We are just now starting to feel the effects of the sequester, and I’m not talking about a cancelation of the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. For the border, sequestration means the potential for longer lines at ports of entry due to staff furloughs, which slows shipments, increases crossing hassles for travelers and creates an overall economic drag on an economy starting to show signs of life.
But maybe we shouldn’t fear sequestration. Maybe instead the Department of Homeland Security and all of the federal government should use these budget cuts as a chance to conduct a top-down re-evaluation of its entire operations and determine where previous opportunities to reduce redundancies and increase efficiencies have been missed.
To paraphrase former White House chief of staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, we shouldn’t let this crisis go to waste.
For example, I’ve argued in the past that outbound inspections of trucks and private vehicles need further examination and that, while preventing gun and money smuggling across our borders is a totally legitimate goal, every federal officer posted in the outbound lanes could be repositioned to handle incoming trade flows and security at the port where I believe they are needed most. Sequestration presents the opportunity for such an analysis.
And now is a good time for DHS to see how well it’s doing (or did) with the concept of “one face at the border,” where the turf wars of the pre-DHS era were supposed to have been done away with, replaced with a new environment of cross-agency cooperation and efficiency under the DHS umbrella. It’s been so long since those of us on the border have heard talk of “one face” that it would serve us well to go back and give it a look.
This also further opens the discussion between Congress and agencies over roles the private sector and local governments can play when and where the federal government has come up short. With legislation gaining traction on developing a framework for private dollars to be leveraged in the development of border infrastructure and staff funding, and with the concept being assessed by DHS, now is the time to bring public-private partnerships online and give the border options where in many cases it has no options.
To the agency’s credit, Customs and Border Protection, the agency most folks encounter when they enter the United States, has been very transparent with the trade and travel community, offering regular briefings to stakeholders and ensuring that local leadership is kept apprised of the latest information on port-by-port operations.
But let’s not lose sight that the private sector confronts shifting budget environments every day. Companies are constantly making tough decisions in the face of new economic data, shifting resources or scaling back when the numbers call for it. After all, the entire premise of the Lean Six Sigma management practice is based on eliminating waste while boosting outputs. DHS, especially CBP, ought to take a seminar and engage outside support for help and expertise.
Sequestration is a blunt budgetary tool and there aren’t any winners when it’s used. I would have much preferred that we confronted our country’s strained finances more thoughtfully and that we would have seen more leadership from our president and less blaming; after all sequestration was his idea. But now that it looks like sequestration is going to be here for at least the near future, let’s take advantage of it.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance
February 28, 2012
If you're a Mexican national in the border region looking to make the drive across the border into the United States and you've got a valid Border Crossing Card, you can easily visit places like El Paso or Laredo, Texas (assuming you're granted entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the port of entry) and move about the 25-mile border zone as you see fit.
Biometric Border Crossing Cards are issued to those individuals who have undergone background, fingerprint and security checks at their nearest U.S. consulate in Mexico.
With the card you can visit friends and family, take in a movie or a concert, or check out the newest restaurants, as long as you stay within the permissible travel zone, don't stay longer than 30 days in the U.S. and you're willing to put up with the likely long line to enter the country.
If you're a Mexican national looking to cross into Arizona via certain ports of entry, your Border Crossing Card affords you the ability to travel as far north as Tucson, where you can take in all that that city has to offer, including world class resorts and shopping destinations.
But Mexican travelers looking to visit southern New Mexico don't have the same options as other border crossers, causing the Land of Enchantment to miss out on the cross-border commerce other border states get to enjoy.
Because of the geography of the state, the nearest southern New Mexico population centers of Lordsburg, Deming and Las Cruces fall outside the Border Crossing Card's 25-mile travel limit. Travelers who want to make the trek to those communities are instead forced to secure a travel and departure record from CBP – form I-94 – which costs time and money.
For a practical example consider three Mexican shoppers: one in Baja California, one in Sonora and another in Chihuahua, all with valid Border Crossing Cards and all of whom who want to go to Wal-Mart.
The shopper in Baja California can find a Wal-Mart in San Ysidro, Calif. near the world's busiest land border crossing. The Sonoran can walk or drive across the border in Nogales, Ariz. to a Wal-Mart that is a mere 2.5 miles from the port of entry or head up to Tucson where he or she would have plenty of locations to choose from.
But the Chihuahuense faces limited options. They can head over to Cd. Juárez and make the crossing into El Paso or they can apply and pay for an I-94 at the port in Columbus, N.M. and head north to Deming.
