NOGALES, Ariz. - The expanded port of entry under construction here could slash waits to cross the border and jump-start Arizona's sagging economy.
But there might not be enough officers when it opens to staff all the new inspection lanes.
Congress allocated $184 million to double the size of the Mariposa Port of Entry in western Nogales through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus package. But it didn't set aside money to hire the 150 additional officers needed to fully staff the port when it's completed in three years, said Nogales Port Director Guadalupe Ramirez.
Already, time-consuming searches and seizures at the three busy Nogales ports mean there aren't enough inspectors to keep all the lanes open - resulting in waits of up to four hours to cross the border on holiday weekends or during the winter produce season.
Without more officers, the four-year upgrade of the port could be a waste.
"There's no advantage to a pretty, shiny station when you don't have the people to man it," said Nelson Balido, president of the Phoenix-based Border Trade Alliance.
Members of Arizona's congressional delegation say they are committed to lobbying for the necessary officers. And Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said in a recent interview that he expects there will be enough officers when the reconstruction is complete.
But if that's going to happen, the congressional allocations must come soon. It usually takes about 1 1/2 years to recruit, hire and train a port officer, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Victor Brabble.
Business leaders in Southern Arizona worry that Congress won't make it happen, especially in tight budget times, said Allison Moore, spokeswoman for the Rio Rico-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.
That could be bad for Southern Arizona's already bruised economy. For the produce industry, long waits at the border prevent companies from accurately predicting when fruits and vegetables can be delivered to clients.
For travelers, long waits are yet another deterrent to traveling to and from the United States and Mexico. Fears of drug violence, the novel H1N1 virus of 2009 and the recession have already crippled Mexican tourism in recent years.
"The more difficult we make it for people, the less likely they are to come," said Marc Rosenblum, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.
The $600 million border security supplemental bill President Obama signed into law last August allocated $176 million for 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents.
It provided $68 million to add 250 additional CBP port officers and maintain 270 officers at Southwest border ports of entry.
That disparity is nothing new. For at least six years U.S. Customs and Border Protection - a Department of Homeland Security agency - has given the largest chunk of its resources to the Border Patrol while leaving far less for port officers.
• The number of Border Patrol agents patrolling the Southwest border reached 17,500 in fiscal 2010 - a 77 percent increase from fiscal 2005. In the Tucson Sector, the 2010 total was 3,300 - a 56 percent increase from 2005.
• The number of CBP port officers in the four U.S.-Mexico border states was 6,540 in 2010 - a 14 percent increase from 2005. The number of officers in Arizona increased to 975 in 2010 - an 8 percent increase from 2005. These totals include officers assigned to airports and seaports as well as border ports.
The trend took hold after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation's attention turned to securing its borders. The wide expanses between the ports along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border became the focus of those efforts due to the high volume of people and drug smuggling between the ports of entry.
For politicians, the best way to show constituents they're tough on illegal immigration has been to fund the Border Patrol, said Rosenblum, of the Migration Policy Institute. Dramatic images of green-clad Border Patrol agents apprehending large groups of illegal border crossers hit home with the American public more than blue-clad port officers inspecting lines of cars - about 95 percent of them filled with legal travelers, Rosenblum said.
The buildup of agents, in concert with construction of hundreds of miles of fences and technology-based surveillance, has helped the Border Patrol tighten the border, agency officials said. They point to a six-year decline in apprehensions along the Southwest border as evidence.
But the return on adding more agents is diminishing, Rosenblum said. "The ports ought to be a pretty high priority now," he said.
The imbalance in funding between the Border Patrol and CBP port officers is a miscalculation by Congress about the vital role ports play in border security, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. In a letter last summer to Obama he called Southwest border ports the "weakest link in border security."
"If we are going to have comprehensive border security, then Customs and Border Protection at the ports of entry has to have equal resources to do their jobs," Grijalva said in a recent interview.
The tide may be turning. The president's 2012 budget request calls for 300 new CBP port officers and no new Border Patrol agents. But those 300 new port officers must be distributed among 327 ports of entry in the U.S., including airports and seaports.
After adding the 50 new officers hired through last year's border security supplemental bill, Nogales will have 325 officers for its three ports - 150 shy of what's needed to fully operate them when the larger Mariposa port opens in early 2014. Ramirez, the port director, expects Mariposa to become an around-the-clock operation, which it isn't now.
What makes Customs and Border Protection officers different from other law enforcement officials is that they are responsible for both national security and economic security, Ramirez said.
"Our job is not just to facilitate, but to actually to expedite, to encourage," he said. "If you are a legitimate traveler and you are coming here to vacation, to shop, we want to get you through as quickly as possible. The only way we can do that is to be able to open all of our lines."
Nogales is the busiest of the five border port cities in Arizona for both legal traffic and drug, money and weapons seizures. Its three ports - the downtown Dennis DeConcini port, the nearby Morley pedestrian crossing and the Mariposa port in western Nogales - are among the busiest along the Southwest border, along with Laredo, El Paso and Hidalgo, Texas; and San Ysidro, Calif.
Being understaffed and overworked is common at the 42 ports of entry along Southwest border, but Nogales - being in the busiest drug smuggling corridor along the U.S.-Mexico border - exemplifies the problem perhaps better than anywhere.
Customs and Border Protection doesn't provide port-specific enforcement figures, but said Nogales makes more drug, cash and weapons seizures than all other Arizona ports.
Statewide last year, the agency seized 123,000 pounds of drugs coming and $7.2 million in undeclared cash going out. The confiscations are a source of pride for Ramirez, but for each one, at least two officers have to leave their inspection posts to process the contraband.
"When you are starting short-staffed as it is, every time you make one of those seizures, it causes you to have to bring somebody in early or keep somebody late," he said.
At the border, faster is always better.
The expanded port should alleviate long lines, especially for the many truck drivers who pass through. The port already handles 40 percent of Mexican fruits and vegetables that come into the U.S. The Nogales ports process about $14 billion in imports each year.
A more efficient port could attract more companies to Southern Arizona, said Moore, of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.
Getting trucks across the border faster could cut down on transportation costs and allow companies to take fruits and vegetables deeper into the U.S. because they will stay fresh longer, said Lora Mwaniki-Lyman, a research economist at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. Mexican travelers may also come to the U.S. more often to shop and travel, she said.
Getting ports fully staffed could boost the economies of Nogales, Arizona and the entire nation, Nogales Port Director Ramirez said.
"The tomatoes that come through here wind up on the kitchen table in Chicago and in Atlanta," he said. "The ports are the gateway to the economy. They are the front door."
On StarNet: Read more about border- and immigration-related issues in Brady McCombs' blog, Border Boletín, at go.azstarnet.com/borderboletin
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com