BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Since the Trump administration started moving customs officers away from ports of entry the number of non-commercial vehicular traffic coming north through Cameron County has dropped 20 percent.
So says Josue Garcia, Cameron County’s bridge director. Garcia says Mexican nationals are thinking twice about coming over to shop or eat or see their family because they can see border bridge wait times are growing.
The reason that cars and trucks are waiting longer on international bridges is because Customs & Border Protection officers have been pulled way to help Border Patrol with their work processing migrant families from Central America.
Around 300 customs officers from the Laredo Sector (which includes the Valley) have been reassigned. This has meant more lanes at international bridges are staying closed.
Garcia (pictured above) is concerned about what will happen this week – Holy Week/Semana Santa – as this is traditionally a busy time for border crossings.
Congressman Filemon Vela speculates that President Trump is deliberately causing border wait times to increase.
“This is definitely a problem for all of us border bridge directors, from here to Tijuana. We now have long, long, lines, here along the border,” Garcia said.
“Going south is not an issue. It is coming north. Less cars are coming over. It appears the lines are getting shorter. That is not the case. It is that less people are coming over.”
Asked how bad the situation is, Garcia said:
“More than 20 percent of vehicular traffic. Commercial traffic will always be there. Commerce needs to happen. But, people coming over to shop, to visit, to do other things, that is where we are being impacted, pedestrians as well. During April, that is when the shortage of CBP officers occurred, we are down 20 percent.”
Garcia said all the main bridges in the Cameron County system are seeing a drop in vehicular traffic. Those bridges are Veterans, Gateway and Free Trade. “They are all important for vehicular traffic,” Garcia said.
Asked how bad things could get during Holy Week, Garcia said: “With Semana Santa, it is going to have an major impact. We had a conference call with Senator Cornyn, several border folks, El Paso, ourselves. We told him, why do we have to lose CBP officers? Yes, Border Patrol may need the help but instead of having the one issue they (the Trump administration) are creating another issue.”
Asked who set up the conference call with Cornyn, Garcia said the senator himself.
“The senator reached out to us. The mayor of Brownsville (Tony Martinez) had a good idea. He said, why don’t you bring back some of the retired Border Patrol that want to work some more, instead of drawing on the CBP officers, the men and women in blue, to go and help out the men and women in green.”
Garcia said he and other Valley bridge directors are particularly concerned about the impact a reduction in border crossers might have on the local economy.
“That is our primary concern, how it is going to be affecting the Valley economy, not only on our side but the Mexican side as well. As we know, the Valley economy revolves around the Mexicans coming to the U.S., and U.S. people going to Mexico to visit family. We are really just one region. That is going to have a detrimental affect on the whole Rio Grande Valley.”
Asked if Senator Cornyn came up with any solutions, Garcia said: “He did not. He wanted to let us know he was aware of what was going on that he is trying diligently to find alternatives but at the end of the day… (it is the Trump administration’s decision.”
Congressman Filemon Vela also weighed on the Trump administration’s decision to pull CBP officers away from ports of entry during Semana Santa week.
“It is a tragedy. The fact of the matter is, since this president took office, border wall funding has been his singular approach to the idea of border security. You have to remember that the mission of the Department of Homeland Security includes southern border security but it includes a whole lot else as well, from counter terrorism to cyber security to federal emergency management, to aviation security. But this administration has been so focused on wall funding that the bottom has fallen out,” Vela said.
Vela said he believes there is a “lot of resilience” in both houses of Congress to President Trump’s threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Congressman Gonzalez, Congressman Cuellar and myself, our offices had a conference call with CBP to address this issue of using customs agents to go do Border Patrol work. Congressman Gonzalez showed me video of a CBP agent of making sandwiches. The fact is the Department of Homeland Security has discretionary funds to go have other people do that work. Customs officers should not be doing that.”
Vela finished his interview by questioning the motives of President Trump.
“At the end of the day, I can’t help but think that one of the things going on here is… it is a slow motion ways of closing of the border. As some one who has been skeptical about this president’s motives from the very beginning, one cannot help wonder if, in fact, this isn’t just an intentional way of closing the border down because it is certainly the practical affect of it.”
