HIDALGO, March 15 - U.S. Sen. John Cornyn says Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is handling sequestration very badly and must bear much of the responsibility for long lines at South Texas-Mexico international bridges.
Cornyn said the problems will only get worse when furloughs are imposed on Customs and Border Protection personnel working on the front lines. He said he is particularly concerned about longer wait times at the land ports of entry during the Easter Holiday period, when many Mexican tourists visit South Texas.
“Part of the problem is the Obama Administration as over-hyped the impact of sequestration. For example shutting down tours at the White House, which makes it appear worse than it has to be,” Cornyn told the Guardian.
“There was, to the best of my knowledge, no planning whatsoever by the executive branch, including the Department of Homeland Security, to deal with this (sequestration), even though it was signed into law on Aug. 2, 2011, as part of the Budget Control Act.”
Bridge directors and border business leaders are growing increasingly concerned at the long lines of northbound traffic on the international bridges in South Texas. What is normally a one-hour wait for drivers on the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge is now turning into two and two and a half hour waits. “We are really worried about what will happen at Easter, when we have so many visitors from Mexico coming to the Rio Grande Valley,” said Rigo Villarreal, superintendent for the Hidalgo and Anzalduas bridges.
Villarreal said he is going to employ city staff to work on the bridges at peak times to help the processing of documents. He hopes this will ease the pressure on CBP staff. “We will have staff on our part of the bridge. They will to each vehicle and ask everyone to have their documents ready. This can shave 20 seconds off of the wait time for each vehicle,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal said he understands CBP is currently operating at 60 percent capacity at the international bridges. In response to sequestration, the Department of Homeland Security eliminated all overtime for CBP staff, which has meant fewer lines being opened.
“We hope to meet with Congressman Henry Cuellar and Ana Garcia, from Senator Cornyn’s office, to see what can be done,” Villarreal told the Guardian. Asked if it is an embarrassment for a country as wealthy as the United States to be undermanned at its international ports of entry,” Villarreal said: “The officials we speak to in Mexico are surprised this has happened.”
Cornyn wrote to Napolitano on March 8 demanding answers on why CBP does not have enough staff working at the international bridges. He said President Obama shares responsibility with Napolitano for the fallout of sequestration.
“The President said it (sequestration) would never happen and I know many of us hoped that these cuts would occur in a much more rational, sensible way. But they didn’t so now it appears the Secretary wants to make it as painful as possible and not to minimize the disruptive impact. I am thinking for example of the release of detainees from detention centers even before sequestration took effect,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said the reason he wrote to Napolitano was to try to persuade her to make cuts in non-frontline personnel. “By frontline, I mean Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and the like. It is very important to the economy of the Rio Grande Valley and the entire state and country and our trading partner Mexico that we maintain the open flow of legitimate traffic back and forth,” Cornyn told the Guardian. “I have not yet had a response from the Secretary. I am eager to get a response because I think the sorts of furloughs being planned are just disproportionate to the kinds of cuts that DHS and other federal agencies are going to be asked to incur.”
Cornyn said he agreed with those who believe cuts in frontline personnel are “entirely unnecessary.” He said under sequestration only 2.4 percent of the $3.6 trillion annual spending budget for the United States government needs to be trimmed. He said that over the last four years federal government spending has grown 19 percent. “So, 2.4 percent hardly seems like it ought to be as disruptive as what is happening on the border,” Cornyn said. “I can understand the reaction that people are having. People are asking, why is this happening and is it really necessary? I don’t believe it is necessary.”
Cornyn added that he wants to work with the Department of Homeland Security to “minimize the disruption.” He said he agreed with the Texas Border Coalition and Superintendent Villarreal that it is “very important to keep the trucks moving and to keep legitimate traffic moving back and forth” at the ports of entry.
“It is very important and I am afraid it is underappreciated in Washington, D.C., which is the reason why it is a constant struggle to get the federal government to live up to its responsibilities at the ports of entry, with the staffing necessary. But, we keep pressing,” Cornyn.
Earlier this week, the Texas Border Coalition, which comprises cities, counties and economic development corporations from El Paso to Brownsville, warned that border commerce and tourism “could come to a virtual halt” once furloughs and cuts in overtime for customs officers are fully implemented.
“We are already seeing longer wait times at our land ports of entry due to the overtime ban. When the furloughs start in April it is only going to get worse,” Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chair of the TBC’s immigration and border security, told the Guardian.
“Some people are predicting wait times of six hours. Such a situation will bring border commerce and tourism to a virtual halt. We are going to see tomatoes and cucumbers left rotting on the trucks stuck on our international bridges.”
Editor’s Note: The Guardian asked DHS’s press office for a response to the ever lengthening lines at the international bridges. It did not respond at the time of going to press. The Guardian will bring readers the response just as soon as we get it.