AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Big changes start Monday for families and businesses along the border. The U.S. and Mexico plan to roll back travel restrictions on non-essential border travel. Those restrictions have been in place for nearly 20 months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The restrictions hit some border businesses particularly hard, leaving them cut off from customers who would normally cross into Texas to shop.
“Keep in mind, before the pandemic about 18 million Mexican nationals came across to the United States every year, and they spent about $19 billion on goods and services,” explained Sandra Sanchez, a correspondent for Border Report.
Sanchez pointed out that municipalities along the border also gain revenue from foot traffic back and forth across international bridges in their communities. That lost revenue can add up to millions of dollars.
For merchants, Monday’s reopening comes at a key time for business.
“It’s on season,” said Samuel Lara, a worker at an El Paso store that sells mobile phones. “November’s great because you get all the shopping on November and December,” he added, referring to the holiday shopping season.
“Those two months are very strong for us,” Lara said.
The restrictions have kept many people with family members on the other side of the border away from seeing relatives in person. Air travel has been allowed. But that was not an option for people without the economic means to purchase airfare.
Starting Monday, Mexican nationals who have valid visa paperwork and are fully vaccinated can come across the border. They must be prepared to provide proof of vaccination, but Customs and Border Protection officers have said that they do not have the ability check the vaccine cards of everyone at ports of entry.
The border reopening comes amid heightened concern about a caravan of migrants from Central America, slowly making a journey toward the Texas border. Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that law enforcement and military personnel deployed to south Texas have been “laying down razor wire” and “putting down massive containers” to block migrants seeking asylum from crossing into Texas.
Lifting the COVID travel restrictions is not expected to change the process for migrants trying to cross without paperwork.
“Title 42 will still be in effect,” Sanchez said. That’s an order dating back to 1944 that allows the federal government to prevent people from coming into the country during certain public health emergencies. Title 42 was used by the Trump administration as a reason for turning away migrants. The policy has continued under the Biden administration.
“You shouldn’t legally cross if you don’t have the proper paperwork,” Sanchez said. “They’re still going to send you back if you can’t make your case for being here.”
Meet the Republican who narrowly flipped a San Antonio-area state House seat
Republican John Lujan dealt a blow to Democrats late Tuesday night after narrowly beating his Democratic opponent, Frank Ramirez, by 286 votes in a race for House District 118.
HD-118 is a predominately Hispanic community covering south and east Bexar County, a district President Joe Biden carried by 14% in 2020.
Lujan doesn’t doubt that his familiarity in the community played to his advantage. He held office in the same district briefly after a special election in 2016, and is a retired San Antonio firefighter and Bexar County deputy sheriff.
Many Republicans are considering Lujan’s victory a sign the Democratic party is faltering, especially because the district is traditionally a Democratic stronghold. A Texas RNC spokesperson said this race — along with a gubernatorial win for the GOP in Virginia on the same night — is exactly the momentum they hope to carry forward in the primary elections.
But Lujan doesn’t chalk up his win as a referendum on the Biden administration, or even signs of an imminent red wave.
“A lot of people want to make it a Republican, Democrat deal. And I didn’t play like that,” he said. “We won the race because we did a lot of hard work…it has nothing to do with the referendum.”
Lujan did, however, run ads prompting a “red wave” and made an appearance on Fox News on election day, according to the Texas Tribune.
Lujan says he rejects that traditional style of politicking — sticking with the party, voting for everything the party does, and tying oneself to whomever the party leader is at the time.
“I never talked about Donald Trump, Lujan said. “But yet the flyers went out ‘a vote for John Lujan is a vote for Donald Trump, a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for John Lujan.’ I’m thinking…what does Donald Trump have to do with any of this?”
Throughout his campaign, he largely avoided polarizing issues leading the political landscape, campaigning largely on Republican policy staples like job creation, public safety and family values. He considers that messaging, as well as understanding the largely-Hispanic population in that district, helped secure him a win.
“They were upset with what was going on at the border…they’re upset with high gas prices, they’re upset with just the whole moral compass of the country,” he said. “And I’ve got a lot of people that are voting for me because they know me.”
While Lujan was confident he could win the seat again, he had concerns about low voter turnout, especially because Nov. 2 was an off-year election.
To make matters worse for both candidates, the race was not on the same ballot as the constitutional amendments. Voters had to go to a separate location to vote in the special election or mail-in an entirely separate ballot. That’s because Gov. Greg Abbott did not announce the runoff date until the Monday before early voting began, too late to include that race on the same ballot.
Still, turnout for the special election was much higher than usual. A spokesperson with the Bexar County Elections Department said special elections typically have turnout around 3%. Tuesday night’s special election brought 11% to the polls.
His opponent Ramirez conceded late Tuesday night, saying in a statement that “the razor-thin margin shows that ours is the campaign best positioned to take this seat back next November.” Ramirez will likely face challengers in the March primary. Candidate filing for the primary begins on November 13.
