EDINBURG, March 28 - Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas has written to President Obama to warn of dire consequences if furloughs are imposed on Customs and Border Protection staff at inland ports of entry.
Salinas believes lives could be lost due to heatstroke if pedestrians have to wait hours on end at international bridges during the hot summer weather.
“Increased wait times for local pedestrians that cross our bridges into Laredo for work, school, shopping or other activities will create inhumane and possibly, unsafe conditions,” Salinas wrote, in his letter to the President. “I believe that waits in excess of 100 minutes plus in weather that will soon be warmer than 100 degrees on a daily basis is unacceptable.”
A copy of Salinas’ letter is posted at the end of this story.
Under sequestration, every federal agency has been asked to find financial savings. Overtime has already been banned for CBP officers. Furloughs for all CBP staff are set to begin April 21 and last through Sept. 30.
In an interview with the Guardian, Salinas said he is concerned about the impact of sequestration for a number of reasons, including pedestrians suffering heatstroke, a weakening of border security, perishable goods going to waste because trucks are stuck on the bridge and Laredo’s economy taking a hit because Border Patrol and CBP staff will have less disposable income.
“Sixty percent of all inland trade with Mexico is going through Laredo. We cross 10,000 to 12,000 trucks every day. When you have that many trucks crossing, time is money,” Salinas said. I think this really serious. Furloughs and overtime bans for CBP would be devastating for so many reasons.”
Salinas said it is ironic that members of Congress who are always touting the need for more border security are the ones who allowed sequestration to happen. “There are some who say, let’s protect the border, let’s put more boots on the ground. Then, they are passing legislation that forces CBP to place its officers on furlough.”
Salinas said he has met with federal, state and local officials in Mexico and they, too, are concerned about the impact of longer wait times. If trucks are backed up for hours on end in Mexico waiting to cross an international bridge they become more vulnerable to attack, he said. “The officials I have spoken with in Mexico are very concerned. Instead of going forward we are going backwards. We need to work together. Mexico is our biggest trading partner. Sequestration is having a negative impact on commerce. We are recovering from the recession and now we are going backwards.”
Salinas told the Guardian that sequestration is not a partisan political issue. At the end of his letter, Salinas praised Obama.
“Now is the time to set aside partisan politics and do what is right for every American citizen who will be affected, either directly or indirectly, by the impact that the sequestration will cause. You have set the example as a president who is not only visionary, but also, can find the common ground in seemingly disparate positions for the good of the nation. Please do so again and find a way to work with both Democrats and Republicans to find a compromise to this situation,” Salinas wrote.
Recently, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn placed a lot of the blame for the CBP overtime ban and threat of furloughs on the shoulders of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He said if funding cuts have to be made they should be coming out of administration, not from frontline positions.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela defended Napolitano. He said he met with her last week to discuss the impact of sequestration.
“I met personally with Secretary Napolitano and I believe she and other agency heads have been dealt a very tough hand, just like Ray LaHood at the Secretary of Transportation,” Vela said. “I believe she is doing everything she can to implement changes that will save her force because she is very proud of her workforce. She understands how difficult those initial cuts may have been.”
Vela said he hopes the passage of a Continuing Resolution by the U.S. House will give Napolitano a little more flexibility when it comes to funding cuts. He said the Department of Homeland Security is crunching the numbers with the Office of Management and Budget.
“The guys in green (Border Patrol) are suffering up to 40 percent reductions in payment. It is a very real number. That is how significant the impact of sequestration is going to hit some segments of homeland security. Nothing they can do about equipment and gasoline. They are going to have to make some very difficult choices at Homeland Security<” Vela said.
Pharr Mayor Polo Palacios said when he speaks with officials in Mexico about long lines at the international bridges he is embarrassed.
“It is embarrassing for the United States. Here we are the richest country in the world and we cannot even man our ports of entry,” Palacios told the Guardian. “I am afraid Washington is not paying attention to our needs. The do not live here and they do not understand what is happening here.”
Palacios said the international bridge in his city is gearing up for more trucks carrying fresh produce from the west coast of Mexico thanks to the opening of a new NAFTA Superhighway that includes the Baluarte River Bridge in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. He said it would be a major blow if the expected increase in truck traffic is adversely impacted by sequestration.
“We are doing our bit. We have our hearts in the right place. We get up in the morning. We do what we need to do to improve the crossings, improve the service, in order to give a good lifestyle for our people and we get this,” Palacios said. “We should not be going through this, not on the border.”
Palacios said he has wants to know if the bottleneck Laredo and Pharr are experiencing is also being felt on the northern border. “I do not hear anything up north. Are they going through these problems?” he asked. “This should not be a party political issue but I do not understand what these people are thinking in Washington. Why are they picking fights with the Administration? If the representatives and senators are cutting a Border Patrol officers salary, let’s cut their salary too.”
Congressman Vela said he understands the frustration of border mayors, particularly those with international ports of entry.
“I agree that is an embarrassment to have these long lines on our bridges. Congress has been ignoring our border infrastructure for a very long time. We are at a point right now that, given how our budget has been handled over the last 15 years… the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us a lot of money.”
Here is Mayor Salinas’ letter to President Obama:
March 18, 2013
Honorable Barack Obama
United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave
Dear President Obama:
I write to request your continued leadership on the issue of border trade and to highlight the negative impacts sequestration is already having on my community, the city of Laredo, Texas.
As the nation’s No. 1 most active inland port, our local economy will take a tremendous hit as the safe and efficient transfer of commerce is slowed, due to what I understand the consequences of sequestration would be in Laredo. Sequestration to Laredo means the loss of 200 Customs & Border Protection officers/agents per day and 22,616 man hours of CBP operations throughout Laredo every two weeks. While the trade industry drives the economy of my community, if there is a significant delay in products reaching their intended destinations, the impact of such delays will be felt far beyond the confines of the city of Laredo. The damage will be nation-wide.
In fact, a study commissioners by the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration in 2008 found that border wait times at the five busiest southern border points of entries (Otay Mesa, Nogales, El Paso, Laredo and Hidalgo) resulted in an average economic output loss of $116 million per minute of delay, costing the U.S. economy 26,000 jobs and $6 billion in output.
More than just local products are inconvenienced by the shortage of Customs officers. The increased wait times for local pedestrians that cross our bridges into Laredo for work, school, shopping or other activities will create inhumane and possibly, unsafe conditions. I believe that waits in excess of 100 minutes plus in weather that will soon be warmer than 100 degrees on a daily basis is unacceptable.
If protecting our national from outside threats, including organized criminal elements, smugglers and terrorism, is indeed a priority for our federal law makers, then the cuts to our federal law enforcement agencies will have a devastating effect on Border Patrol’s ability to safely patrol and secure our border. This is exposing our community and our nation to threats that, if not for the daily patrol and presence of Border Patrol, can overwhelm us.
However, the most harmful impact of the sequestration is the immediate impact to the agents, whose very paychecks will be drastically reduced, limiting their ability to provide the basic necessities to their families. These cuts to their salaries, totaling $1.3 million every two weeks will be a loss to our local economy, and that ripple effect will touch us all.
Now is the time to set aside partisan politics and do what is right for every American citizen who will be affected, either directly or indirectly, by the impact that the sequestration will cause. You have set the example as a president who is not only visionary, but also, can find the common ground in seemingly disparate positions for the good of the nation. Please do so again and find a way to work with both Democrats and Republicans to find a compromise to this situation.
Raul G. Salinas