The United States and Mexico recently unveiled a new test program that has shortened wait times for commercial shipping trucks at ports of entry along the Arizona-Mexico border. The program is already reducing wait times from hours to minutes.
Alex Raptis is transportation director for the Chamberlain Group, a company with a maquiladora, or factory, across the border in Nogales, Sonora.
“If you have a garage opener at your house, it’s probably one of ours. If it’s Liftmaster, Chamberlain," he said. "We also build for Craftsman, Sears and other companies."
The company has a vested interest in moving products from Mexico into the U.S. quickly. It’s already been cleared for fast examinations at the U.S. port of entry through C-TPAT, or Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, a voluntary CBP security clearance program. It’s a give and take; the company has to provide some stringent security standards for every truck that crosses the border in either direction.
Trucks heading to Mexico are checked by dogs. Shipments heading to Arizona are checked again.
“We seal it and then we use a geocorridor to make sure that trailer when it leaves our plant, doesn’t stop anywhere,” he said.
If the satellite signal stops for more than five minutes, the company alerts customs and sends its own security team. Even with fast examinations, it used to take Chamberlain trucks three to four hours to cross the border. Most of that was time spent waiting in a long queue on the Mexican side where northbound trucks were inspected by Mexico, and then checked all over again by U.S. inspectors on the other side.
But the change, Raptis says, has been dramatic. “Now we’ve been averaging about 30 minutes, 35 minutes, crossing from the plant to our cross dock here in the U.S which is an incredible savings in time."
A week ago, both countries streamlined the process and simply combined the two inspections just at the port of entry. Inspectors from both countries randomly check the prequalified trucks that enter the port through a specific lane.
Outgoing CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske touted the program during his Arizona visit with his Mexico customs counterpart.
“The unified cargo processing saves time, it saves stakeholders money. That means that cargo, especially produce that is so subject to environmental concerns, moves more quickly," he said.
CBP and Mexico implemented a similar program in Tijuana and at the airport in Laredo, Texas. Plans also call for a similar measure at the Santa Teresa Port of entry in New Mexico.
The program in Arizona is the only one so far where Mexican agents work at an American land port. The test program is scheduled to last 90 days.
CBP has been criticized for not fully staffing the Mariposa shipping port, adding to shipment delays here. Even with these recent improvements, Kerlikowske said CBP is still 800 employees shy of being fully staffed.
"Just as with Mexican customs we have very high hiring standards and it takes a while for people to get through but we’ve reduced the amount of time and we’re trying to speed up the amount of time for someone to come on board with us,” he said.
In the meantime, 50 port inspectors from across the country have been brought in to speed up inspections, he said.
The Greater Nogales Port Authority lobbied CBP to launch the program with Mexico at the Mariposa port.
Bruce Bracker is treasurer of the Greater Nogales Port Authority. “Manpower is still an issue but with the help of the federal delegation, we’ve put a lot of things in place to really attract customs agents to the southern border and then, with additional pressure, to the southern Arizona ports of entry,” Bracker said.
For now, he says, the pilot program is a welcome addition. “It’s just phenomenal; it’s the speed at which trade is supposed to be moving," he said.
About a quarter of all trucks coming through the port have gone through the dual effort, roughly 80 a day this past week. But the Mariposa port is built to handle 4,000 trucks a day. With hiring issues at CBP, it remains to be seen whether the new program will expand quickly enough to handle the traffic of trucks that are not already vetted under the anti-terror program.