Lujan says he plans to sit down with Ramirez to hear his concerns.
“We talked and I said, ‘you’re a community member, your concerns and things that you’re passionate about — let’s have coffee. Let’s talk and I want to bring those to the table because they need to be addressed,’” Lujan said.
Unless the governor calls another special session, there is a chance Lujan could hold this office again without ever having a vote — as there is not a regular legislative session in 2022.
“Who knows if I’m going to get reelected. But if I’m here now and I have that title, I’m going to use whatever I can to benefit our community,” he said.
Texas lawmakers tried to halt online abortion pill sales. Providers say they won’t stop.
Hours after Texas’s most restrictive abortion bill became law, activist Jessica Craven posted a TikTok. With a New York Times article in the background, Craven talked to her 96,000 followers about an online website offering medication abortion to people in Texas.
“The good news is AidAccess, an international organization that cannot be sued by anyone in Texas, is now offering to send folks in Texas abortion pills,” Craven posted on Sept. 1. Her post was shared more than 24,000 times. The comment section is filled with questions about where to find the pills — and how to spread the information to more people in Texas.
The service she was referring to is not new. Since 2018, pregnant people could request abortion-inducing medication from AidAccess, get a prescription from a licensed physician through the service, and have it mailed to their home in discreet packaging — without visiting a clinic.
This year, Texas lawmakers passed two new laws restricting abortion: one banning abortion once fetal cardiac activity is detected (usually around six weeks into a pregnancy) and the other banning abortion medication being delivered through the mail. But, neither has managed to stop online abortion pill providers from delivering abortion medication to those who want it in Texas.
Christie Pitney is one of the US-based providers for AidAccess. The founder of the organization, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, is based in Europe. Pitney says the non-profit has no intention to stop prescribing abortion medication to eligible people in Texas.
“SB 8 applies to people who are accessing abortions within Texas, from a physician licensed in Texas, and so you can see the kind of workaround there, that Dr. Gomperts isn’t in the US — and so that’s how she’s able to continue prescribing and caring for these patients,” Pitney said.
During the pandemic when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott halted elective procedures, including abortions, for four weeks, a University of Texas Austin professor found data showing requests out of the state to AidAccess nearly doubled — from 406 expected requests to 787 actual requests. The study found requests to AidAccess increased in 39 states from March 20, 2020, to April 11, 2020. Of all of those states, requests to AidAccess increased the most in Texas.
AidAccess says requests have — again — surged in Texas since Senate Bill 8 became law.
“We got a window for what we are dealing with now on a wider scale under Senate Bill 8,” said UT-Austin professor Abigail Aiken. “They are the same pills you would get in a clinic, but they are used and sourced completely outside of the healthcare setting – and that option [self-managed abortion] is incredibly important because it is a safe and effective way of taking care of your need to end your pregnancy.”
Medication abortion is a two-step regimen consisting of Mifepristone and Misoprostol. It was approved by the FDA in 2016 as a safe and effective method to end a pregnancy up to 10 weeks along.
The FDA reports from 2000 to 2018, more than 3.7 million women have used abortion medication, specifically Mifepristone. Of those, the FDA reports less than 1% — 4,195 — experienced adverse reactions to the drug. The FDA reports 24 deaths associated with the drug since the product was approved in September 2000.
But the FDA warns not to buy the medication over the internet. The FDA issued warning letters in 2019 to some of these organizations, including AidAccess and RAblon, asking they stop providing and prescribing abortion medication to US citizens.
“The FDA remains very concerned about the sale of unapproved mifepristone for medical termination of early pregnancy on the internet because such a sale bypasses important safeguards designed to protect women’s health,” the FDA’s Office of Media Affairs wrote in an email to KXAN.
Over the years, UT Professor Abigail Aiken has studied the effectiveness and safety of people using abortion pills sourced online and used outside the healthcare clinic setting, largely at home.
In 2021, Aiken published a study that found more than 57,000 people in 2,458 counties in the United States requested abortion medication from AidAccess.org in the first two years it offered telemedicine in the US.
Aiken published a study in 2017 in which she analyzed data from more than 1,000 women in Ireland who got medication pills through an online telemedicine service. The website, Women on Web, was founded by the same physician who created AidAccess for patients in the United States.
The study found nearly 95% of the women reported: “successfully ending their pregnancy without surgical intervention.” The study also found 9% of people reported “experiencing any symptom for which they were advised to seek medical advice” and concluded women were “able to self-identify the symptoms of potentially serious complications.”
The websites offering abortion medication do not all operate the same. Plan C, an online resource conducting its own research into abortion pills available online, has become known for breaking down the differences between the websites — including price point and estimated delivery time. The landing page of the website boasts “a safe, at-home abortion is here.”
