AL DÍA: Traveling the Texas-Mexico Border

2/22/2012

Eric Olson and Chris Wilson of the Mexico Institute are currently driving the entirety of the Texas-Mexico border, beginning in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, ending in Brownsville/Matamoros, and blogging along the way.

Day two on the border.  Yesterday we saw the Border Patrol in action monitoring the spaces between the Ports of Entry (POEs).  Today we focused on the POEs and the challenges experienced there.  A few issues we are wrestling with:

The vast majority of traffic – commercial, auto, and pedestrian – comes through the POEs.  Obvious. But most of the drugs trafficked into the U.S. come that way as well.  Yet there are some indications that the CBPs Office of Field Operations (OPO) – responsible for inspections at the POEs – is under staffed.  They have increased their staffing levels but not as much as the Border Patrol.  The Texas Border Patrol increased by 44% between Fiscal Year 2006  and FY 2011, and were also supplemented by National Guard troops; OFO agents increased roughly 22% in the same time period.

Border enforcement between POEs would appear to be the priority.  Meanwhile, the POEs have comparatively less staff to examine more traffic.  Not only is commercial traffic expanding as economic growth has returned to Ciudad Juarez and Mexico generally, but the U.S focus on border enforcement has driven more illegal traffic to the ports of entry where there is less capacity to catch them.

Local businesses and politicians have expressed enormous frustrations at the backlog and increased wait times at the POEs.  This is a tricky one since “wait times” are estimates at best.  Technology with specific capacity to measure wait times is not in place in El Paso POEs.  Nevertheless, it’s easy enough to see that there are enormous lines of pedestrians, passenger vehicles and trucks waiting to cross, as well as commercial traffic.  Adding to the challenge is the post 9/11 reality that OFO agents (already short-handed) are expected to do closer inspections of each person entering the U.S. and further contributing to delays.

Balancing security and commerce is challenging, but there are options.  Deploying forces along the border in a more rational fashion would seem to be a start.  Better risk management is another.  Do all crossers and exporters need to be inspected equally?  Use of “trusted traveler” programs such as Global Entry and Sentri are on the rise but still undersubscribed due to the costs associated with them and sometimes the complexity of the program.  Better technology such as scanners and greater use of Radio Frequency Identification Technology (RFID) embedded in documents can also speed crossings.

But even if all these options are fully implemented and their potential maximized, there are still lingering problems with antiquated facilities and infrastructure at the POEs and lack of adequate screening personnel.  Furthermore, border traffic management is almost unheard of.  As someone told us today, current POEs are like running an airport with no control tower.  People just show up and hope for the best.

And possibly the biggest problems have to do with a lack of political consensus around building more efficient POEs; the enduring fear within the government that the best way to ensure the safety of the United States is meticulous border enforcement; and understanding the border as a primary line of defense.  There have been numerous governmental leaders who have pointed out this fallacy, including former CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, but the reality is that traditional notions of border security continue to dominate our border policy and these do not make the U.S. safer while contributing to major bottlenecks to commerce and life along the border.

Tomorrow we go to Juarez and write about the challenges from the Mexican side of the border.

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