- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

DALLAS Fewer Mexican residents have been coming into the United States since new border-crossing permits have been required this week, but a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman says the number of those turned back has been much lower than expected.

Business leaders in some of the border towns, however, claim that many Mexicans are having trouble getting the new entry cards and that the economy in the area could be crippled for months.

Tomas Zuniga, INS regional spokesman here, said yesterday fewer than 3,500 Mexicans had been refused entry in the 29 ports along the Texas and New Mexico border the first three days of the new procedures.

"When you consider that 543,975 enter daily through those ports, you can see the big picture. It isn't slowing things very much," Mr. Zuniga said.

"Apparently our word is getting out," he added.

Monday was the day when those coming into the United States needed special laser visa cards tamper-proof visas that allow the holder to remain in the country for up to three days and move about within 25 miles of the border.

They cost $45 per adult and are valid for 10 years.

Mexican citizens use them to come over to shop, visit relatives or conduct business.

Though the numbers turned back this week so far are, as Mr. Zuniga noted, small, the majority were people who planned to shop in border towns. At a time when business is off anyway, this has caused some concern.

And though the numbers turned away this week have been less than expected, businessmen and community leaders along the border say those figures are misleading.

"I'm not concerned about how many showed up and were turned away," said Roger Norman, a Laredo grocer. "I am concerned about those who didn't try to come across; those who just stayed away because they didn't have the new visa card and knew they couldn't get in."

In Brownsville, the head of the Chamber of Commerce said he feared his city would be disastrously affected by the new regulations.

Frank Feild said he had been told that the majority of the thousands of Matamoros residents who regularly shop in Brownsville had not yet applied for the visas.

"The American consulate is processing 1,250 people a day for laser visas and their appointments are backed up until next March so there is a tremendous amount of people waiting to get their laser visas," he said.

In El Paso, one of the busiest entry ports, business is reportedly down as much as 40 percent at some clothing and grocery stores and automotive supply firms.

"It's affected us big time," said Tarik Boloch, manager of a Dollar Store located next to the Paso Del Norte Bridge between El Paso and Juarez.

Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes this week asked U.S. House and Senate leaders to consider extending the expiration date for a year to ease the heavy load on those handling applications for the visas.

"I have been contacted by business owners in my district who are shutting their doors early because of the lack of customers due to decreased traffic from Mexico," Mr. Reyes said. "They may be forced to lay off employees if this trend continues."

While many complain about the new regulations, the U.S. State Department and other agencies have been reminding Mexicans and Mexican officials for more than two years about what began Monday.

Over in Nueva Laredo, Mexican businessmen were predicting the new regulations would boost Mexican sales.

"Many of them will have to stay home and spend money here," said Javier Gonzalez Inchausti, president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce. "From our standpoint, that is not all bad."

One reason traffic has been slower so far this week is that rumors were rampant throughout north Mexico that the United States had closed the bridges.

"One woman who shopped here today said eight others who planned to drive across with her Tuesday stayed home, telling her she could not cross the border," said Reynoldo Cuellar, a McAllen hardware store clerk.

Steve Ahlenius, McAllen Chamber of Commerce president, urged Texas Gov. Rick Perry to buy television time in Mexico "to assure visitors we are open for business."

"He should also be contacting the Mexican president to get these rumors dispelled that the bridges are closed," Mr. Ahlenius said.

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