Updating Ports of Entry Will Help Preserve Our Vital Trade with Mexico

“The immigration legislation making its way through Congress addresses legalization, border security, a transition to a more skills-based legal-immigration system and the national adoption of E-Verify. There is a growing bipartisan and bicameral consensus, however, about another key aspect of the emerging legislation as it relates to the border region, which deserves equal attention, if not more – the need to invest in, and modernize, our ports of entry with Mexico.”

By Kristian Ramos, Arizona Daily Star, June 7, 2013

Modernizing our ports of entry is now an urgent national economic priority, and one of particular importance to Southern Arizona.

Despite a recession and slow growth on the U.S. side of the border and security challenges on the Mexican side, the trade relationship between our two countries has exploded in recent years. According to a recently released study (co-authored by Arizonan Erik Lee), trade between the U.S. and Mexico has increased from $300 billion in 2009 to a staggering $536 billion last year. Mexico is now the U.S.’ third-largest trading partner and second-largest export market. Six million jobs in the U.S. are now dependent on U.S.-Mexico trade. All of these numbers, of course, will increase as trade flows continue to grow in the years ahead.

The immigration legislation making its way through Congress addresses legalization, border security, a transition to a more skills-based legal-immigration system and the national adoption of E-Verify. There is a growing bipartisan and bicameral consensus, however, about another key aspect of the emerging legislation as it relates to the border region, which deserves equal attention, if not more – the need to invest in, and modernize, our ports of entry with Mexico.

With the addition of a much tougher border-security regime in recent years, this doubling of our trade with Mexico – trade that is creating jobs on both sides of the border – in such a short period of time is putting strain on all 42 ports of entry that 70 percent of this trade flows through. According to a new study, delays at U.S.-Mexico border crossings costs the U.S. $7.8 billion annually, and could cost us more than $20 billion a year by 2020.

With the help of Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, the Senate border and immigration bill intelligently addresses the new realities of a much more robust U.S.-Mexico trade relationship in two significant ways:

• More customs agents. The current Senate legislation would increase the number of customs agents at our ports of entry by 3,500, from 21,000 today to 24,500. These additional agents will go a long way to helping ensure that our ports can expeditiously process not just current trade flows, but much higher flows in the years ahead.

• Investment in port facilities. The current Senate legislation establishes a new grant program “to construct transportation and support infrastructure improvements at existing and new international border crossings necessary to facilitate safe, secure and efficient cross-border movement of people, motor vehicles, and cargo.” This provision is a powerful endorsement of the need to invest far more in our valuable port infrastructure to meet current shortfalls and future needs.

In the House, the recently passed Border Security Results Act of 2013 contains provisions that are designed to “both enhance security and facilitate trade.” The recently introduced Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013 offers enhanced staffing at the ports and infrastructure improvements via alternative financing mechanisms such as public-private partnerships. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Few states would benefit more from these investments than Arizona, and particularly my hometown of Tucson. At a recent forum in Washington, D.C., Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said: “Our relationship with Mexico is a symbiotic relationship with the potential to yield vast dividends, both financially and culturally. Trade with Mexico generates jobs for Tucson in exports, logistics, supply-chain management, tourism, scientific, technical and professional expertise – but in order for Tucson to be a hub for international trade, we need the right infrastructure at the border.”

The stakes for Arizona in this debate are high. Mexico is Arizona’s top foreign-export market, and fully $13 billion a year of trade flows between Arizona and Mexico each year. In Pima County fully 5 percent of all taxable sales revenue comes from visitors from Mexico. So cutting border wait times that discourage trade and tourism from Mexico is clearly one of the most important economic development priorities for those in Tucson and the rest of Arizona.

The border and immigration legislation emerging from Congress will do a great deal to improve the economy of Southern Arizona in the years ahead. Smart and strategic investments in our ports of entry will allow increased movement of people and goods across our border with Mexico, helping create jobs and strengthening local businesses. The new immigration and border bill, if passed by Congress, could give a real and significant boost to the region’s economy and help ensure the years ahead are prosperous ones.

Kristian Ramos is the policy director of the Washington-based New Policy Institute’s 21st Border Initiative. He grew up in Tucson, graduating from Sabino High School.

Read article in the Arizona Daily Star

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