CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Lucero Morales gave disappointing news to one customer after another at a Grupo Francie store, where locals are rushing for help to renew their tourist visa ahead of the border reopening Nov. 8.
The renewal process, which used to take a few weeks, could now take more than a year as increased demand for border crossing cards hits scaled-back visa processing at U.S. consulates.
“Before it was an almost immediate thing,” Morales said. Now, the next available appointments at the U.S. Consulate in Juárez are in March 2023, she said.
A coveted $160 visa known as a “border crossing card” is available exclusively to Mexican nationals who live in the Borderland. It lasts 10 years and allows holders to crisscross the border to shop, visit family and friends, meet business associates or travel for tourism within a define border zone ranging from 25 to 75 miles border-wide.
Grupo Francie handles Mexican and U.S. government paperwork, including renewal of border crossing cards, for a fee. The cards are required for Mexican adults and children.
It’s a bittersweet moment for many in the Borderland who have been waiting for restrictions on non-essential travel to be lifted. Those whose expired while the border was closed to them, or whose visas soon expire, may still have to wait months or longer to cross the border again to visit family living in El Paso, Sunland Park, Anthony, Las Cruces and border communities in between.
The consulate in Juárez, which processes visa applications, has been operating at a fraction of its capacity for more than a year, following U.S. State Department pandemic rules.
The State Department didn’t respond to a request for information regarding the visa backlog, or the number of border crossing cards issued locally, in Juárez.
But a spokesperson said in an email that “applicants should expect a longer-than-normal wait time for their services and plan accordingly.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in profound reductions in the Department’s visa processing capacity,” the spokesperson said. “As the global situation evolves, the Department seeks ways to safely and efficiently process visa applications around the world, in a manner consistent with science.”
Inside the brightly lit storefront on the second floor of the Galerias Tec mall, Grupo Francie’s phones rang and rang. People sat and waited in lime green chairs positioned in front of a floor-to-ceiling backdrop of the San Francisco skyline.
A flyer advertises: “We don’t just fill out forms. We’ll follow your case and stay in touch with you until the last moment of your process.”
Its stores, located all over the city, are splashed with star-spangled graphics. On a Wednesday around 10 a.m., Morales answered customers’ questions and showed them the documents needed to apply for or renew their border crossing card.
A year’s worth of weekly paychecks. A letter from a place of employment. Proof of enrollment in public health insurance or social security. Copies of house bills.
The U.S. government requires a paper trail showing that applicants have ample reason to return to Mexico.
The consulate’s backlog isn’t unexpected, Morales said, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the new, increased demand. Renewal applications at her Grupo Francie store have jumped by about a third since the Biden administration announced in mid-October that the restrictions on non-essential travel would soon be lifted for vaccinated foreign nationals arriving at land ports of entry.
So far, customers have been understanding, she said.
Berenice Moreno, 20, left Morales’ store with a list of documents she needed to gather to renew her border crossing card, which expires in December, she said.
“They told me the next appointment is in March 2023,” she said. “It’s a long way off, but I guess it was to be expected.”
Moreno used to cross the border to shop in El Paso at the Outlet Shoppes off Interstate 10, Cielo Vista mall or the small businesses Downtown, she said. If she has to wait another year to do so, she said, “I’m already used to it.”
Downstairs in the Galerias Tec mall, 63-year-old Manuela Casteñeda was shopping alongside daughter Minerva Portillo, 31. Her 2-month-old grandson was snuggled in a car seat balanced in a shopping cart, sleeping.
Casteñeda said she is excited to put her border crossing card to use, to visit cousins in Las Cruces and elsewhere in New Mexico, and to shop at her favorite El Paso stores: Walmart, and the Cielo Vista and Bassett Center malls.
“Our relatives are very close,” she said. “They are primos hermanos,” or first cousins.
They only came to Juárez a couple of times during the nearly two years of border restrictions, she said. “So I would really like to go visit them.”