While sites like AbortionRX and BuyMTPKits sell the pill much like an online store, sites like AidAccess are supported by doctors, requiring a medical screening before being approved for the pills.
For states like Texas, AidAccess uses a model where its Europe-based founder Dr. Rebecca Gomperts writes a prescription for patients who are eligible and sends the prescription to a mail-order pharmacy in India, which then ships the medication directly to patients.
Weeks after SB 8 became law, the governor signed the second bill restricting abortion: Senate Bill 4. This bill took aim at online abortion medication providers, abortion telemedicine – and specifically an FDA decision changing how abortion medication could be dispensed during the pandemic.
Previously, the FDA required abortion medication to be dispensed in person. The FDA decided in April it would exercise discretion if abortion medication was sent through the mail or through a mail-order pharmacy during the pandemic if it was done under the supervision of a certified prescriber.
Texas lawmakers feared the change opened the door for abortion medication to be given out without patients first seeing a doctor. Sen. Eddie Lucio, a pro-life Democrat, said on the Senate floor he introduced SB 4 to protect women from potentially deadly adverse reactions to abortion medication that could come as a result of not having a doctor in the process.
“This regimen is potentially dangerous, and it was approved with specific precautions that are now in jeopardy. These serious risks can only be adequately assessed and treated by a licensed healthcare worker in an in-person visit,” Dr. Jeffrey Erwin said during a Senate Health and Human Services committee meeting.
But, the bill does more than require physicians to consult with patients before dispensing abortion medication. Under the bill, people caught helping someone get an abortion through the mail or online would face a state jail felony of up to two years in jail. The bill also reduces the timeframe for medication abortion from the FDA’s recommended 10 weeks to 7 weeks. A pregnant person who has a medication abortion in violation of SB 4 will not be held criminally liable.
“I have talked to women who oppose abortion, period — and who understand the argument that women seeking an abortion, these drugs without the proper medical supervision — it’s going to be detrimental to them as well,” Sen. Lucio said.
Critics of the bill point out Texas law already required patients to do two clinic visits before a surgical or medication abortion. Texas law also already had statutes banning abortion telemedicine and mailing out abortion medication. Whole Women’s Health in Austin says even before SB 4, the clinic was not legally allowed to send abortion medication through the mail.
There’s also the question of whether this law will have any impact on companies, like AidAccess, that are operating outside of the state — and even the country. AidAccess providers are confident that it won’t. However, the bill’s author, Sen. Lucio, believes the law will allow for them to extradite those who are sending abortion pills to people in the state to Texas to face penalties.
Richard Hearn is the current attorney for Aid Access in the United States. Hearn disclosed he is not attempting to practice law in Texas, and his opinion should not be relied upon as that of a lawyer licensed in Texas.
“I believe any attempt by Texas to extradite physicians working for Aid Access from Europe would fail,” Hearn said. “First, in my opinion, SB 4 is facially unconstitutional and any attempt by Texas to extradite a licensed AidAccess physician in Europe would be challenged by AidAccess in Federal Court. I would expect the Dept. of Justice to support AidAccess and not Texas. Second, even assuming Aid Access’s challenge to the constitutionality of SB 4 in the U.S. court system failed, I doubt the extradition request would be granted by the European country receiving the request for a multitude of reasons.”
Blake Rocap, a healthcare attorney for abortion advocacy non-profit AVOW, also says it is unlikely organizations operating outside the US and Texas will face any penalties under SB 4.
“It’s not a matter of people just being able to go on the internet and get the drugs. If they can do that now, this bill will not change that,” Blake Rocap with Avow testified on the Senate floor. “What will change is the ability for physicians to provide the care their patients need between 7 and 10 weeks.”
Texas veterans say VA wait times still a problem
With Veteran’s Day next week, some Texans who served our country say they feel forgotten.
Wait times at several Texas Veterans Affairs hospitals are not matching up to what’s being publicly reported online, according to four veterans.
“It very much makes me upset,” said Timothy Kinsey, a Marine, who served overseas. “Because I am in pain.”
Kinsey is battling the VA over a shoulder injury. More than a decade ago, he was diagnosed with a shoulder injury, including a tendon tear, according to military records. He says it’s getting worse and wants help. Instead, he feels he is getting the “run around” from the Austin VA.
He says he has to wait months to get “permission” from a VA doctor in order to wait some more just to “talk” to a shoulder specialist — even though the VA already has records of his shoulder injury.
That, he says, is the VA policy. The VA says it is part of its “treatment plan” for Kinsey that may include primary care, rehab and specialists.
“It is our responsibility to ensure Mr. Kinsey received high quality, comprehensive health care,” a VA spokesperson said, “and we will continue to work with him on his needs.”
