Mexican Isabel Gonzalez waited 20 months to embrace her children in the United States, separated by just a few miles and a pandemic-sparked border closure.
“Thank God, we are here now. I am very happy,” said Gonzalez, 63, as she walked across from Tijuana to the Californian border town of San Ysidro around midnight (0800 GMT) on Monday, when the US finally eased open its frontiers.
Before the pandemic hit, Gonzalez had been visiting her four children and multiple grandchildren in San Diego, about 25 minutes from the border, every month.
But when Washington announced it was shuttering to all but citizens, legal residents and essential workers, the family was split apart.
“Well, can you imagine, it was very sad. It was the first time I had spent so much time away from them.
“But now we are here to eat pizza and McDonalds. Now let them take me to Disney,” she laughed.
The border closures were imposed in early 2020 by then-president Donald Trump, as the new coronavirus spread around the world.
The ban initially applied only to entry from China, the source of the outbreak, but was soon widened to include the European Union, Britain, India and Brazil, and subsequently to overland visitors from Mexico and Canada.
It became emblematic of the upheavals caused by the pandemic: families missed weddings and funerals, individuals were unable to take up new jobs, and the tourism and travel industries were strangled.
From Monday, those strict US border controls have been relaxed, and visa-holders who can prove they have been vaccinated and can show a negative Covid-19 test, will be allowed into the country.
– ‘So excited’ –
Gonzalez — who has had two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine — knew she would not be able to walk over the border until midnight, but had arrived at 8 pm on Sunday.
“I’m so excited that I even feel like my ailments have been cured,” she joked.
Herminia Urieta, who traveled for three days from Guerrero, in southern Mexico, crossed shortly afterwards.
“I am very happy,” said Urieta, who was heading to the United States to visit a sister she has not seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
Despite the emotional strain, there was little criticism of the border closures.
“Well, because of the disease, it was necessary,” said Urieta.
The crossing from Tijuana to San Ysidro — the main pedestrian thoroughfare into California — was relatively quiet in the first few hours after it was opened.
AFP saw no family members waiting and no emotional scenes, with most of those hurrying across the frontier being daily workers who have been permitted to continue crossing throughout.
Nevertheless, businesses in San Ysidro were looking forward to some welcome relief after 18 months of hardship.
“Sales dropped a lot,” said Gael Romero, manager of a clothing store in the Las Americas outlet mall, which depends on the regular flow of tourists.
“People used to come daily to shop, but with the closure it was difficult,” added the 28-year-old, who hopes that the easing — which comes as the United States readies for the shopping splurge heralded by Thanksgiving sales — will re-invigorate business.
“With Black Friday and Christmas, we think we can get back to the level of before,” Romero said.
When AFP visited the enormous mall on Sunday afternoon, it was very quiet.
“Tomorrow this is going to be packed,” said Ariadna Islas, who works in an accessories store.
“For business it’s going to be great, we’re going to have more work, but on a personal level I think it’s going to be more complicated,” added Islas, who lives in Tijuana and feared the return to normality would increase wait times at the border.
Some workers decided to cross earlier to avoid long lines.
“I arrived at about 3 am because I thought it would be a disaster, that there would be a long line,” said Jose Anguiano, a construction worker who usually arrives at the border crossing at 6 am.
“But it was flowing. All the checkpoints are open,” said Anguiano, as he killed time before heading off to work in the United States.