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Ports of entry a better focus for border security

Ports of entry are the physical portals of interaction between countries. People cross to other countries to shop, vacation, and visit families. Businesspeople cross to expand their company’s revenue stream and to diversify their customer base. Trains, trucks, and barges transport goods back and forth to other countries. Ports are where people and merchandise are inspected, verified and welcomed to our country. However, ports are also the first line of defense in intercepting bad players, unsafe products and contraband.

Report after report clearly says that the vast majority of people crossing illegally into the U.S. on the Mexican border are not entering by crossing in a lonely stretch of unguarded desert – rather, they are crossing in vehicles or on foot at ports of entry. This is done by hiding people in trunks or hidden compartments or by presenting false documentation to Customs and Border Protection staff, who are the first point of contact for foreigners entering the country at a port of entry. The reports also indicate that the majority of contraband that enters the U.S. comes through ports of entry. These illicit items can be smuggled on a person’s body or transported in hidden compartments in vehicles and livestock.

A rig carrying produce from Mexico enters the Port of Entry in Santa Teresa to be scanned for illegal narcotics. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

So as the controversy brews over President Trump’s initiative to secure funding for a border-long wall on the Mexican border, one fact seems to be lost in the rhetoric: Increasing border security must include ports of entry, or rather, investing in ports is investing in border security. This investment begets the U.S. a two-for-one benefit. First, modernizing ports of entry will help agents better inspect and process people, vehicles and cargo. Redesigning ports so they are more efficient will lead to increased security. State-of-the art monitoring equipment and sensors can also decrease the amount of contraband that is attempting to enter the U.S. More boots on the ground in the form of more CBP officers also will allow better inspections and more muscle where traffic is the thickest.

Part of investing in port infrastructure must also include building better personnel processing and holding facilities. Many ports of entry are being stretched to their capacity by having to process hundreds of Central Americans who are not trying to climb the existing border fence or to slip through a breach. Most of these people are showing up at ports of entry to turn themselves in so that they can pursue an asylum claim. CBP agents have to take time to process each case, and asylum seekers have to be secured in holding rooms and eventually in larger detention facilities, while the next step in their process is decided. The current crisis in Central America has revealed that these holding and detention facilities, as well as the number of agents at ports of entry, are inadequate.

Secondly, investing in port infrastructure and personnel provides another benefit – the ability of the U.S. to more efficiently trade with Mexico. Greater efficiencies in moving cargo and people back and forth across the border will lead to lower costs to the ultimate consumer who purchases the products. It also will allow border states better ability to attract manufacturing and distribution entities that want to take advantage of these increased efficiencies. By investing in ports of entry as part of the push for more border security, the U.S. will obtain more security and increased commerce.

Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both D-N.M., have co-sponsored three bills in the Senate that specifically deal with border security. One bill would increase the capabilities of Border Patrol agents to provide medical and translation services. It also would give CBP at remote ports voice access to doctors. The second bill calls on the top 10 ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border to stay open for commercial shipments for at least 16 hours per day. This bill also would trigger infrastructure studies to determine if more infrastructure is needed at these ports, or if they need to be redesigned. The third bill calls for more investments in equipment and high technology in the rural and more remote parts of the border. Collectively, these proposed measures would go a long way to increasing border security, and they make better sense than blindly proposing that most of any appropriated monies go toward building a border fence, especially in areas where it is not needed.

From a security standpoint, we have to be smart about investing in our borders. A fence is definitely needed in places where it makes sense – around ports of entry and in urban areas where agents will have time to intercept illegal crossers and contraband before they can mix in a population base. However, it is a wise move to invest in our ports of entry, which good and bad people and contraband most obviously use as portals to the other side.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at jerry@nmiba.com.

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