Letter to McAleenan
The Texas Border Coalition has been leading voice against both closing the border and moving CBP officers away from ports of entry.
“As border leaders, we understand the importance of border security, including at the ports of entry,” Laredo Mayor and TBC Chairman Pete Saenz wrote in a letter to Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“We strongly believe we can secure the border without impeding the free flow of legitimate trade and tourism that is crucial for our economy. We need our inspection agents at their posts protecting our nation.”
Saenz said TBC supports plans to ask volunteers from the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and other Homeland Security agencies to go to the border to help with the processing of Central American families.
“TBC strongly urges DHS to implement this volunteer strategy before Holy Week begins, so that CBP agents can attend to their protective duties at the land ports of entry, facilitating the trade that is essential to the economic health of the border region and the nation.”
Here is the text of the TBC letter in its entirety:
April 10, 2019
Sent via: [email protected]
Mr. Kevin McAleenan
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528
In re: Request for CBP agents at border crossings to handle Holy Week traffic
Dear Mr. Acting Secretary:
I hope you recall our meeting at the Senate Finance Committee hearing last year on cross-border commerce and its contribution to the U.S. economy. Like you, the Texas Border Coalition that I chair places great value on cross-border trade.
As you may know, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is Mexico’s second most important holiday season after Christmas. In addition to the spiritual significance of the holiday season, Semana Santa is a major vacation and shopping time, and many Mexicans traditionally come to Texas to celebrate and shop. The week represents as large a boost in retail sales for our region as the Christmas holiday does for most of the rest of the country.
Border communities in Texas are concerned that significant delays at our international bridges could interfere with shoppers crossing the border and inflict significant harm on our retail community. The delays result from the decision by DHS to reassign border inspection agents from their duties at border ports of entry to help process migrants.
As border leaders, we understand the importance of border security, including at the ports of entry. We strongly believe we can secure the border without impeding the free flow of legitimate trade and tourism that is crucial for our economy. We need our inspection agents at their posts protecting our nation.
On March 27, DHS officials announced a plan to ask volunteers from the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and other Homeland Security agencies to go to the border to help with the processing of Central American families. The Texas Border Coalition strongly urges you to implement this volunteer strategy before Holy Week begins, so that our CBP agents can attend to their protective duties at the land ports of entry, facilitating the trade that is essential to our regional and national economic health.
Mayor of Laredo, Texas and Chairman of the Texas Border Coalition
Meanwhile, the Valley’s three members of Congress – Cuellar, Vela and Gonzalez – have issued a news release about trade being slowed at ports of entry. Here it is:
Congressmen Cuellar, Gonzalez, and Vela Denounce Trade and Travel Delays at U.S.-Mexico Border
The Texas Lawmakers Have Spoken with Deputy Commissioner of CBP Robert Perez
WASHINGTON – Congressmen Henry Cuellar (TX-28), Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15), and Filemon Vela (TX-34) today issued the following statements in response to the Administration’s border policies that have inhibited cross-border trade and travel in South Texas. On Wednesday, the congressmen spoke with incoming U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez about staffing levels at Ports of Entry (POEs) and the reassignment of 750 CBP officers.
Pharr International Bridge, which crosses more than 60 percent of produce traveling northbound into the United States, has experienced the following as a direct result of the personnel reassignment. If the port of entry were to fully close, Pharr would lose $90 million per day.
- Three out of seven northbound cargo lanes faced closure.
- Wait times quadrupled from 30 minutes in 2018, to, currently, 125 minutes.
- Out of 300 officers transferred from the Laredo Field Office, 60 CBP agents are from the Pharr POE.
- The delays and lack of CBP officers are causing cargo trucks to now stay overnight to be inspected the following morning. Thus, increasing wait times for new cargo traveling northbound.
Congressman Henry Cuellar offered five realistic and sensible solutions that will maintain CBP’s ability to process trade and travel, while addressing the surge in migrants at our southern border. He spoke directly with CBP Commissioner McAleenan in order to mitigate the impact of the reassignment of 750 CBP officers, 545 of which were taken from the Laredo Field Office, to the Border Patrol processing center in McAllen. This relocation has hampered CBP’s ability to process legitimate trade and travel, increasing wait times at the Texas POEs and decreasing U.S. economic competitiveness. Rep. Cuellar encouraged Commissioner McAleenan to bring these officers back to their normal roles and offered the following strategies that enable legitimate trade, contribute to American economic prosperity, and protect against risks to public health and safety.
“And now, after speaking with the Deputy Commissioner, I am confident that CBP is taking the appropriate steps to secure our southern border, without needlessly impeding bilateral trade and travel, on which our national economy relies,” said Congressman Cuellar. “It is important that CBPOs at U.S. POEs remain at their assigned posts, facilitating the proper exchange of legitimate goods and services moving between South Texas and Mexico.”
Congressman Cuellar added, “We look forward to the arrival of sufficient CBP reinforcements within the week. Congress must work with the Administration to create a strong immigration framework, which can process migrants without sacrificing U.S. commerce. Therefore, moving forward, I have asked the Deputy Commissioner to present our delegation with a sustainable plan for allocating supplemental volunteer CBPOs to South Texas field offices. I thank border Representatives and Senator Cornyn’s office for working together as a team on this important issue.”
Congressman Gonzalez recently spoke with the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA) about the ramifications of the decision to reassign CBP officers. TIPA sent letters to Texas Governor Greg Abbott and then CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan requesting assistance in providing addition personnel resources to help the growing customs delays at Texas POEs.
“Each day, my office and I hear from local officials, business owners, and citizens who are bearing the brunt of what can best be described as a ‘soft border closure’,” Congressman Gonzalez said. “Enough is enough.”
Congressman Gonzalez added, “I spoke with CBP Deputy Commissioner Perez and received the commitment that additional 100 agents will be replenished at struggling ports of entry as soon as Monday, April 15, 2019. The Deputy Commissioner noted that overtime for existing agents will begin and the agency will ask retired vetted agents to return to service in lieu of full-time new hires. I am putting my faith in the Deputy Commissioner and will hold the entire agency accountable until this is resolved. It’s time to get the border back in business.”
“Our Ports of Entry are the gateways to trade, tourism and travel,” Congressman Vela said. “They are a catalyst for economic development in the Rio Grande Valley and in the United States of America. President Trump recently declared that he would close the border, and by transferring trade and customs agents to border patrol units, that is essentially what he has done. Congressman Cuellar and Congressman Gonzalez have joined me in seeking immediate relief to alleviate the extended wait times at border crossings and we welcome the limited relief that is on its way. Congress has consistently funded positions in both the customs and border patrol agencies, but hundreds of these positions remain unfilled as a result of this administrations ineptitude. Clearly, the President’s disgraceful actions have had a devastating impact on legitimate trade and travel and he needs to be stopped.”
“While I understand the importance of border security, including at the ports of entry, I strongly believe we can secure the border without impeding the free flow of legitimate trade and tourism that is crucial for our economy,” said City of McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. “In fact, this is something that border mayors and other county, state and federal elected officials from this area have been advocating for years now: by investing in the manpower and resources for enhancing legitimate border trade, this would help to decrease the illegal trade of people and drugs that smugglers also take advantage of when resources are diverted. The return of CBP agents to the ports of entry would bolster national security by providing critical resources during this high-traffic period.”
“There is a symbiotic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico that is especially evident along our border communities. That relationship relies on trade, tourism, and cross-border traffic for jobs, shopping, and visiting friends and family,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez. “The delays caused by the reassignment of customs officers to assist in the processing of asylum seekers has really hurt our economy.”
Judge Cortez continued, “Supporting legal trade, tourism, and cross-border traffic with the proper staffing at our bridges is at the forefront of any border security initiative. A more prosperous border, with increased opportunity, decreases the temptation of illegal activity. I applaud Congressman Gonzalez and our congressional delegation for their leadership in bringing the additional officers, especially as our region prepares for the Semana Santa visitors next week.”
“The resources at these ports of entry are being stretched far beyond their limitations,” Rigo Villarreal, Superintendent of Bridges for the City of McAllen. “Any additional resources that the Deputy Commissioner plans to redirect to South Texas must be dispersed appropriately and accordingly. This is only fair – not just to the current officers in the field, but to businesses and residents that rely on efficient and well-functioning ports of entry for commerce, employment, and tourism.”