A component of comprehensive immigration reform that too often is overlooked in Washington is the tremendous amount of legal trade flowing across our southern border. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, American commerce with Mexico has exploded. Exports to our southern neighbor have increased by over 300 percent, while imports have grown by a remarkable 460 percent. Today, there are more than 6 million American jobs that rely on trade with Mexico, including over 460,000 in Texas, alone.
Unfortunately, our ports of entry that span the Rio Grande have not kept pace with this swell in commerce. After meeting with stakeholders and local officials in communities all along the border I, along with then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a review of our ports of entry.
The report was released last month and confirms what local leaders, businesses and residents on the border already know: our ports of entry have been neglected for too long. Border wait times are under-reported, infrastructure and staff are mismanaged and stretched too thin, and it is becoming harder to ensure safe and efficient trade and travel.
Highways are the arteries of commerce, and our ports of entry are the valves that regulate its flow. Currently, they are clogged, and this is needlessly harming the economy while effectively making it easier to smuggle contraband into the country. A Bloomberg Government study found that border delays cost the U.S. economy $7.8 billion in 2011. If corrective action is not taken, the annual damage is projected to rise to $14.7 billion by 2020.
We must fix this.
I authored an amendment to the immigration bill that passed the Senate earlier this summer that aimed to achieve a reduction in wait times by 50 percent at our ports of entry. Unfortunately, it did not muster the 60 votes needed for adoption. But with renewed attention to the issue generated by the GAO report, I remain hopeful that a fix will be an integral part of the immigration debate.
Nevertheless, a fix need not be tied to the fate of immigration reform. Cities, counties and private bridge owners want their bridges to stay open longer and accommodate more traffic. Unfortunately, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn’t have the resources, and Washington lacks the will to offer much help.
In response, organizations such as the Border Trade Alliance, Texas Border Coalition and other local stakeholders are exploring an innovative funding option: public-private partnerships. These would combine the resources of CBP with local governments and private companies or associations to improve services and conditions at ports of entry.
On the heels of the GAO report, CBP announced that it would initiate five such partnerships on a limited, provisional basis -- four of which are in Texas. This is commendable, but more needs to be done. CBP currently lacks the legal authority to enter into the long-term, robust agreements that are needed.
Earlier this year, I authored legislation, the Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act, that would give CBP the authority it needs. If signed into law, we would see such partnerships established in the Valley in short order.
Looking forward, I see reason for optimism. CBP is aware of the problem and seems willing to act. Communities along the border are eager to participate, and the GAO report will draw the attention of lawmakers as the immigration debate continues. I hope that the Obama administration will work with local leaders and with me to bring about these much needed upgrades to our ports of entry.
Until we do so, however, we cannot harness our full economic potential.