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Essential Workers Face Delays At U.S.-Mexico Border Due To New CBP Regulations

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The U.S. border with Mexico has been closed to nonessential travel since March 21 due to the coronavirus. But despite those restrictions, cross-border traffic has increased since then. So U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has started using new tactics to discourage nonessential travel, and that's making it harder for those who need to cross for essential work. KPBS reporter Tania Thorne explains.

TANIA THORNE, BYLINE: Andres Roberto Moreno is a Mexican food service worker who crosses daily for his job in California. He says that for the last month, he's had to get to the border four hours early in order to get to work on time due to the traffic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

ANDRES ROBERTO MORENO: I get more tired of waiting in line than what I actually work. I've done, like, about the same - five hours at work and five hours in lines.

THORNE: The delays came after Customs and Border Protection announced new measures in 14 ports of entry throughout California, Texas and Arizona, taken to discourage nonessential travel. It means those crossing the border are asked more questions and face more rigorous inspections.

Two weekends ago, the new measures caused drivers at San Ysidro to wait from seven to nine hours to cross, more than double typical weekend wait times. CBP says a recent survey of a hundred thousand travelers showed more than 60% of trips across the border by U.S. citizens and permanent residents were not considered essential. Jason Wells with the San Ysidro, Calif., chamber of commerce says this new procedure is a tactic by CBP to deter nonessential travelers.

JASON WELLS: They literally told me that the wait time increases were purposeful because they were going to purposely slow down waits - or slow down crossings at non-peak hours and weekends because they felt that that was nonessential traffic, and they were trying to curb that.

THORNE: CBP confirmed that a woman in her 80s was reported dead after waiting for hours in her car at the San Ysidro Port of Entry two weeks ago but didn't release further information since the death occurred on the Mexican side. Wells says that the increased wait times are hurting essential workers who hold second shifts or work on the weekends.

WELLS: Since March, crossings have gradually increased to 50% of normal crossings. And that was part of our complaint with CBP - is we've got 50% of the people coming, yet it's three times the wait time. Come on.

THORNE: The new approach by CBP seems to be having its intended effect of discouraging nonessential travel. Satrina Linehan, a nurse who crosses regularly from Mexico to work in California, has noticed wait times decrease after the huge lines of two weeks ago.

SATRINA LINEHAN: Things have been a little bit better as of today. I have noticed that traffic is a lot more manageable. And I was - there was officers working in every single booth this morning.

THORNE: In a statement, CBP said the wait times were significantly lower - this weekend, up to 60% lower. The significant reduction shows that nonessential travelers are thinking twice before crossing unnecessarily. If not extended, travel restrictions announced in March are expected to last until September 21. If COVID-19 cases continue to decrease, the restrictions may be lifted. Until then, border wait times will depend upon CBP's discretion to decide what are considered peak hours, how many agents are available to process travelers and how rigorous questioning and inspections need to be.

For NPR News, I'm Tania Thorne in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "HEROIC WEATHER-CONDITIONS OF THE UNIVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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