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
New legislation opens innovative financing possibilities for border infrastructure, staffing
Sen. Cornyn bill backed by Border Trade Alliance
SAN ANTONIO - The Border Trade Alliance today announced its support of the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013, legislation introduced by Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
The bill, which builds upon a concept first broached by the senator in the last Congress, seeks to allow private sector entities and cities, counties and states to help offset the costs of developing land border port of entry infrastructure and staff.
"The Border Trade Alliance applauds Sen. Cornyn for demonstrating his desire to draw upon the creativity and knowhow of the private sector and local communities in order to meet the very real challenges posed by lagging infrastructure and insufficient manpower," Border Trade Alliance Chairman Jesse Hereford said. "The long lines we see at our border ports that result from outmoded infrastructure create a consistent drag on our economy and negatively affect the competitiveness of not only the border regions, but of North America."
Current law is murky when it comes to the federal government's ability to partner with the private sector and state subdivisions in financing border infrastructure. Such endeavors are made all the more complicated by the multiple stakeholders involved, including Customs and Border Protection, the General Services Administration, as well as existing public and private sector bridge owners, whose bridges span the Rio Grande and connect the U.S. and Mexico.
The need for these public-private partnerships became apparent when the South Texas city of McAllen in the lower Rio Grande Valley was stonewalled in its attempts to spend city dollars to expand its Anzaldúas International Bridge.
City officials there, including Rigo Villarreal, the superintendent of bridges for Anzaldúas and Mcallen-Hidalgo international bridges, were told by CBP that the city could not spend $7 million in city funds for bridge improvements.
"Usually in large infrastructure projects, securing the funding is the biggest challenge," Hereford said. "But in this case, spending the money became the problem. I want to thank Rigo for his and the city's vigilance in trying to bring about a commonsense policy change that will allow local communities to play a more active role in their ports of entry."
BTA President Nelson Balido noted that these partnerships will be necessary in light of the federal government's fiscal situation.
"This bill acknowledges that a new way of doing business on our borders is necessary if we're going to keep up with the demands put on our ports of entry by travel and trade flows," Balido said. "Federal budgets are just too tight to expect that Congress will be able to fully meet the needs of our borders. We must think creatively to ensure that our ports of entry reflect today's international commerce environment."
The bill will have an impact border-wide, not just in South Texas.
"There are pressing needs for our border infrastructure nationwide, and here in Imperial County is no exception," Imperial County Supervisor for District 1 John Renison said. "Community leaders want to take an active role in upgrading their ports of entry that are so vital to their local economies, but unfortunately there is not a clear mechanism for local governments and the private sector to team to supplement federal dollars targeted for port projects. We thank Sen. Cornyn and look forward to working with him and engaging the California delegation as together we seek creative solutions for improving our ports of entry, facilitating trade and bolstering our security."
El Paso Mayor John Cook said, "Communities on both sides of the US-Mexico border are struggling to deal with infrastructure and staffing challenges that impact their economies and global competitiveness. Public -private partnerships are an important tool that will benefit both governments, both economies and industry. My sincere appreciation goes to Sen. Cornyn for sponsoring this important legislation."
Hereford commended Sen. Cornyn's willingness to work with border communities and industry engaged in cross-border commerce in the crafting of the bill.
"The BTA has been working with Sen. Cornyn going on two years now on this issue," Hereford said. "We cannot say enough about the senator and his staff's openness to our ideas and suggestions. We look forward to working with Sen. Cornyn to pass this very needed and innovative legislation that will provide a new financing mechanism to be able to invest at our nation's land ports of entry."
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by Nelson Balido
President Obama’s second term is officially underway, but one of his top priorities for his second term was made apparent well before he took the oath of office. Because of a confluence of tragic events, the president made clear that guns and gun ownership would be in the spotlight.
This is a not a column about gun control. Other commentators have already said plenty about that subject and it’s a topic that will continue to use up plenty of ink. But I do want to touch on the connection between guns in America and our proximity to Mexico and cartel violence in that country. Illegal firearms trafficking requires a lot of U.S. inspection resources devoted to preventing the illegal export of guns and ammo, but like all government resources, they’re finite.
In March 2009, Customs and Border Protection stood up its Outbound Programs Division in the Office of Field Operations. As then Commissioner Alan Bersin said in testimony provided before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in March 2011, the division “is focused on stemming the flow of firearms, currency, stolen vehicles, and fugitives out of the United States.”
This is no small job. In fiscal year 2010, CBP seized more than 1,900 southbound weapons. According to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, from January 1, 2010 to October 5, 2010, a total of 5,329 weapons seized in Mexico were traced using ATF’s firearms tracing system, known as eTrace. During the same period, the Mexican Defense Ministry reported approximately 16,000 weapons recovered throughout Mexico.
In June 2011, the same senators who received testimony from then-Commissioner Bersin released the report “Halting U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico,” which contained recommendations on how to stem the tide of illegal gun trafficking that had aided cartel violence south of the border.
Recommendations included expanding Mexican law enforcement’s access to the ATF eTrace system, to requiring background checks at gun shows so as to aid in ATF’s ability to track guns used in crimes in Mexico.
The outbound inspection efforts undertaken by CBP are to be applauded. The agency’s work to ensure that contraband doesn’t end up at a crime scene in Mexico is a huge reason why our relationship with Mexico remains strong.
But still, the calls from the Mexican government over U.S. gun control policies are not lessening. The Mexican government has lamented the expiration of the U.S. assault weapons ban since 2004. In an event in Ciudad Juárez last year, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón held a press conference in front of a huge sign that read “No More Weapons;” the sign was made of decommissioned arms.
But CBP can only do so much. And its resources could be diminished just as the demands on the agency continue to grow.
On one hand, trade flows into the U.S. continue to increase and will hopefully continue to do so as Americans’ buying power expands as the economy recovers. On the other hand, the debate over sweeping government-wide spending cuts is about to hit a crescendo. If some solution isn’t found, then government agencies like CBP will be forced to make tough decisions about how to deploy their limited resources, and inbound inspection efforts could win out over the southbound side.
Every CBP officer inspecting outbound freight is one that is not assigned to the inbound lanes to help alleviate the long lines that have come to characterize the ports along the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders. As I travel across our southwest border I am often asked why CBP is conducting inspections that Mexican Customs should be performing. It is more than just guns and cash they are looking for, but it may be time for Mexico to conduct these inspections on their own soil or for the U.S. to look for increased opportunities to partner with state and local law enforcement to do the job while ensuring that legitimate southbound trade and travel flows aren’t needlessly interrupted.
Mexico needs to take a hard look at its expectations. Both countries want to prevent arms smuggling. But the U.S. alone cannot prevent the passage of every illegal gun into Mexico. Mexican law enforcement must play an increasingly active role in de-arming its cartels.
No matter the outcome of the gun control debate in the U.S., Mexico must recognize that CBP and ATF are being forced to do more with less.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance