Think border protection, and images of the "men in green" -- patrol agents who work in remote areas chasing drug runners and illegal immigrants through rough terrain -- likely come to mind.
That's what Washington thinks of too. Over the past seven years, the federal government has placed a growing emphasis on the duties of Border Patrol, largely due to the Sept. 11 attacks and heightened fervor over illegal immigration.
But state and local officials, as well as trade advocates, are urging federal leaders to rethink their approach to border protection and devote more resources to the "men in blue" who often have a lower profile. They're the customs agents who work at the ports of entry where nearly 1 million people enter the U.S. every day. The agents keep an eye out for contraband that people may be attempting to smuggle through the country's front door, and for immigrants who may be using forged documents to sneak in.
While the work of Border Patrol agents is certainly more exciting (think ATVs speeding through the desert as helicopters fly overhead), agents who work at the country's land ports of entry are integral to facilitating the flow of people and goods to the country.
"It's sexy to be that crime-figher," says Nelson Balido, head of the non-profit Border Trade Alliance, of the emphasis on Border Patrol. But now, he says, "it's time for the blue guys."
Balido, whose group represents government and private-sector leaders who advocate for improved trade policies, says Washington has misplaced its priorities.
According to Government Accountability Office figures, in 2004, the feds had 17,600 customs agents assigned at ports, compared to 10,500 border patrol officers working the land in between. By last year, that gap had almost entirely narrowed, with nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents compared to 20,600 agents at ports.
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As Governing reported earlier this year, border states and localities are frustrated that understaffing at ports has caused a slowdown in legal traffic from Mexico to U.S. That means fewer Mexican visitors spending money in American communities -- a huge part of some border cities' economies -- and more expensive shipping costs, which get passed on to consumers across the country.
This week, local officials testified before a House homeland security subcommittee on the issue. Senators are expected to soon take up the issue as well.
"To achieve our economic security, we need well-built, equipped and staffed ports of entry that can both facilitate legitimate trade and travel and interdict lawbreakers," McAllen, Tex. Mayor Richard Cortez said in written testimony before the subcommittee. McAllen operates two international bridges.
Increasing the number of agents at ports of entry would be a quick and easy way to increase trade and boost the economy, local officials say.
So far, the pendulum continues to swing in Border Patrol's favor. A 2010 spending supplement added 1,000 new Border Patrol agents but just 250 new customs agents at ports. In 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spent nearly $1 billion more on security in between ports than at them, according to a report from the General Accounting Office. The president's proposed 2012 budget funds 670 new Border Patrol agents but just 300 new CBP positions at ports.
"(I)f there are additional resources to be allocated, this year or next year, they should go to the ports of entry as a first priority," Cortez said.
Critics of the status quo say that, beyond the economic argument, it makes sense to bolster the ranks of customs officials from a security standpoint. A recent Justice Department report that found 90 percent of illegal drugs entering the U.S. come through ports of entry, not the open border.
"[W]eaknesses in POE [port of entry] traveler inspection procedures and infrastructure increased the potential that dangerous people and illegal goods could enter the country, and that currency and firearms could leave the country," the GAO wrote.
Balido's organization and many local officials on the border are endorsing a plan to increase the number of CBP officers at ports of entry by 5,000 over a five-year period.
The stakes are high, since a lack of inspectors could stymie shipping and make it difficult for the country to achieve President Obama's goal of doubling U.S. exports.
And the problems will be even more pronounced for border communities. A study in the San Diego area, for example, found that long wait times at the border caused U.S.-bound travelers to skip as many as 8.4 million trips annually to the region, resulting in a loss of $1.28 billion to local economy.
In Imperial County, Calif., border wait times average about an hour; they can reach up to 2.5 hours, says Bob Ham, the county's director of intergovernmental affairs."It's just killing our ability to keep our customers," Ham tells Governing.
And the problem is more than just a lack of personnel. Port facilities are aging -- they're on average 42-years-old -- and are in need of upgrades.
Funding to modernize the crossing in Calexico, Calif. was originally included in the president's 2011 budget but was scrapped by House Republicans, so for now, the improvements are on hiatus, Ham says.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement in border communities have started performing duties that might be considered CBP's turf. The federal government began performing the southbound inspections about a year ago, designed to limit the flow of cash and guns that flows from the U.S. to drug cartels in Mexico. Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, testified that local police officers in Pharr, Tex. have started performing those types of duties.
The logic is that anything that can help prevent crime in Mexico will benefit border communities in the U.S. (They'll also benefit financially by being allowed to keep a portion of the proceeds from the seizures.)
Meanwhile, a Texas House committee is considering a proposal that would give the Department of Public Safety permission to assist the federal government with those southbound inspections.
But Balido says southbound inspections aren't a sustainable solution for addressing the Mexican drug trade and violence affecting to U.S. communities. Instead, he and others, including Cortez, have advocated for grater emphasis and resources for intelligence-gathering as a way to combat the problem.
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