Delays at U.S.-Mexico border crossings cost the U.S. economy $7.8 billion in 2011, as improvements have lagged behind traffic growth and the political focus has been on securing the rest of the border.
The toll could balloon to $14.7 billion annually if the value of U.S.-Mexico truck trade reaches $463 billion by 2020 as predicted, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
As the U.S. Senate debates an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, the focus on fencing and securing remote stretches of the southern border has overshadowed long-needed improvements in technology, infrastructure and staffing at the land ports, said Matthew Hummer, a senior transportation analyst for Bloomberg Government.
“I think the most important issue here is stabilizing the two economies, and the ports of entry do that: They facilitate trade and create job opportunities,” said Hummer, the author of a Bloomberg Government report on the border. “If Mexicans have jobs in Mexico they are less likely to come to the U.S.”
Net Mexican migration dropped to zero from 2005 to 2010, amid strengthening economic conditions in Mexico, heightened border enforcement and other factors, according to a Pew Research Center study last year. The Mexican economy has grown at about twice the pace of the U.S. since the end of 2009.
U.S. investment has remained focused on controlling the rest of the border between the crossings, including remote areas such as the Arizona desert. In the past decade, the number of Border Patrol agents more than doubled while the number of Customs and Border Protection officers, who staff the ports of entry, has remained at about the same level, according to a report by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and partner institutions.
Congressional funding for the areas between the ports has eclipsed that for the authorized entry points since 2007, even though the crossings have faced enhanced security requirements, increasing trade and evidence that drugs and dangerous individuals are more likely to cross there, according to the Mexico Institute report.
That focus continues in the current immigration debate in the Senate. The plan crafted by the so-called Gang of Eight bipartisan senators, which is being considered by the Judiciary Committee today, aims to secure Republican support by tying immigrants’ path to citizenship to the ability of the U.S. Border Patrol to stop 90 percent of illegal traffic across the southern border between the official ports of entry. There is no similar metric for the efficiency or security of the land ports.
“The way the border is currently run is costing the U.S. a lot in terms of jobs and the economy,” said Christopher Wilson, an associate with the Mexico Institute and co-author of his group’s report on border trade. “In the context of the current immigration debate, we are very focused on what is going on between the ports of entry while this major issue, which is about security but also about jobs and the economy, is getting a lot less attention.”
Focusing politically on the rest of the border is easier than facing the challenges of running effective ports of entry, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group critical of increased immigration. While the land ports probably do need more investment in infrastructure, there also should be much more stringent security, including entry and exit checks to catch those who overstay legal visits, he said.
“It seems to some extent we put too much emphasis on the ease of movement across the border,” Camarota said. “The border is not simply an obstacle to be overcome by businesses and travelers. It is the part where our country begins, and it is vitally important for security and immigration control.”
Modernizing land ports of entry, which average more than 40 years old and were built before the increased security requirements implemented after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would cost $6 billion according to a 2011 Customs and Border Protection report. About half of that cost would be for the southern border, according to the Bloomberg Government analysis.
The Senate bill includes funding for 3,500 additional Customs officers and earmarks $6.5 billion for border security. With the bill’s metrics tied to security elsewhere on the border, though, that’s where most of the money will probably go, Hummer said.
“Achieving the security metrics in the Gang of Eight bill will likely divert funds away from land ports of entry,” Hummer said.
More than 5.1 million trucks crossed the border at the six largest commercial ports of entry in 2012, up from about 2.9 million in 1995 and expected to swell to more than 7.3 million by 2020, according to the Bloomberg Government analysis. Over the last decade, the inflation-adjusted value of goods transported by truck through the southern border grew from $205 billion to $322 billion, Hummer said.
The average wait for commercial vehicles at the southern border is just over an hour and much longer at peak times of day, Hummer said. His analysis included additional costs of fuel and driver wages as well as lost business opportunities.
Five industries that account for 66 percent of trade value between the countries -- electrical machinery, computer devices, vehicles, plastics and precision health instruments --shouldered most of the costs of the border delays.
The delays could increase the costs of consumer electronics and complicate supply chains for automakers, including Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Audi, which have announced increased production in Mexico, according to the report. Automakers often ship parts across the southern border several times during manufacturing, causing costs to add up.
The value of the economic ties between the U.S. and Mexico has been lost in the immigration debate amid calls by some members of Congress to fence the entire length of the nearly 2,000-mile border, said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration group based in Washington. The council’s Immigration Policy Center published a paper last week on the importance of trade between the countries called “Lost in the Shadow of the Fence.”
“We talk about fences, we talk about all kinds of security measures and almost never is there a discussion of how do you improve the incredibly valuable crossings in terms of trade and people that happen at the border,” Johnson said.