PHARR — With commercial traffic on the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge still at a halt for the second day in a row, Gov. Greg Abbott is facing bipartisan backlash for the inspection policy he initiated that sparked a protest by Mexican truckers frustrated by the dayslong crossing delays it has caused.
On Tuesday, Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate hoping to unseat Abbott as governor in November, paid a visit to a cold storage facility that sits less than a mile from what is normally the third busiest land port of entry in the country.
O’Rourke was in town to condemn Abbott’s inspection policy, which mandates that troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety conduct manual inspections of every single truck crossing into Texas, saying the traffic stoppages are costing hundreds of millions a day.
“We lose out on $216 million a day every day that these bridges are shut down — just here in Pharr and Reynosa,” O’Rourke said.
The process, which takes up to an hour per inspection, slowed international commerce to a crawl as soon as troopers began implementing it just past the Pharr bridge last Thursday. Crossing times went from three to four hours per load to three or more days.
“Greg Abbott is killing businesses and the Texas economy with this stunt that he’s pulling here right now,” O’Rourke said as he stood in a nearly empty refrigerated loading dock at the Keystone Cold facility on Hi Line Road.
“We are calling on Greg Abbott to end this policy today,” he added a moment later.
While O’Rourke characterized the inspection policy as a political stunt instigated by Abbott just as the race for governor heats up, the El Paso native wasn’t the only one calling on Abbott to put an end to the policy.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a staunch Republican who has garnered the endorsement of former President Donald Trump in his reelection bid, issued a statement Tuesday lambasting Abbott for the inspection policy.
“You cannot solve a border crisis by creating another crisis at the border. These Level 1 inspections serve as a ‘clog in the drain’ and divert commerce and jobs to more western ports of entry,” Miller said via a news statement.
“This is not solving the border problem, it is increasing the cost of food and adding to supply chain shortages,” Miller added, calling the DPS inspections a “misguided program.”
Federal officials weighed in, as well, with U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, writing Abbott a letter calling on him to end the inspection policy and saying it will do little to achieve its purported aim — stemming illegal immigration.
“Subjecting commercial traffic to an additional, unnecessary state inspection after a federal inspection at ports of entry in Texas is a waste of time and resources,” Gonzalez stated.
“I urge you to end this misguided protocol, reinstate normal commercial inspection procedures, and work with the federal government to develop humane and orderly processes for migrants arriving at our Southern border,” he further stated.
EFFECTS ON COMMERCE
Even before Mexican owner/operator truckers initiated their blockade Monday, the delays caused by the lengthy inspections were already having serious ramifications on the U.S. economy.
In a statement issued Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the delays have caused commercial traffic to drop by as much as 60% at border crossings statewide.
Local brokers said up to 3,000 trucks normally pass through the Pharr bridge per day. But DPS is only capable of handling around 100 inspections per day.
On Friday, DPS inspected 115 trucks. On Saturday, 83. On Sunday, 57.
And on Monday — the day the Mexican truckers launched their protest — DPS inspected just 47 trucks, according to Joe Arévalo, owner of the cold storage facility where O’Rourke made his appearance Tuesday.
The Pharr point of entry is the largest importer of produce in the country, bringing in tons of tomatoes, mangos and avocados grown in Mexico, among other products. As the third-busiest point of entry nationwide, the bridge also serves as an important gateway for beef and pork exports into Mexico, which is one of the largest consumers of those American commodities.
REDUNDANT AND ‘UNNECESSARY’
Echoing Gonzalez’s letter to the governor, CBP called Abbott’s inspection policy needless.
“The longer than average wait times – and the subsequent supply chain disruptions – are unrelated to CBP screening activities and are due to additional and unnecessary inspections being conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) at the order of the Governor of Texas,” the statement reads, in part.
As proof, the federal agency detailed the technologies and methods it uses to inspect the tens of thousands of cargo-laden trucks it inspects at ports of entry all along the Texas-Mexico border.
Those methods include pre-primary and primary inspection teams, agricultural specialists, the so-called “Automated Targeting System (ATS),” canine teams, and other nonintrusive equipment. CBP also partners with other federal agencies to interdict human and drug trafficking.
In one example, CBP pointed to a $13.6 million narcotics seizure — which included fentanyl, cocaine and heroin — by agents at the Pharr bridge on April 6. The seizure was made possible by the technologies currently employed at the bridge, CBP said.
And therein lies the rub for Leopoldo “Polo” Chow, who owns carrier companies in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Speaking alongside O’Rourke on Tuesday, Chow expressed his bewilderment with the purpose of the DPS inspections, which take place immediately after trailers have passed through the gauntlet of federal inspections.
“I quite can’t understand what’s going on,” said Chow, who also serves as an adviser to CANACAR, the National Chamber of Freight Transportation, a trucking industry group in Mexico.
“I don’t think we’ve caught any illegal aliens or they’ve seized any drugs in these past few days,” he added.
Officials for the city of Pharr issued a statement Tuesday saying that the bridge remains open for traffic, but that “traffic control measures” have been put in place due to the continued blockade on the Mexican side.
“Allowing any commercial vehicles to drive onto the southbound lanes of the Pharr International Bridge would create a gridlock and a safety hazard for drivers, since they currently do not have an outlet into Mexico,” the statement reads.
Ripples were already beginning to spread far from the Pharr bridge.
Long lines could be seen at the Free Trade International Bridge in Los Indios. In a video shared by the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office, dozens of tractor-trailers could be seen pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway leading to the Los Indios bridge.
And already, officials are hearing of trucking companies looking even further afield than Cameron County to cross their loads.
Both Chow and Arévalo said their industry colleagues are looking to Arizona and California as potential alternatives. Some are even looking into importing their products through seaports instead.
“I’ve also been told that we’re already seeing businesses move to Nogales, Arizona. That’s more than 1,200 miles away from where we are right now. It’s a 20-hour drive,” O’Rourke said.
“I think that makes the case that Greg Abbott is good — for Arizona. But he’s very bad for the state of Texas,” he said.
Abbott did not respond to a list of questions sent by The Monitor seeking comment on this issue.
Meanwhile, for Arévalo, the traffic stoppage is having devastating effects.
“We’re living through a nightmare. We’re already suffering through a very delicate supply chain from the pandemic and just trying to regrow the business,” Arévalo said.
“Why is this happening to us? What do we have to do with immigration and Title 42? … Truck safety is being used as a pawn or as a method to negotiate illegal immigration. Why? Why are we being held hostage?” he said.