People cross the street in front of the lightly trafficked Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales on Saturday morning

The movement of pedestrians and passenger vehicles through the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales slowed to a trickle in both directions Saturday morning, hours after new restrictions against travel between the United States and Mexico went into effect.

Still, the port remained open without any obvious signs of new security measures, and U.S. citizens passing through the pedestrian lanes said they faced little difficulty or additional questioning from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, and no scrutiny on the Mexican side.

“It was the same as it usually is, and I cross on a weekly basis,” said Edgar Leon, a U.S. citizen from Phoenix. “Nothing has changed, besides the volume.”

One Mexican citizen with a U.S. tourist visa said she faced additional questioning from a CBP officer when she arrived at the port in hopes of doing some clothes shopping in Nogales, Ariz. Ultimately, she was allowed through, though with strict admonition to limit her trip to two hours.

“They told me it was very restricted,” said Antonieta Gonzalez of Nogales, Sonora, as she hustled up Grand Avenue toward the downtown stores, a number of which had already been shuttered due to the coronavirus and its ripple effects.

The Trump administration announced Friday that the U.S.-Mexico border would close to “non-essential travel” starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. Speaking at a news conference, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf offered a limited definition of essential travel that included, but was not limited to, travel for medical or public health purposes, to attend school, or for “lawful cross-border trade.”

A CBP rule that was available for download from the National Register offered more specifics, including a nine-point definition of essential travel that begins with: “U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States.”

Taken at face value, that specification appears to cover U.S. citizens and permanent residents who arrive at the ports after traveling to Mexico for any reason. However, the rule also provides a single definition of non-essential travel that reads “individuals traveling for tourism purposes (e.g., sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events),” and does not mention any exemptions.

In addition, other travel purposes that are of critical importance to border communities – namely shopping trips and family visits – were not specifically mentioned in the guidelines. And it was unclear what steps travelers who fall under the guidelines for “essential” would need to do to prove it.

That left many to wait and see how enforcement would shake out at the ports starting Saturday.

“Coming back in, they checked our credentials and everything,” he said, but the process was nothing out of the ordinary.

Asked if he was aware of the new regulations before he made his trip, and if it made him at all anxious about crossing the border, Campos said: “Yeah, but everything turned out great.”

Alexa Madero, a U.S. citizen from Nogales, Ariz., reported a similar border-crossing experience on Saturday.

Asked if she saw any changes, she said: “Not really, everything’s the same.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has not issued any order for Arizonans to stay home amid the coronavirus outbreak, as governors have done in California, New York and Illinois. And there is no such order in place in the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora, either. That means there are no official restrictions to prevent people from traveling to and from Arizona’s ports of entry with Mexico.

Even so, Arizona officials have encouraged residents to restrict their movements voluntarily, and in Sonora, the state has launched an effort called “Quedate en Casa,” or “Stay Home,” which includes restrictions on businesses and outreach efforts meant to encourage people not to go out.

A man who didn’t give his name but who said he was a U.S. citizen, said the only difference he noticed crossing back into the country through the DeConcini port on Saturday was “just a few less people, that’s it.”

“It was empty,” said Leon, the border-crosser from Phoenix, who said he routinely travels to Mexico for medical appointments.

When it came to returning to the United States and passing through the CBP inspection lanes, Leon said: “The only question they asked me was, ‘What was the purpose of your trip to Mexico?’ That was it.”

CBP did not immediately respond to questions Saturday about the Mexican national who was allowed to cross into Arizona for two hours for a shopping trip, and whether that was a temporary courtesy or a ongoing policy, as well as questions about potential operational changes CBP might take at the port going forward.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection rule available for download from the National Register says that “essential travel” between the United States and Mexico includes, but is not limited to:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
  • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States);
  • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions;
  • Individuals traveling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Mexico in furtherance of such work);
  • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support Federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies);
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Mexico);
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
  • Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States; and
  • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.

The following travel does not fall within the definition of “essential travel:”

  • Individuals traveling for tourism purposes (e.g., sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events).
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