SAN LUIS, ARIZONA – The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has beefed up the number of border agents in the last 10 years, but not its customs inspectors – those officers in blue who check the legitimate traffic coming through the ports of entry.
That’s led to long wait times to get into the United States at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border from California to Texas. That translates into lost dollars, with one study putting the cost at millions of dollars per minute.
For 18 hours a day, the shipping port in Nogales, Arizona rumbles noisily. Giant semi-trucks motor down as they crawl to a stop. The semis bring in everything: Tomatoes, melons, hi-tech pumps, flat-panel televisions, even your kitchen sink.
It’s all just part of a $360 billion a year cross border trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Here in Nogales, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is getting ready to double the size of the Mariposa Port of Entry, expanding the aging port’s truck lanes from three to eight, and adding four more lanes for normal vehicle traffic.
The problem is the agency doesn’t have enough inspectors to staff the newly expanded port.
Terry Shannon is the owner of a brokerage company in Nogales that handles the freight shipping as the trucks cross into Arizona. He’s also a former chairman of the local port authority.
Like many business owners here, he was pleased when the White House approved using stimulus money for the port expansion last year. But what they weren’t prepared for was a shortage of personnel to make these new lanes work.
“One of our concerns is we’re halfway through the construction phase and yet, we’re understaffed in Nogales as it is. This is a problem all along the southern border,” he said. “I was recently in McAllen, Texas and the same conversation I’m having with you, they’re having over there regarding their ports of entry.”
Shannon believes Nogales alone needs 300 more inspectors on top of the 212 currently stationed here. Without those new inspectors, trucks will be waiting a long time.
A Department of Commerce report in 2008 put the waiting costs all along the border at $116 million a minute. But somehow, those millions haven’t translated into more personnel.
Compare the number of inspectors to new Border Patrol agents. Starting in 2005, the U.S. Border Patrol went on a hiring binge, adding 6,000 new agents. But Customs stayed stagnant, in fact, losing nearly 500 officers between 2009 and 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
CBP declined to address the shortage issue, saying the number of inspectors is a “national security matter.”
Colleen Kelley is president of the National Treasury Employees’ Union, which represents inspectors. The union has pushed toward hiring more inspectors, but that hasn’t happened in any meaningful way, Kelley said. The agency loses more agents through attrition than it hires.
“There are too many ports of entry where officers have to work double shifts,” the president said. “The ports have to make decisions about how they will assign, recognizing that they cannot do everything that they would like to do.”
What folks in Nogales don’t want to see is what happened in San Luis near Yuma, Arizona. It’s a tiny Arizona town with acres of farm fields that run all the way up to the gleaming border wall.
For years, semis and border crossers co-existed in these tiny lanes. So when the new port opened last year, there was much excitement.
San Luis Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla explained what happened.
“When the port opened, the current officers that we had at the port were shifted to the new port,” Escamilla said. “So they’re operating with the same manpower that they had with one port.”