As Texas Snarls Traffic at Border, Mexican Truckers Form Blockade

PHARR, Texas (AP) — Trucks trying to enter Texas loaded with goods from Mexico sat stationary for hours Tuesday as lengthy vehicle inspections ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott in a standoff with the Biden administration over immigration clogged traffic on major commercial crossings.

In the city of Pharr, a major international bridge that ships about $12 million worth of produce to the United States daily has been closed in both directions since Monday, as dozens of drivers in Mexico set up their own blockade in protest. for new inspections. A similar protest by truckers also blocked a bridge into El Paso.

Since last week, commercial vehicles entering Texas have faced not only the usual federal immigration and customs inspections, but also new roadside checkpoints set up by Texas police in the immediate aftermath of a move Abbott he said he was ordering in response to the flow of illegal drugs. and human trafficking across the border. With delays of up to 14 hours, some drivers have been diverted to Arizona and New Mexico.

“It’s at a crisis level now,” said Dante Galeazzi, president of the International Produce Association of Texas. “The biggest challenge is that we just don’t know how long this is going to last.”

Trouble for businesses had been anticipated by the governor when he ordered inspections and a “zero tolerance” policy for commercial vehicle safety violations. “This will drastically reduce traffic from Mexico to Texas,” Abbott said last week.

But Abbott said the security checkpoints were necessary to increase border surveillance, even if state police were not legally authorized to search checkpoints for immigrants or drugs. “We will use any and all legal powers to reduce the flow of drugs, human traffickers, illegal immigrants, weapons and other contraband into Texas,” Mr. Abbott said.

Migrant arrivals are expected to surge next month with the Biden administration’s plan to end a Trump-era pandemic policy in which most unauthorized migrants are turned away at the border under a health order. public emergency known as Title 42.

Mr. Abbott, a two-term Republican up for re-election in November, has touted the inspections as a means of addressing the anticipated impacts of that termination, which is expected to drive thousands of additional migrants to seek asylum across the border. every day. — the largest number of them in Texas.

Mr. Abbott strongly opposes some of the Biden administration’s moves to ease Trump-era immigration restrictions. But because only the federal government has authority over immigration matters, Abbott has pursued novel strategies to insert the state into immigration enforcement, such as arresting immigrants for misdemeanor illegal entry. Vehicle inspections are part of that effort: a carefully constructed policy aimed at smugglers and migrants but carried out under the powers available to the state, namely vehicle security.

Mr. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment about mounting delays in truck traffic at the border.

In a news release, Customs and Border Protection said delays were being felt at major commercial crossings into Texas as a result of “additional and unnecessary inspections” by state police, causing a drop in traffic. business of up to 60 percent.

“This has national ramifications,” said John D. Esparza, executive director of the Texas Trucking Association. “This is a trade for Ford Motor Company. This is the trade that goes to Minnesota. It’s not just about the city of Laredo trying to get things to their local HEB,” he said, referring to the Texas grocery store chain.

The association endorsed Mr. Abbott for re-election in February, and Mr. Esparza said he immediately contacted the governor’s office after the order to voice his concerns. “I haven’t had an answer, frankly,” he said.

Mexico is the state’s largest trading partner, with more than $100 billion in imports in 2019, according to a report from the Texas Department of Transportation. At one of the busiest crossings, in Laredo, 16,000 trucks typically pass through on any given day, Esparza said.

In the past, state police conducted security checks on a small fraction of commercial vehicles coming from Mexico, without dedicated checkpoints. The reinforcements at the border began after Abbott requested that all trucks entering from Mexico be searched at certain major crossings.

The blockade across the border at Pharr, which affected trucks going in and out of Mexico, brought truck traffic across the border to a complete standstill.

At other major crossings, trucks bound for Mexico have been able to get through, while those headed for the United States back up in a seemingly endless line, moving slowly or not at all. Private vehicle traffic has not been affected in most cases.

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, attacked Abbott during a news conference in Pharr on Tuesday, standing with affected business owners in a large and apparently empty cold storage facility.

“Greg Abbott is killing Texas businesses and the economy with this stunt,” Mr. O’Rourke said.

The calls for the governor to end the inspection policy did not come from Democrats alone. The state’s conservative agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, also urged Abbott to change course.

“You cannot solve a border crisis by creating another border crisis,” Miller said in a statement.

Arnoldo Curiel, general manager of Sunrise Produce in McAllen, said traffic jams at the border had caused customers to cancel orders and left him wondering how much longer he could afford to maintain a 150-person workforce. “We’re going to have to lay off the guys or we’re going to have a hard time keeping paying them,” he said.

Mr. Curiel said he had four trucks that should have crossed from Mexico on Friday or Saturday, but had not yet made it. “They’re stuck, they can’t cross at Pharr and they can’t go back to Mexico,” he said.

The Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge sees about 3,000 commercial crossings a day. That number has dropped to between 500 and 700 since inspections began, according to estimates by the National Chamber of Freight Transportation, widely known as CANACAR, which represents Mexican trucking companies.

Crossings into the United States are occasionally closed due to weather or clogged with traffic, industry experts said, but the extent of the current delays and the indefinite nature of Abbott’s order have frustrated businesses on both sides of the border. .

The protest in Mexico began Monday night, when more than 100 drivers began blocking access to the Pharr-Reynosa bridge in protest of the Texas governor’s inspection order, CANACAR delegate Edgar Zamorano said.

Mr. Zamorano said he had heard reports of drivers enduring up to 14 hours in a row, under the relentless sun and without access to restrooms or food, as a result of Texas inspections. Some reached the bridge before dawn and did not reach the US side until 9:30 p.m.

“It is a peaceful protest, to shine a light on the inhumane conditions drivers have been enduring,” Mr. Zamorano said.

Truckers coming from Mexico already undergo rigorous drug and trespassing checks by federal agents in the United States, screenings that can include X-rays and other screenings.

Since last week, Texas State Patrol officers have conducted more than 3,400 additional inspections and have placed more than 800 vehicles out of service for defective brakes, tires and lighting, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

When asked if any of the checks found illicit drugs or migrants crossing illegally, the department did not provide any information.

On Tuesday, idle trucks bound for Mexico filled a Stripes gas station in Pharr as drivers awaited instructions from their bosses.

Gilberto Cruz, 54, crossed the bridge last Wednesday unloading cilantro from Aguascalientes. By Monday morning, he should have returned to Mexico with his truck full of cotton. Instead, he found himself in impossibly long lines on the US side of the border due to protests over the blockade in Mexico.

“If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” Cruz said. She said some truckers were going to other Texas border cities, including Brownsville and Rio Grande City, “to see if they can get across.”

Another trucker from Mexico, Miguel Martinez, 53, said crossing elsewhere was not an option for him. “I would have to pay for the extra diesel and redo all the customs paperwork,” Martinez said. He said he earned about $150 each leg of the trip and paid his expenses out of pocket.

Martinez said he had no problem with the inspections, though he wished Texas police would be more respectful of the long wait times truckers have been forced to endure without food, water or bathrooms.

“I heard a truck driver had heat spasms,” he said. “I think CBP felt bad for us. They were handing out pizza and bottles of water.”

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