By Aaron Bracamontes
A bill that would allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection to partner with local governments, organizations and businesses to shorten waits at international crossings was introduced Wednesday in the House of Representatives.
The bill would allow the CBP to supplement local annual budgets through partnerships in order to hire more officers or upgrade crossings so that people and cargo could move more swiftly between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke and Pete Gallego, both Democrats who represent the El Paso area, co-sponsored the bill, which local leaders said would be good for international trade in El Paso and elsewhere along the border.
The bill, called Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013, Ports of entry improvement is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; O'Rourke, of El Paso; Gallego, of Alpine; U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin; U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; and U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.
O'Rourke said the bill makes sense at this time because of mandatory federal budget cuts that will affect the CBP.
"In a time of cuts, this actually is an ideal piece of legislation," O'Rourke said. "It can provide services for CBP that they are missing. It also introduces an element of local control on the bridges."
Gallego said in a news release that the bill would help his district, which stretches 800 miles along the Texas-Mexico border.
"I'm happy to support avenues that modernize our ports, Advertisement improve security, and facilitate trade and commerce," Gallego said in the release. "Better infrastructure allows trade and commerce to move more efficiently -- helping small businesses and local economies flourish."
The bill does not say how much money would be involved in any given partnership, and each project would have its own budget. The money from the partnerships would stay local.
The money the CBP gets would supplement the port of entry's set budget, said Rebecca Acuna, spokeswoman for Gallego.
"CBP could work with a private organization to add another lane at a bridge, if it wants to," Acuna said. "It is meant to supplement improvements that would not have otherwise been made."
O'Rourke said that the money could be used to add more CBP officers at the bridge or pay for overtime work.
"What we need are more officers manning the lanes at the ports of entry," O'Rourke said. "It is frustrating to wait for hours in a line and get to the front and see only two or three officers manning the booths."
Locally, CBP could partner with the city of El Paso, El Paso County, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce or any private group or business, O'Rourke said.
"I think El Paso has been a leading voice on cross-border issues," O'Rourke said. "This is a chance for El Paso to lead they way."
The El Paso City Council has previously considered a partnership with the CBP, said O'Rourke, who was a city representative.
"The city of El Paso has already raised its tolls on the bridges they already own," he said. "There is already a revenue stream that can go towards a partnership with CBP that can result in more officers."
El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez said that if the bill passes, a partnership with the CBP should be considered.
"I fully support the idea because it decreases wait times at bridges," Perez said. "At the federal level, at least when I was there, you would always see an increase in Border Patrol agents, but when it comes to CBP, you don't see that increase."
A partnership could help the coming Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry, said Perez, who was a spokesman for former U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes.
"It's something that has a huge impact for El Paso County," Perez said. "This is certainly a positive step for public and private partnerships to come up with innovative ways to pay for CBP resources."
The bill also has major implications for area businesses. About $80 billion in trade currently flows through the El Paso ports of entry, O'Rourke said.
Richard Dayoub, president and CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said he could only speculate on the impact of the bill. He said he believes it is a step in the right direction to reduce wait times and increase business production.
"It is not a silver bullet, but it has the possibility to be one of the most significant advancements with cross-border commerce," Dayoub said.
Stephanie Caviness-Tantimonaco, president of the Foreign Trade Association in El Paso, was a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Committee on Border Infrastructure Task Force that put together the parameters and legal framework for the development of a partnership project. The committee's recommendations were submitted to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in November.
Caviness-Tantimonaco said El Paso is in a position to get a head start on other border communities when it comes to partnerships.
"With some of the projects we have in the wings, we are one of the best communities to take advantage of the public-private partnerships," Caviness-Tantimonaco said. She said the city would benefit because it will result in shorter waits, companies would benefit because they would make a profit, and federal government would benefit because it would have more money for budgets.
One idea for a partnership would be an international freight shuttle system, which would allow cargo to cross the border on unmanned transport vehicles, Dayoub said.
The cargo would travel between secure inspection stations that would comply with both U.S. and Mexican government requirements.
The freight shuttle would allow more cargo to travel across the border and reduce the number of tractor-trailer trucks that sit on international bridges every day, Dayoub said.
"We think the possibilities are endless," Dayoub said. "We're going to do our best to advocate for it to pass and hopefully get it approved."
O'Rourke said he believes the bill has a good chance of passing because of the support it has from both Democrats and Republicans.
The bill's co-sponsors include four Democrats and two Republicans. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced the same bill in the Senate.
"I feel really good about this because it has people on both sides," O'Rourke said. "You have Sen. Cornyn, who is one of the most conservative senators, sponsoring the Senate bill. This bill has a very good chance."
The bill still has to go through House committees, then pass both the House and Senate and be signed by President Barack Obama.