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White House, truckers blast Texas as inspections snarl Mexico traffic

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered state officials to inspect each truck. Drivers with fruits and auto parts are now backed up for miles.

Trucks wait at the Zaragoza International Bridge, one of two ports of entry in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, going into the United States on April 12, 2022. (Omar Ornelas/El Paso Times/AP)
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Huge, multi-mile traffic jams at numerous U.S. border crossings in Mexico worsened Wednesday as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) largely kept in place his new restrictions that require secondary inspections of commercial trucks and other vehicles.

The new policy, announced last week, has led some truckers to remain snarled in traffic for more than 30 hours, prompting desperate pleas from fruit and vegetable importers, the auto industry and other executives who said their products are being caught up in a political standoff.

In an afternoon news conference, Abbott said he would relax inspections only on trucks entering Texas from Nuevo León, Mexico, because that region’s governor had agreed to tighter security measures. But he was keeping the restrictions up in other entry points until other governors would follow suit.

“Clogged bridges can end only through the type of collaboration that we are demonstrating today between Texas and Nuevo León,” Abbott said.

Businesses on both sides of the border were not mollified by the governor’s Wednesday announcement, and they said the economic consequences were piling up.

“Produce that was destined to United States consumers in some cases will have to be destroyed because of the perishability of our products,” said Robert Guenther, International Fresh Produce Association’s chief policy officer. “This will result in millions of lost economic production not only in Mexico but to the state of Texas and potentially other border states that are now experiencing similar delays.”

Dante Galeazzi, chief executive of the Texas International Produce Association, said that while the news of this agreement and at least a few bridges resuming normal operations will provide some relief, “it is still disappointing that we did not see more bridges included, and means millions of dollars’ of fresh produce will still be challenged to cross efficiently through Texas ports. We hope Governor Abbott and the governors of the other bordering Mexican states can reach an agreement quickly.”

The delays have raised concerns that a U.S. economy already experiencing inflation and supply shortages could face an entirely new set of problems, potentially driving up prices on certain products and making other items even more scarce.

White House officials blasted Abbott’s tactics, and multiple federal agencies were swept up in the fast-developing traffic jam.

“These actions are impacting people’s jobs and the livelihoods of hard-working families in Texas and across the country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “It’s not a political statement. That’s a statement of fact. I’d also note that what we’re seeing with these unnecessary inspections of trucks, transport, transiting ports of entry between Texas and Mexico are significant delays, which are resulting in a drop in commercial traffic of up to 60 to 70 percent in some ports.”

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The Mexican government had reached out to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security about the issue, and business executives on both sides of the border expressed exasperation at what they felt was a politically induced crisis with real economic implications.

“This isn’t a regional issue, or that the city of Laredo is not getting their produce at grocery stores,” said John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association. “We are seeing delays that will be felt across the country. There are a half a dozen divisions of trucking [affected]. There’s the refrigerated segment of trucking, there’s household goods, forestry, fuel tankers, commodities for trade goods — this is about General Motors, Ford and everything coming out of Mexico, our trade partner.”

Abbott announced the new policy last week, saying “enhanced safety inspections” of all commercial vehicles were necessary because federal officials were not stopping drugs and criminals from entering the United States.

He referenced the White House’s plan to lift the Title 42 border controls that the Trump administration put in place starting in March 2020. The Trump administration originally said that policy was meant as an emergency safeguard to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection inside detention cells, border stations and other crowded settings. It remained in effect during President Biden’s first year as president and allowed federal authorities to bypass normal immigration screening procedures and rapidly expel border crossers without affording them a chance to seek humanitarian protection under U.S. law.

When Biden administration officials began preparing to end that emergency measure, Abbott moved to implement his secondary inspections, alleging that the Biden administration had “open-border policies” that “paved the way for dangerous cartels and deadly drugs to pour into the United States.”

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The miles of trucks had a range of products in their trailers, with items sitting idly in refrigerated chambers as temperatures outside breached 100 degrees. These included strawberries, asparagus, avocados, tomatoes among other things. Shippers scrambled to reroute and grocers hustled to find products from elsewhere to avoid empty shelves in the run-up to the Easter and Passover holidays.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency issued its own statement, saying the commercial wait time at the Pharr port of entry had grown from 63 minutes to 320 minutes, with a 35 percent drop in traffic.

Abbott has been governor of Texas since 2015 and is running for reelection in November. He is a frequent critic of the Biden administration, often challenging the White House on a range of policies, including abortion, immigration and transgender rights.

