Long lines for cargo trucks trying to cross into the U.S. are affecting businesses on the border and beyond, according to testimony before a U.S. House Homeland Security subcommittee in Washington, D.C., this week.
"What we're experiencing along the border threatens the economic security of our country," Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, told federal lawmakers.
The alliance promotes economic development in Doña Ana County, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
The hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operations examined the effects of the Trump administration's policies on border communities.
One result is cargo trucks in long lines backed up into Mexico for miles waiting to cross into the U.S. after 750 Customs and Border Protection officers were removed from ports of entry and reassigned to help Border Patrol agents deal with an influx of migrants seeking asylum.
"We're in total agreement that the ripple effect could turn into a tsunami for the United States if we don't solve these wait times, which we are currently experiencing between 8 and 24 hours as we speak," Barela testified.
Nearly $82 billion worth of trade between the U.S. and Mexico comes through ports of entry annually in the region that includes Doña Ana County, El Paso and Juárez.
"We simply cannot do business in our region nor can the United States afford this sort of ripple effect, which will, again, become an economic tsunami if we're not careful," Barela testified.
'Utter chaos and confusion' at ports of entry
Companies using New Mexico's busiest border crossing, Santa Teresa, are also coping with long delays.
"They're on very tight supply chains, just in time, and those have been disrupted and not just here. The disruption goes all the way back to the Midwest," said Border Industrial Association President and CEO Jerry Pacheco.
The truck lines had stretched into Mexico up to five hours, but now the lines are about three hours, Pacheco said. The delays are still much longer than usual, and some don't make it across and into the U.S. before the Santa Teresa port of entry closes at 8 p.m.
"If they're an hour out, they just sleep in their trucks at night to keep their place in line," Pacheco said.
The subcommittee chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-NY, told the hearing that Congress had approved a Department of Homeland Security budget that included $60 million to hire an additional 1,000 Customs and Border Protection officers to staff ports of entry.
"The administration's border policies, coupled with the president's threats to close the border altogether and his incendiary immigration rhetoric, have created utter chaos and confusion at our ports of entry," Rice said in her opening remarks.
More technology needed at border
U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat who represents southern New Mexico's border region, also serves on the subcommittee and reiterated the impact of long wait times in her district.
"We lost an estimated 20 percent of our workforce, resulting in the closure of multiple commercial lanes and wait time of up to six hours for trucks to cross the border," Torres Small said.
She wants CBP to employ more technology to protect the border and facilitate trade at busy ports of entry.
"Every day, thousands of trucks and cars pass through our ports of entry. But due to staffing shortages and inefficient technology, only a small percentage of vehicles are scanned by nonintrusive inspection technology for illicit drugs, contraband, and human trafficking," Torres Small said.
"By investing in smarter and more efficient technology at our ports of entry, such as NII (nonintrusive inspection technology), we are both enhancing the safety of communities across the U.S. and growing our economy through increased flows of legitimate trade," she said in a statement released Wednesday with Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw about a letter they sent to the acting secretary of homeland security asking for an update on implementing the nonintrusive inspection technology at border crossings.
Torres Small has also co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to hire more Border Patrol agents for rural areas like New Mexico's Bootheel region.
'Significant and meaningful' resources needed
Expert testimony about the effects of policies on border communities at Tuesday's hearing also included the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, and the Pima County sheriff from Arizona, who represented the Southwestern Border Sheriffs' Coalition.
Bishop Mark Seitz told the subcommittee about the diocese's temporary shelters for migrant families seeking asylum.
"My brother bishops and I also remain deeply troubled by the administration's recent efforts to curtail the ability of asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek protection," Bishop Seitz said.
The sheriff of Arizona's largest border county called on lawmakers for help.
"We need action from Washington, D.C., not partisan politics," said Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier. "We need significant and meaningful additional resources to bolster both our public safety and our humanitarian efforts to address this crisis."