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Columbus gets new, improved port of entry

A truck carrying alfalfa heads north through the Columbus, New Mexico, port of entry with Palomas, Mexico. The truck is about to go through an x-ray machine. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new, improved port of entry in Columbus will facilitate growing cross border trade and travel in southwestern New Mexico.

The new facility expands the number of pedestrian lanes from one to three, adds a third vehicle lane for personal cars and trucks and a new lane dedicated to commercial traffic. It also has more security features, including a hazardous material containment area, a kennel for drug-sniffing dogs and non-intrusive technology for inspecting vehicles and trucks.

The much anticipated ribbon cutting Thursday morning came after two years of construction that began in April 2017. The new port of entry replaces the old facility that opened in 1989. Since that time, the number of border crossers in Columbus has steadily increased and  local residents welcome the expansion of New Mexico’s only 24-hour port of entry.

“Probably 80% of our workforce crosses the border every day. For us, expedited border crossing is important,” said James Johnson, a Columbus farmer and partner in Carzalia Valley Produce.

About 100 of his workers live in Palomas and cross the border daily into Columbus to do a range of jobs, from weeding fields to driving forklifts, Johnson said.

“Living on the border, it’s really a cross-cultural living,” Johnson said.

It’s a lifestyle shared by residents on both sides of the border who cross back and forth daily to work, go to school, shop and visit relatives. The amount of commercial traffic is also increasing at the Columbus port of entry.

In the past three months, traffic at the port of entry has topped 30,000 vehicles a month, which is up from the about 20,000 a month earlier this year, according to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In the last decade commercial truck traffic has jumped from 5666 trucks in fiscal year 2008 to 16,401 in 2018 according to CBP. During that same period pedestrian traffic swelled from 216,854 to 276,849.

Pedestrian traffic increases during the school year when at least 300 students a day walk across the border to attend classes in Columbus. Truck traffic also spikes this time of year because of the chile and onion harvests. The number of trucks using the port of entry in Columbus grows from 500 to “several thousand” a month, according to a CBP spokesman.

The port of entry now has export cargo booths. The expansion also more than doubled the commercial dock space, from six to 14.

“Anytime we have improved infrastructure on our border with Mexico, it’s always a benefit. It opens a particular region to more investment, more trade and more job creation,” said Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Border Industrial Association in Santa Teresa.

Pacheco said the new border crossing in Columbus could help expand manufacturing in northwestern Chihuahua and lead to complementary industry on the New Mexico side of the border.

The facility is ready just in time for the annual arrival of snowbirds. Many of the snowbirds join New Mexicans from across the state who use the port of entry to cross into Mexico for lower-cost dental care and pharmacies in Palomas. Others stop at the famous Pink Store, where they shop, enjoy lunch and sip margaritas.

Border residents are pleased with the new border crossing but say they need CBP to fully staff the facility to reduce the time people spend waiting in line.

“We have this wonderful facility capable of opening three lanes of traffic, but they’ll be staffed to usually open one,” Johnson said.

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