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Wait times at U.S.-Mexico border soar as officers are reassigned to deal with migrants

The McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge in McAllen, Tex., on April 4. Wait times at U.S. points of entry on the border with Mexico have increased dramatically in recent days. (Ray Whitehouse for The Washington Post)

Wait times at the ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border have soared as the Trump administration diverts officers to handle an influx of immigrants, leaving trucks backed up for hours and industry leaders warning of possible produce shortages and supply-chain interruptions.

The clogged checkpoints are frustrating bankers, business leaders, local residents and even Mexico’s foreign minister, who called the reassignment of hundreds of border officers to other parts of the nearly 2,000-mile boundary a “very bad idea.” The shift in enforcement efforts is overwhelming legal checkpoints and impeding the free flow of goods and services, in some cases increasing wait times about fivefold.

Executives described the scene at the southern boundary as a slow-motion facsimile of the border closure that President Trump threatened two weeks ago before backing down amid protests that shutting down the border would hurt the economy. Trump said he would consider closing the border as a punitive measure if Mexico doesn’t take steps to reduce the flow of migrants to the United States within the next year.

‘If you close the border, Eagle Pass will die.’

Those now suffering the most because of backlogs at understaffed ports of entry are automakers, technology companies and farmers, who say that the slowdown is affecting the $1.7 billion-a-day in goods that crosses the border between the United States and Mexico. Delays at ports in Texas have at times exceeded 10 hours in recent days.

“This is a big, big cost and problem for companies, on top of everything else they’re dealing with,” said Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council. “It’s just more uncertainty and more pain.”

On Monday, cargo trucks waited up to two hours to cross the bridge from Mexico into Brownsville, Tex., a city that had no delays at this time last year. On El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas, cars and SUVs idled for 160 minutes, up from 45 minutes a year ago. Southern California’s Otay Mesa cargo processing section took 270 minutes to push trucks through its crossing this week, up from 50 minutes last year.

The lengthy delays are rippling through supply chains, resulting in higher costs and production disruptions. Because the wait times have grown so large, some companies are adding a second driver to their trucks because of government regulations limiting the number of hours a driver can work without resting.

The streets around the Otay Mesa commercial crossing into San Diego were filled with bored and frustrated truckers.

Juan Macareno, a truck driver from Ensenada, Mexico, said he has waited as long as six to eight hours to clear the border checkpoints during the past two weeks, up from the usual two hours. On Wednesday, he chatted on the phone and scrolled through his WhatsApp messages as traffic inched along.

“Just waiting,” he said, after driving a produce-filled truck into California. “You have nothing to do.”

Drivers say they are taking fewer routes, and others have been forced to stay overnight at some checkpoints because there aren’t enough officers to process the long lines of trucks.

Homeland Security officials say they are not intentionally slowing down processing times, but they acknowledge the frustrations the long lines have produced are helping them convey the severity of the border crisis.

With 545 Customs and Border Protection officers reassigned to help the Border Patrol, a negative impact on travel times and cargo inspections is inevitable, one DHS official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer candid views.

“Our intention is not to slow down commerce, it’s to provide some relief to what’s going on at the border,” the official said.

Border Patrol officials have repeatedly warned that immigration holding cells are jammed beyond capacity, with 10,000 to 13,000 in custody, creating dangerous and unsanitary conditions for migrants and officers. Authorities have said they are overwhelmed at the border and need more detention beds, officers and judicial support to process the rush of migrants.

Some executives worry that if short staffing at the border checkpoints causes delays to continue, Mexico could retaliate by slowing southbound traffic. In a rare rebuke of U.S. immigration policy Wednesday, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted that the border slowdown is “creating costs . . . for both Mexico and the United States.”

High-level officials and business leaders are expected to discuss the delays Thursday and Friday at the U.S.-Mexico CEO Dialogue in Merida, a meeting held twice a year.

The slowdowns at the border have come as the Department of Homeland Security has faced political upheaval amid a record surge of migrants that included apprehensions topping 100,000 last month. The crossings have infuriated the president, leading to the ouster of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who officially resigned effective Wednesday, days after Trump rescinded the nomination of her top immigration enforcement deputy, Ronald Vitiello. He announced his resignation Wednesday. The next acting commissioner of CBP will be John Sanders, the agency’s chief operating officer, a DHS official said Wednesday.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who ran the agency that apprehends migrants at the border and screens cars and trucks passing through legal checkpoints, took over as acting DHS secretary on Wednesday. McAleenan takes over as the Trump administration seeks a solution for what it considers an illegal migration crisis but also as officers struggle to maintain order over legal trade at the border.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen leaving Trump administration amid surge of migrants

In an informal survey by the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, 42 percent of its members reported suffering delays in their shipments from Mexico to the United States. Of those companies, two-thirds said the delays reached seven to 12 hours, according to Julie Fream, the group’s president.

The association’s members, which include companies such as Johnson Controls, Eaton and Tenneco, produce original equipment for automobiles.

Automakers are perhaps the most vulnerable to a prolonged border slowdown. The industry sends half-finished cars back and forth across the southern border multiple times and relies on Mexican factories to produce critical parts, such as the wire harnesses that organize a vehicle’s electrical cables. Continued disruption of shipping could soon interrupt production at American factories.

“That’s the concern,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We’re getting closer to that point.”

In Eagle Pass, Tex. residents and local authorities say they need more resources to help law enforcement deal with the rising number of migrants crossing over. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Companies already are preparing to reroute cargo. Just one more day of backlogs would be enough for one-third of those responding to the survey to switch cargoes from trucks to airfreight, Fream said.

“All of those asked said they would seek alternatives if the delays continue for a week,” Fream said. “These alternatives are very costly.”

The Port of Nogales, Ariz., a chronically understaffed major crossing point for fresh fruit and vegetables, was slated to receive an extra 75 border agents. But those agents have been redeployed to cope with the migrant surge, according to Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

“This is the new normal until they solve the problem at the border,” he said Wednesday.

Though delays in Nogales are not as severe as in Texas, they come after years of improvement in processing time. When Jungmeyer started working in Nogales in 2010, customs waits sometimes stretched to seven hours. Before the current staffing crunch, typical truck processing times were one hour or less, he said.

In an April 4 conference call, CBP officials told shippers they should expect delays to persist “for the foreseeable future.”

If the migration surge continues for 30 more days — as it is predicted to do — the agency plans to strip some agents from airport posts to further reinforce the border deployment, Jungmeyer said he was told. Beyond that, agents will be taken from the northern ports of entry with Canada and shifted to the border.

Jungmeyer said shifting resources away from the ports comes with costs that go beyond shipping delays: “We’re only making our ports of entry less secure. We’re encouraging bad players to take advantage of the ports of entry. We need to get customs officers back on line at the ports.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.) on Wednesday urged an effort to reduce the wait times at the border, calling on the Trump administration to “listen to the countless industries that rely on cross-border trade.”

The Texas International Produce Association asked McAleenan to dispatch officers and agents from the northern U.S. border and seaports to reduce delays. Their members report that wait times to cross the border have risen from 30 minutes to four-and-a-half hours.

“We haven’t seen issues like this in probably six years,” said Dante Galeazzi, CEO and president of the association, adding that the group is warning supermarkets and restaurants to expect delays and possibly shortages of avocados, mangoes, limes and other goods. “Obviously we think it’s a bad thing.”

Popescu reported from San Diego.