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Doors are open to international visitors, as the U.S. lifts pandemic travel ban

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As of today, fully vaccinated foreign travelers will be able to enter the United States. The U.S. border reopens to nonessential travel like family visits for the first time since the start of the pandemic. How does that change look in Presidio, Texas, on the border with Mexico? Marfa Public Radio's Annie Rosenthal reports.

ANNIE ROSENTHAL, BYLINE: In Presidio, Texas, the Dollar General is just a block from the international port of entry with Ojinaga, Chihuahua. Pre-pandemic, this business was a magnet for cross-border commerce. But a few days ago, it was quiet, with just a few customers inside and employees restocking the shelves. Manager Azucena Romero says it's been like this since the border closed to Mexican shoppers in March 2020.

AZUCENA ROMERO: We used to have, like, 700 customers a day. And now it's, like, 300 customers a day. So that's a big difference.

ROSENTHAL: Romero has a message for people in Ojinaga who can finally cross the border once again.

ROMERO: We're ready (laughter). We will be ready. We need you guys. Yes, we need them. We definitely need them.

ROSENTHAL: And that's true across Presidio, an isolated community of just about 5,000. The economy here relies heavily on Ojinaga, where the population is close to 25,000. Local officials estimate Presidio has lost up to $350,000 in sales tax revenue during the pandemic - a lot for a town with a total budget of just under $4 million. On the Mexican side of the border, top Ojinaga official Melissa Franco says the economic impact of the travel restrictions hasn't been as intense, especially since U.S. citizens have still been allowed to visit Ojinaga. But she says her city is eager to help its neighbors in the U.S.

MELISSA FRANCO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSENTHAL: And she says being sister communities means the two sides have to work together. The cities have managed to stay connected in small ways. Parents in Ojinaga got special permission to attend high school graduation in Presidio, and the Ojinaga Fire Department has been allowed to cross to help with emergencies. But exceptions were few. For many families with relatives on both sides, like Presidio Mayor John Ferguson, the restrictions meant missing crucial moments together.

JOHN FERGUSON: Back in June, I asked U.S. customs, specifically the port director, if there'd been any allowance for my son-in-law to be able to come over to to see the birth of his daughter.

ROSENTHAL: But Ferguson wasn't able to get permission, and his son-in-law, who lives in Ojinaga, couldn't meet his newborn daughter until she was brought to Mexico. Brad Newton is Presidio's city administrator. He says residents are more than ready for things to get back to normal.

BRAD NEWTON: Presidio and Ojinaga, despite politics and international borders and everything, we kind of locally think of us as being all in the same town with an inconvenient border between us.

ROSENTHAL: After almost two years of COVID restrictions, Newton says people in his community just want their families to come back together again. For NPR News, I'm Annie Rosenthal in Presidio, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SESSION VICTIM'S "CASTLE FOR SALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.