The governor’s plan to have state officials scrutinize each truck meant that up to 80 percent of perishable fruits and vegetables have been unable to cross since Friday, said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

This caused losses of millions of dollars a day for employers and employees, who have been idled, he said, with customers unable to load product from their Texas suppliers. It also means transportation shortages are increasing as available trucks are stuck waiting in line to cross the border, all of which will continue to drive up the price of produce at U.S. grocery stores.

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“These trucks are already inspected by Customs and Border Protection — scanned and X-rayed and drug-dog-sniffed,” Jungmeyer said. “These new inspections are redundant. At numerous ports of entry — Laredo, Pharr, Eagle Pass and others — Mexican drivers are starting to protest.”

The line for trucks to cross at the Pharr bridge has been reported at up to seven or eight miles long, said Rod Sbragia, vice chair of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and director of sales and marketing for Tricar Sales, a grower and shipper of Mexican produce. He said between 2,000 and 3,000 trucks stand nose to tail waiting for entry. Refrigerated trucks, he said, have about six or seven days of fuel to run their refrigeration units. After that, spoilage is certain.

Sbragia said many workers in Texas are not being paid right now because there is no product to work with and no trucks to load and unload.

“We have about $200,000 to $300,000 of produce waiting in line right now,” he said. “And we’re just one shipper. There are hundreds like me. Millions of dollars’ worth of product sitting on trucks that may end up being spoiled.”

The situation is fluid, said Laura Garza, a logistics specialist for K&K International Logistics, customs brokers in charge of traffic operations for Texas. But for now, she said, Mexican truckers have, in protest, blocked traffic going northbound or southbound on the Pharr bridge, the No. 1 bridge for imports of produce in the United States, leading to and from Reynosa, Mexico. Traffic also is not moving in the northbound direction of the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios, an international border crossing located eight miles south of the Texas towns of Harlingen and San Benito.

Mexican authorities, however, said they persuaded truckers to end blockades they had set up in protest at two other crossing points — at Puerto Jeronimo, across from Santa Teresa, N.M., and the Zaragoza bridge that links Ciudad Juarez and El Paso.

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“The transport companies are saying, ‘If this lasts 30 days, we can last 30 days in protest, as well.’ You’re going to lose contracts and crops. Why affect trade this way? It doesn’t make any sense. Border communities depend on trade,” Garza said.

Beto O’Rourke, who is running against Abbott for governor of Texas, said in a video tweet Monday showing a long line of trucks in Laredo, “What you see behind me is inflation,” describing what he called the “true cost to Texans and all Americans” of “Greg Abbott’s political stunt along the border.”

Matt Mandel is the vice president of finance for his family’s company, which grows and ships Mexican fruits and vegetables. He heard about the new inspections Friday. Heading out of town, he hoped it would blow over by the end of the weekend.

“But the issues have gotten worse, and the consequences have compounded,” Mandel said. “And I don’t see an easy solution to alleviate the logjam we find ourselves in.”

His company sells 60 percent of its produce in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere in the Northeast. The rest goes to Canada. He had three trucks that were supposed to go out Friday, he said, and it is unclear when they might reach their final destination.

“We won’t know if we have losses until this product makes it all the way through the supply chain. When I have my name on an eggplant and it ends up looking and tasting like crap, that’s what people remember,” he said. “Ultimately, there will be spoilage and higher costs for everyone involved. It’s literally just partisan politics.”

Mexico’s government and private sector have reacted angrily to the slowdown, saying it was causing huge economic losses and “inhumane conditions” for truck drivers caught up in the logjam.

About 3,000 trucks pass through the Pharr crossing point on a typical day, but since Texas began its intensified inspections, that’s dropped to between 500 and 700 trucks, according to Mexico’s National Chamber of Cargo Transportation. It said the losses were mainly affecting the manufacturing industry, the auto sector, technology products and perishable goods.

The chamber noted that Mexican trucks crossing the border already underwent inspections on the Mexican side.

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said the four border-crossing points in Texas that were subject to the enhanced inspections normally handled a third of commerce between the two countries.

“As an inevitable consequence of this measure, businesses in Mexico and the United States are losing competitiveness and a considerable amount of money,” it said in a statement.

It pointed out that Mexico was the top export market for Texas, with bilateral trade of about $442 billion dollars in 2021.

The Mexican government has reached out to the State Department, DHS and the Texas governor’s office to try to resolve the issue.