Border infrastructure must be modernized

Customs and Border Protection officers at the Santa Teresa border crossing in 2018. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

Democrats and Republicans have been negotiating the passage of a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill.

The discussion is to use these monies to repair traditional infrastructure such as bridges, highways and airports in the U.S. However, a chunk of the proposed infrastructure monies in the deal between Democrats and Republicans should be invested in the international ports of entry on the U.S. border with Mexico.

In 2020, U.S.-Mexico trade totaled $538.1 billion, down from $614.5 billion in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 in which Mexico became the U.S.’s largest trading partner. Even though it fell back down to the number two most important trading partner of the U.S. in 2020, the amount of goods and services that the two countries trade is enormous. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994, U.S. exports to Mexico are up by 517%, making that country extremely important to the U.S. economy. Likewise, the U.S. is important to the economic health of Mexico, which sends 80% of its exports to its northern neighbor.

Commercial ports are literally the portals of trade, where products such as pharmaceuticals, consumer products, and agricultural goods are exported to Mexico, and where products grown or manufactured in Mexico come into the U.S. Ports of entry can also be pedestrian crossings in which crossers hand-carry goods bought in either country.

Ports are not only where legal trade is conducted, they are also front and center in the protection against the importation of illegal products that could cause harm in the U.S., the most obvious being illegal drugs. However, certain plants, foods, and animals that can spread pests across the border are intercepted at ports of entry.

There are 50 vehicle and pedestrian crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border. Some are modern or have been modernized, but many are aging and inefficient in terms of processing cargo. I always say that to keep economic development humming along, you have to keep infrastructure ahead of development. We cannot let the surge in trade overwhelm aging infrastructure at ports of entry on the Mexican border. Delays cost money, which then causes an increase in the price of products to consumers.

However, new infrastructure also needs to be accompanied by humans. It doesn’t do any good to expand a port of entry by adding more lanes if extra Customs and Border Protection personnel are not assigned to the port, and this is not so easy. CBP candidates first need to have an extensive background check conducted on them. This can take up to a year.

Oftentimes, the candidate will go through a portion of the background check and take another job before it is finished. Once a background check is conducted, the candidate will go through an 89-day training period. After training, the new CBP officer will have to shadow an experienced officer for one year until he/she is assigned any major responsibilities. Therefore, it is imperative that infrastructure planning must also include planning for extra personnel at ports of entry in the future.

And CBP officers are not the only type of personnel needed. Mission support people are administrators who support CBP officer activities. In recent years, immigrants have arrived at the southern border, many going to ports of entry to seek asylum. If a port of entry is understaffed or stretched thin, CBP officers may be taken off of the cargo lane to process the immigrants’ claim, take them for medical examinations and send them to consolidation centers. If CBP officers are taken off of cargo, this creates longer crossing times and logistical inefficiencies. Mission support personnel can help with these duties, thus allowing CBP officers to do the job for which they were trained.

The infrastructure bill is aimed at getting Americans back to work after a year-and-a-half of the terrible pandemic and to improve the aging infrastructure throughout the country. This will be needed for the U.S. to compete against countries such as China in the future. Mexico has proven a solid trading partner on which millions of U.S. jobs, companies, and exports rely. If the U.S. makes the wise move of investing in port infrastructure at its southern border, Mexico also must reciprocate by doing the same thing with its ports of entry. Oftentimes, planning is difficult on the border because the two federal governments, along with state and local governments, must work in concert. Timing is extremely important to get binational projects started and successfully completed.

The administrations of President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador must work together closely to modernize infrastructure on the border. The symbiotic trade relationship that the U.S. and Mexico have developed over the past few decades has been made possible by their ports of entry. Now is the time to invest in this infrastructure to ensure success in the future.

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

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