The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee chose the fitting location of Tucson, Arizona, to convene a field hearing on trade facilitation in the border region on December 9. Dotted with cacti, this college town lies at the heart of the desert landscape that belonged to Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. Today, Mexico is Arizona’s largest trading partner, yet perceptions of the border often identify it as a security threat rather than as an economic opportunity.
Last week’s hearing marked a refreshing effort to rebalance policymakers’ attention. In his opening statement, Chairman Matt Salmon (AZ-R) defined the objective: “to get at what we need to do in the public and private sectors to improve border infrastructure and better facilitate trade without letting down our guard on security efforts.” Recognizing that the two economies are deeply intertwined, he pointed to “the good news”—that the commercial relationship continues to grow—and “the bad news”—that ports of entry face significant challenges in keeping up with this growth.
Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Ranking Member Albio Sires (NJ-D) alluded to the solutions needed to resolve tensions between border security and trade facilitation, while Representative Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-D) criticized “long and unpredictable wait times” at the border. Representative Ron Barber (AZ-D) unequivocally stated that “we must expedite the legal flow of traffic,” and Representative David Schweikert (AZ-R) cited the “amazing opportunity” represented by the potential for lower energy costs bolstering a manufacturing renaissance on both sides of the border.
On both sides of the aisle, the consensus was that the security-versus-trade debate has been overly skewed towards the former. For the government witness, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Alan Bersin, the conventional wisdom that the two are mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy. He believes that commerce and public safety can reinforce each other if coupled with smarter technologies that allow the processing of goods and travelers with maximum efficiency while focusing energies on people and shipments that potentially pose a threat. Innovative examples include trusted partner programs, such as SENTRI and Global Entry for travelers and C-TPAT for commerce.
Nevertheless, congressional momentum to invest in greater border security overlooks the need for increased investment in trade facilitation. Supported by many in Washington in the context of immigration reform, a “border surge” would focus on the remote areas of the border, not the commercial entry points essential to multinational trade. Yet in an era of limited federal funding and zero net migration, such an investment is misdirected. As the field hearing’s witnesses agreed, resources are needed at overburdened ports of entry, where more than a billion dollars in goods and services cross between the U.S. and Mexico every day.
A second choice emerged during the testimony—staffing versus physical infrastructure. Most witnesses suggested that increased funding for personnel is a greater priority, though both investments are vital. As Americas Society/Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth noted, needs vary along the diverse 2,000-mile border, and local communities must play a role in decision making.
Regarding staffing, witnesses observed that inadequate availability of port officers can result in significant bottlenecks. Although staffing for the U.S. Border Patrol has grown in recent years, the number of Customs and Border Protection officers has remained largely unchanged (again, security prioritized over commerce). Given budget constraints, public-private and local-federal partnerships are a much-discussed financing option made possible by legislation in an appropriations deal in March 2013. Subsequently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has negotiated several pilot partnerships to fund additional staffing during busy times. The city of El Paso, for example, is underwriting overtime for CBP officers.
As the hearing made clear, much work needs to be done. For proponents of the bilateral relationship, however, the assumption that the border represents economic opportunity, not merely drugs and thugs, is a victory in itself. It’s easier to discuss how to improve border management if the why is already understood.