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Vaccinated travelers are allowed to enter the U.S. for the first time in months

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been a long 19 months. Now the U.S. is finally allowing more vaccinated international travelers into the country after lifting COVID-imposed restrictions Monday. Restoring travel to the U.S. for vaccinated travelers is a huge relief for communities along the southern border, where the restrictions have separated families and devastated shopping districts for almost two years. NPR's John Burnett reports from Brownsville, Texas, across the border from Matamoros, Mexico.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: First, you have to understand that the twin border cities that dot the U.S.-Mexico divide are, to most residents, considered one binational community bisected by a political boundary. Shoppers, families, workers, students and lovers - they go back and forth constantly. And so the last 19 months have been a painful severing of normal border life outside of anyone's experience. I caught up with Karla Labra and Arnulfo Mendoza on a sidewalk in downtown Brownsville right after they walked out of the immigration office.

KARLA LABRA: (Through interpreter) Yes, we're very happy to come shopping again. It's very emotional to come back over here.

ARNULFO MENDOZA: (Through interpreter) Same thing - we've been waiting a long time, and thank God the border is open again. The officials were very friendly, and there was no delay. We both had our vaccination cards.

BURNETT: It was in March 2020 when President Trump shut the border to what the government calls nonessential travelers. That is anyone who came just to shop or visit. Students and workers could continue going back and forth, and Mexico never closed its northern border to anyone. The numbers dramatize the drop-off. Comparing prepandemic 2019 to this pandemic year, passenger vehicles crossing the southern and northern borders had dropped 42%, while pedestrian crossings fell by half. The effects of the pandemic restrictions hit Brownsville even harder. Vehicles and pedestrians coming from Mexico fell nearly 60%, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Anyone with a U.S. passport or green card could continue to visit Mexico and come home, but Mexicans with only a visa or a border crossing card could not cross the other way. Karla Medrano is a 19-year-old marketing major at the Brownsville campus of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. For the last year and a half, she could take groceries to her cousins in Matamoros, but they couldn't come across to be with her family in Brownsville.

KARLA MEDRANO: I was really used to like, oh, this weekend, we're going to be seeing your aunt from Matamoros. We're going to be eating at Golden Corral with your cousins, right? But then because of, like, the border, it's like, oh, we can't really eat with them anymore. You can either FaceTime or call them, but it's not the same as in person. And definitely, it was a struggle because we all need that, like, love.

BURNETT: Medrano's family is expecting an especially joyous Thanksgiving this year when a dozen cousins trundle over from Matamoros, led by her Tia Mimi with her to-die-for chocolate flan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Times have been so tough in Brownsville's downtown retail district, 10 to 15 shops have closed for good. With so few walk-in customers, a footwear store called Lovely Shoes barely eked out a living by aggressively promoting itself on Facebook and Instagram. Owner Nora Villarreal (ph) says downtown Brownsville has been a ghost town, but she noticed people back on the sidewalks on Monday, just like old times, with parasols and bulky shopping bags.

NORA VILLARREAL: We're really happy and very grateful to God. We expect to see more business because during these 19 months when we were mostly closed, it was really quiet. We're very hopeful. We hope little by little, people will regain their confidence and start buying again.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.