PHARR, March 19 - Furloughs due to begin next month will mean Customs and Border Protection operating with 40 percent less manpower at border ports of entry, Pharr International Bridge officials have been told.
Longer wait times at international bridges are already being felt at Pharr and other international bridges because of a ban on overtime for CBP staff.
The Pharr Bridge Board will meet on Wednesday to decide what measures it can take in response to the longer bridge wait times. It is one of the major bridges for commercial vehicles, handling 470,000 trucks per year.
Juan G. Guerra, chief financial officer for the Pharr Bridge Board, acknowledges longer wait times have become more frequent over the last week or so.
“The City of Pharr takes very serious its responsibility of safely and expediently assisting in the flow of international trade. We have done so since the mid 1990s without any major setbacks,” said Guerra, who has been in charge of the Pharr Bridge since longtime bridge director Jesse Medina retired two months ago.
“We have worked hard to develop partnerships with trade associations, business owners, brokers, landowners, and local, state, and federal agencies from both the U.S.A and Mexico to ensure that this responsibility is met,” Guerra told the Guardian.
An overtime ban was imposed on CBP officers by the Department of Homeland Security soon after Congress passed sequestration. CBP officers have been told furloughs will also be imposed, starting next month. Guerra said since sequestration became law two weeks ago, Pharr Bridge officials have met twice with CBP in order to get a clearer picture of what sequestration will mean for operations at the bridge.
Guerra said that at the most recent meeting, which took place last Friday, March 15, CBP informed Pharr Bridge officials of the following:
• They have always been staffed at 50-60 percent of capacity, with overtime making up the difference;
• Sixty percent of their resources have historically been used for international trade;
• With the sequester, their budget has been cut with their overtime budget eliminated;
• Beginning April 21, they will begin furloughs which will result in 40 percent reduction in manpower;
• International trade will always be a priority to them Monday through Friday;
• They are aware of the days and times when each bridge is busy and will begin moving man power from bridge to bridge as they are needed;
• Even with the cutback in manpower, they still intend on providing staffing to inspect southbound traffic going into Mexico.
Guerra said he is waiting to see what recommendations the Pharr Bridge Board makes at its meeting on Wednesday. He said bridge officials have been proactive in recent weeks.
“In the past two weeks, we have infrequently seen what seems like uncharacteristically long lines at our bridge. We have purposely increased our police patrols on the bridge to monitor the traffic to ensure that the bridge remains a safe place to cross into the U.S.A.,” Guerra said.
“During the infrequent long lines at our bridge, we have communicated with CBP to ensure that they are doing everything possible to expedite the flow of international trade.”
Guerra said that during the upcoming Semana Santa Mexican holiday, the Pharr Bridge Board has plans in place to assist motorists if the time to cross the bridge is materially longer than expected.
“Even with the furloughs, we anticipate that the effects will be felt by all bridges, which will allow the Pharr Bridge to continue to have the fastest truck cross time,” Guerra said.
Should the furloughs remain in place for the long-term, Guerra said he will recommend the following:
• Designation of regional commercial ports of entry so as to effectively utilize the CBP resources efficiently and allow for a reasonable cross time;
• Analysis of the need for all the bridges along our border from Laredo to Brownsville;
• Dialogue with state and U.S. elected officials to ensure that the current reduction to CBP is the best way to reduce the federal budget;
• Dialogue with state and U.S. elected officials to ensure that future reductions to CBP are minimized;
• Dialogue with state and U.S. elected officials to ensure that if the funding to CBP is cut, that the current plan to expand southbound inspections is not a priority of CBP.