Delays In Border Trade Cost The US Billions
June 06, 2013

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A warehouse employee in El Paso hauls out boxes from the back of a truck trailer just arrived from Mexico.

EL PASO, Texas -- At our southern border time is money. The United States and Mexico trade more than a billion dollars in goods every day. All that commerce comes through land crossings that spread from California to Texas. The problem is once that commercial traffic reaches the border, it runs into long bottlenecks that result in costly delays.

At a warehouse near the border highway, a man on a forklift hauls long cardboard boxes from a truck trailer. Inside the boxes are plastic mannequins, the kind you see in clothing stores. These mannequins just made a five-hour journey from a factory in the Mexican border city of Juárez. They spent 2.5 of those hours stuck at the international bridge that links Juárez to El Paso.

"At this warehouse we receive the material that is manufactured in Mexico and from this location it gets distributed world wide," said manager Sergio Cano.

Cano's warehouse is no more than 20 miles from the factory across the border, but deliveries, like the one he just received, can take hours.

"Well a lot of the stuff is time sensitive and the delays on the bridge hinder both us in getting our job done here and then the final customer," he said.

Delays cut into everyone's bottom line. A late delivery to an auto manufacturer in Michigan, for example, can shut down an entire production line.

"So I'll have sometimes guys working overtime waiting for this material to cross," Cano said. "Then we usually have to pay the driver while he's waiting here to get the stuff out and so on. It can get expensive."

Just how expensive? A study by Bloomberg calculated that delays at the border cost the U.S. economy $7.8 billion in 2011. Too much for freshman Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose district is in El Paso. He thinks the country needs to look at the border in a new way.

"The preponderance of the focus has been on securing the border, locking it down, controlling it," he said.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Trucker Alejandro Rivera fills out paperwork after delivering a load from a factory in Ciudad Juárez to a warehouse in El Paso.

In the last decade, as border security has become a priority, the number of border patrol officers more than doubled while the amount of customs officers remains about the same.

"We are trying to show that there needs to be a balance," O'Rourke said. "We also need to facilitate trade, mobility and the flow of people who end up spending their money in our communities."

So O’Rourke is on a mission to educate his fellow U.S. Representatives on the importance of cross-border trade nationwide.

"There seems to be a direct correlation between how close you are physically to the U.S.-Mexico border and your understanding of the priority of trade in our economy," he said.

O'Rourke and his staff rove the U.S. Capital halls, distributing information to select delegations — like the one from Montana.

"Montana alone has more than $80 million in trade with Mexico and that supports 22,000 jobs," he said.

As a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, O’Rourke added nine trade-friendly amendments to the committee’s latest border security bill. The amendments call for things like technology that could speed up commercial traffic as well as the creation of a system to better measure border wait times. The bill may be absorbed into a larger House bill on immigration.

“We really need a multi-pronged approach," said Chris Wilson, who studies trade and economics at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.

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Wilson said the solution to reducing the border bottleneck has three main components: updating infrastructure at the ports of entry, boosting the number of customs officers and improving trusted traveler programs that expedite crossing times.

"We need to realize that the ability of the United States to succeed in the world is based on our ability to compete economically," he said. "We need to find ways to stand up to the challenge of some of the rising economies of the world, like China, India and Vietnam. We need to be working with Mexico. We need to have a border that functions."