“I have to wait three months for the primary care [doctor] to tell me it’s OK [to get my shoulder looked at],” said Kinsey. “By the time I get to specialty care, it’s been six months, and I’m already defeated mentally because I had to wait so long.”
The VA outpatient clinic in Austin is the largest in the country, reporting an average wait time of 18 days. The VA says, here, the average wait for established patients is five days.
“I don’t think I’ve ever waited less than 30 days for anything,” Kinsey shot back.
Kinsey’s father-in-law, Don Jackson, is a Navy veteran who served in the Gulf War.
“Some of the stuff that I witnessed, some of the stuff that I went through, you never forget those things,” said Jackson, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jackson says virtual visits, or phone calls, once a month at the Cedar Park VA, with rotating mental health counselors, is not adequate to treat his PTSD.
“It’s maddening,” said Jackson.
General mental health appointments are available “in less than 20 days,” the VA said.
The Central Texas VA Health Care System offers same-day mental health services for those in need, a VA spokesperson said, adding “many” veterans chose to remain with virtual care, even when in-person appointments were offered. Last year, the Central Texas VA conducted 4,531 same-day mental health services for veterans, an official added.
“[We] do understand that some patients do prefer in-person care,” a VA spokesperson said. “We continue to work diligently to accommodate the needs of each Veteran, just as we have done in Mr. Jackson’s case.”
Kyle Haddock and his girlfriend, Krystal Grzeskik, both Army veterans, are also unhappy. Both were told, according to letters, that it will take around three months to establish primary care appointments in Temple – even though the average wait time there is listed as a-month-and-a-half.
“I think it’s absolutely insane to wait that long,” said Haddock.
“Waiting to get care,” said Kinsey, “is probably emotionally draining to a lot of veterans.”
Nearly 20 million appointments were canceled or delayed nationwide during the pandemic, according to the VA. A third of appointments canceled between March and May last year – 2.3 million – “had no indication of follow up or tracking,” a Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General report found.
“We are confident all Veterans who had their appointments cancelled for safety reasons during the pandemic have been offered video and/or telephone care,” a VA spokesperson said, “or have had the opportunity to reschedule in-person care with a VA provider or, if eligible, with community health care provider.”
KXAN reached out to a half-dozen federal lawmakers from Texas, including four on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. None were available to talk on camera.
In a statement, Congressman Chip Roy (R-Austin) says what these veterans tell KXAN is “simply inexcusable.”
“Long wait times at the VA are simply inexcusable,” said Roy. “But, unfortunately, because of bloated bureaucracy and unnecessary red tape the VA healthcare system too often fails our veterans.”
Rep. Roy says he is hearing “more and more complaints about this” very issue from other Texas veterans and pledged to take action.
“As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee,” he said, “I intend to look into the matter thoroughly. Those who risk everything to defend our republic and blessings of liberty deserve better.”
Earlier this year, Roy introduced a bill — the Veterans Access to Direct Primary Care Act — which would give health savings accounts to veterans to use towards seeing private doctors outside of the VA.
“Just a veteran and a doctor,” he said, “that’s how simple it should be.”
“I will continue to work with the Administration,” added Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock) in a statement when told about the veterans’ concerns, “and my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to continually improve the Veteran community’s quality of life.”
The concerns are not new, dating back to at least 2016 when an IG report stated wait times were manipulated in Austin with “improper scheduling” that was “systemic.“
In an email, the VA defends its handling of the veterans we spoke with saying it “didn’t miss a beat” during the pandemic and “never closed its doors.” Nationwide, the VA conducted more than 70 million face-to-face, telephone, and video visits this year. Officials say wait times vary by location, type of care and whether a patient is new ore established.
“Just like at community medical facilities, VA wait times do vary from location to location, primary care versus specialty care, and for new patients versus established patients,” a VA spokesperson said.
The Central Texas VA conducted more than 280,000 virtual appointments since the start of the pandemic.
“The Central Texas VA Health Care System has made significant strides in health care delivery and accountability,” a VA spokesperson said. “In fact, it is now a leader across VA with innovative approaches to health care and dedicated staff at the helm making it so.”
Meanwhile, the three veterans, who stood together in the shadow of the Austin VA, say they will keep fighting – not just for their own health care, but for those they served alongside.
“I think about everybody else,” said Kinsey. “I know other people are hurting more than me.”
A VA representative tells KXAN he is reaching out personally to the veterans in our story to try to help resolve their concerns.
If you are a veteran in crisis and considering suicide, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.
Veterans who are having difficulty accessing care or need help can contact the White House VA Hotline at https://www.va.gov/ve/whvahotline.asp or by calling 1-855-948-2311
Veterans can visit this website to see the latest wait time information: www.accesstopwt.va.gov/PWT/SearchWaitTimes
See how your local VA compares to others here: https://www.accesstopwt.va.gov/Healthcare/QualityOfCare