New Mexico Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall recognize the uncompetitive position their state has been put in by this travel rule and are doing something about it.
The two senators have introduced the Southern New Mexico Economic Development Act, which would expand the travel zone for Mexican travelers in New Mexico to 75 miles – the same limit as in Arizona. Sens. Bingaman and Udall have also written to and met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urging her support for this needed policy change.
As Sen. Bingaman accurately says, "This legislation would encourage lawful border commerce, boosting economic activity in New Mexico border communities hit hard by the economic downturn and in a manner consistent with our border security needs."
In his introduction of the bill into the Congressional Record, Sen. Udall pointed out the broad support the legislation has behind it, including a bipartisan joint memorial that passed the New Mexico Legislature.
Changing the rules on the Border Crossing Card for New Mexico is the right thing to do. If DHS doesn't make the move administratively, then passage of the Southern New Mexico Economic Development Act is an idea whose time has come.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance
Busy Texas border areas hit by exaggerations, not explosives
by Nelson Balido
October 20, 2011
Let's play a quick game of fill-in the blank: "Living and conducting business in __________ is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock."
c) The Gaza Strip
d) None of the above
The correct answer is d, none of the above. Or at least it is if you were watching last Friday's hearing in the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, where the subcommittee learned that, according to a recently released report, it's living in a Texas border county that is like living in a war zone.
This violent characterization may come as a surprise to those of you who live in the vast area stretching from El Paso to Brownsville. I know it did to me, as it's rare that a week goes by where I'm not visiting with key private and public sector officials along our nation's border with Mexico, where $1 billion in trade is done every day.
Friday's testimony in the House was provided by retired General Barry McCaffrey, an esteemed military mind and the former director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy; and retired Major General Dr. Robert Scales, the president of the consulting firm Colgen, LP.
Both are respected experts in their fields and they're each often called upon by lawmakers in both parties for their keen insight into the challenges facing our nation. But in this case, their pitched rhetoric and "war zone" imagery proved to be an unnecessary distraction, earning derision from border region lawmakers.
Their report, "Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment," a 59-page work, was commissioned by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Steve McGraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
These types of comments have serious ramifications. As border Rep. Henry Cuellar said in a recent email to constituents, "Business on the border is booming. False, baseless attacks like this harm our public image and weaken our economy by spreading misinformation that might discourage companies from doing business along the border."
Make no mistake, the drug cartel violence occurring in Mexico is – and rightfully should be – a major concern for border state law enforcement. Preventing spillover violence has become a top priority for law enforcement agencies that are hyperaware that they could find themselves outgunned by an opposition for whom resources aren't a problem.
But consider this item from the report: "Fear and anxiety levels among Texas farmers and ranchers have grown enormously during the past two years. Farmers, ranchers and other citizens in border communities are caught in the crossfire of escalating cross-border violence resulting in large part from conflicts between cartels, paramilitary enforcement groups and transnational gangs struggling for control of key drug and illegal alien smuggling routes into the U.S. from El Paso to Brownsville."
Even if we concede that the authors' use of the word "crossfire" was only meant in the figurative sense, it's still a turn of phrase the raises eyebrows for people who live and work in the border region. Yes, border life has changed since the cartel wars have flared up. For example, there are very little discretionary or leisure border crossings at many ports of entry all along the border. The trips across the border for dinner or to visit with friends have largely ceased.
Yet U.S. border communities are not centers of violence. In fact, they're far from it. San Diego, one of America's 10-largest cities, which abuts part of the Mexican border with Tijuana, had, with 29 murders last year, less than 1 murder for every 50,000 of its people. Calexico, Calif. had no murders. Nogales, Ariz.: No murders.
And what about the supposed Texas war zones of cities like El Paso and Laredo? Out of 350 cities, Laredo's crime rate comes in at no. 144. El Paso has the 275th highest crime rate. Those are the types of numbers that make fellow Texas cities like San Antonio and Houston envious.
In an email to constituents, El Paso area Rep. Silvestre Reyes wrote, "the report aimed to paint the border as dangerous and out of control, when, in fact, cities such as El Paso, McAllen, and Brownsville are safer than most cities in U.S.
Yes, border communities on the U.S. side of the border are navigating a new public safety paradigm, which has our leaders assessing whether we're doing all we can to ensure our security. But let's keep our characterizations of what's going on in the border region constrained to reality. Otherwise, our credibility suffers and with it the border's standing as an attractive place to live and do business.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance.