Arguing that ports of entry have been overlooked as the federal government beefs up security along the US-Mexico border, Nogales-based businessmen pressed Arizona legislators on May 25 for help in persuading the federal government to provide more funding to ease congestion at the states’ legal gateways.
The businessmen, who came to testify before a border security advisory panel, said the legal crossing of goods and people are the economic engines of border communities and bring in much-needed revenues to the state and local governments.
But the ports are severely understaffed, and that strains the flow of commerce, they said.
To drive home their point, the businessmen told Arizona legislators that Texas is aggressively positioning itself as a more efficient port.
“The temptation for many companies is to divert business or to possibly move operations to McAllen (Texas) because of the perceived logistical benefits,” said Jaime Chamberlain, an importer based in Nogales and chairman of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.
At a time when lawmakers’ attention is focused on how best to confront illegal immigration, the businessmen’s testimony during the Joint Border Security Advisory Committee meeting provided a rare chance to delve into the other side of the border security coin — the legal crossing of goods and people between Arizona and Mexico, the state’s biggest trading partner.
In the Nogales port alone, over $2 billion worth of fresh produce crosses into the United States from Mexico each year.
The constant stream of trucks that stop to drop off and pick up goods in Nogales is a source of tax revenues for the state, they said.
That’s not counting about $7.3 million in daily economic activity from travelers who cross from Mexico to do business or to shop here, they said.
But the businessmen argued that the resources being committed on the border are skewed towards securing the areas in between ports.
“Unfortunately, we have seen a drastic imbalance in federal efforts at our borders,” Chamberlain said. “Our ports of entry have been severely overlooked, leaving our ports alarmingly understaffed.”
The Nogales port, for example, needs 200 more officers, but the proposed fiscal year 2012 federal budget only sets aside funding for 300 officers nationwide, he said.
An understaffed port means increased waiting times for both commercial and tourist traffic. That waiting translates into economic losses.
That’s not the only danger, Chamberlain said.
“Cargo at rest is cargo at risk,” he said, pointing out that the more trucks wait before they can cross the border, the more vulnerable they are to drug cartels that want to use them for illegal purposes.
The businessmen said that, as more resources are committed to areas in between ports, it’s conceivable that those who deal in illegal activity will be forced to go through the legal gateways, making it all the more important to put additional resources there.
Bruce Bracker, president of the Downtown Merchants Association in Nogales, underscored the economic benefits of easing the traffic jam and reducing the wait time for Mexican nationals to legitimately cross over to the U.S.
The stores he represents account for about $40 million in sales annually, with up to 90 percent of that money coming from Mexican nationals, he said.
“Border security and the facilitation of legitimate travelers are two sides of the same coin,” Bracker said. “A comprehensive approach to our borders must include staffing for (customs) officers as well as Border Patrol.”
James Bryan Manson, chairman of the nonprofit Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority, summed up his colleagues’ plea to Arizona lawmakers: They need help in persuading the federal government on the need to increase staffing at the ports.
But even as the hearing highlighted the challenges at the country’s ports of entry, it remains to be seen whether legislators will ask their congressional counterparts to increase funding.
Some legislators, like Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, are sympathetic to concerns raised by border-based businesses.
“It’s becoming more and more obvious that, if we are going to talk about border security, we have to look at the bigger picture,” Jones said. “It’s not just the places between the ports of entry, but it has to include in the discussions the ports of entry.”
But Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson and co-chairman of the advisory committee with Jones, is lukewarm to the idea of asking the federal government for more men and women to manage the Nogales port.
“I don’t think we need more government employees. We need more private sector employees,” Melvin said.