in Mexicans who received other vaccines, such as Russian and Chinese versions that were widely distributed.
In order to ensure that everyone is permitted U.S. entry, he is pushing for a free drive-through shot clinic in the turnaround parking lot at his bridge, which connects Rio Grande City, Texas, to Camargo, Mexico.
“We’re under the gun because the good news is they are opening the border. The bad news is we have about two months to get a significant number of people on the Mexican side vaccinated,” Vale said.
Southbound and northbound traffic is seen on July 9, 2021, at the Starr-Camargo International Bridge connecting Rio Grande City, Texas, to Camargo, Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)
Vale’s facility, built in 2001, has a circular parking area where Mexicans could drive across, stay in their vehicles and receive the vaccinations and then cross back to Mexico without ever setting foot on U.S. soil.
That is similar to several vaccination drives that have successfully gotten thousands of Mexican industrial maquiladora workers vaccines by bringing them in busloads from Reynosa to McAllen, and the state of Nuevo Leon to Hidalgo, Texas.
Hundreds of thousands of maquiladora workers from Tijuana, Mexico, also have been vaccinated in southern California. And, vaccination programs between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona, with factory workers from Agua Prieta, Mexico, also have proven successful.
Vale points out that it has been hard to convince U.S. officials to allow in Mexican nationals for shots who are not considered “essential” workers.
Rio Grande City held a pilot vaccination clinic on Sept. 28 at the bridge, but it was only for a handful of shots, the city’s Spokeswoman Angelina Villarreal told Border Report. (Photos below provided by Rio Grande City)
Now they are hoping to greatly expand that by showing federal authorities how smoothly the clinic went and how safe it was and well monitored, Vale said.
And, they also are pushing to help school children from Mexico come across to also receive vaccinations, especially since in January vaccination requirements will expand to everyone who crosses.
Mexico does not vaccinate children under age 18, and so it is uncertain what the regulations will be for teens and children unable to get vaccinations in Mexico.
The private Mexican school Grup Educativo Oxford in Reynosa has reached out to officials in Rio Grande City and asked if their schoolchildren could receive vaccines at the Starr-Camargo International Bridge, Villarreal said.
“They reached out to us to see if we could do some kind of binational effort to help vaccinate their kids,” Villarreal said. “To see if we could find a way to vaccinate their kids because they do impact our community here in Rio Grande City.”
Vale says he wants to not only help vaccinate the children, but their parents, also, who often drive them across every morning and afternoon.
“There is no one-size-fits all. It’s how can you do it and be working with Customs and Border Protection to make sure that everybody is properly vetted so they don’t just run off,” Vale said. “And it’s not doing thousands per day, it might be doing hundreds per day. But from now until the end of the year we could get a lot of people vaccinated.”
In Laredo, Texas, at least five vaccination clinics have been held at several of the international bridges connecting the city to the Mexican border states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.
Shots have actually been taken across the bridges and administered to Mexicans inside the Customs area in collaboration with Mexican officials and Mexican doctors, Dr. Victor Treviño, the health authority for the City of Laredo and medical director for the Health Department, told Border Report.
Treviño said they have helped to vaccinate 5,200 Mexicans through these drives and they are actively ramping up to offer more.
“We helped them with vaccination drives. Some vaccines were about to expire and we took them over there before they expired,” Treviño said. “This took some doing, but we were able to coordinate.”
The last drive was held 10 days ago on the Columbia International Bridge that connects Laredo to Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
He said it didn’t need U.S. State Department approval because the vaccines were technically on the international bridge and not in Mexico.
“We got people from all areas, rural areas where people had no access to get the vaccines. People came in horses and it was quite moving,” he said.
People over there are fighting to get the vaccine and over here they’re fighting not to get the vaccine.”Laredo Health Authority Dr. Victor Treviño
“They were very appreciative,” Treviño said. “People over there are fighting to get the vaccine and over here they’re fighting not to get the vaccine.”
The city for months has been enticing Mexicans to fly from Mexico City to the Laredo International Airport where they can receive a free COVID-19 shot.
But they are making a concerted push to get as many residents of their sister city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, vaccinated ahead of the travel restrictions being lifted, officials said.
“We are very much in favor of ramping this thing up some more and even more organized bussing to bring folks to the bus area and it’s very well coordinated through CBP and private companies,” Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz told Border Report.
He said Laredo has a fully vaccinated rate of over 90% and plenty of shots to offer to Mexicans. And they hope to get many vaccinated so they can come visit during the holiday season.
“This is really truly great news for us and of course it’s coming right before the holidays and that is even more exciting because that’s really when we do see a lot of people coming from Mexico for border area for shopping and visiting families,” Saenz said. “But the condition is they would have to be vaccinated.”