NOGALES, Ariz. (AP) — Federal authorities say a program that allows U.S. and Mexico officers to jointly inspect commercial trucks heading north has drastically reduced border crossing wait times in Arizona.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske and his Mexican counterpart, Ricardo Trevino, said at a news conference on Thursday in Nogales, Arizona, that wait times for certain cargo shipments from Mexico into the U.S. dropped from three to four hours to just 25 minutes.
The pilot program that began last week includes only trucks enrolled in a special anti-terrorism program that allows them to go through expedited inspections. The dual inspection program, which is currently in a 90-day pilot phase, allows Mexican customs officers who have been screened by U.S. authorities to work in the cargo inspection facility at the Nogales Port of Entry in Arizona. Mexican authorities already inspect outbound trucks before they get to the U.S., meaning the co-inspections were cut from two different searches to just one.
"The things we are talking about today are just very important to improve the speed of commerce," Kerlikowske said. "The unified cargo processing saves time, it saves trade stakeholders money, and that means that cargo, especially produce that is so subject to environmental concerns, moves more quickly."
Trade with Mexico accounts for billions in profit in the United States. Arizona ports of entry alone facilitated $18.1 billion in imports from Mexico to the U.S. last year, according a report by the Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management.
"The key thing to keep in mind is that both import and exports through our ports of entry can improve the state's economy," the program's director, George Hammond, said. "Mexico is a key trade partner with us."
A similar operation in Southern California and Laredo, Texas, allows U.S. agents to inspect cargo vehicles from the Mexican side of the border. Kerlikowske said that although it's been in effect in Arizona for only a week, it's clear the program is already working.
CBP has dedicated a special lane for the companies whose trucks qualify for faster inspections. Officers from the U.S. and Mexico side work side by side to inspect shipments, making sure they are what they're supposed to be and free of any illegal or dangerous items.
Guillermo Valencia, the chairman of The Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority, said his organization lobbied CBP to implement the program in Arizona and that it has already reduced wait times.
"I think that the program is gonna work so well that we're gonna be pressed to expand it. I really think it's a novel idea," Valencia said. "It shows how most governments can work together and collaborate on improving the efficiency of the importing."
The port authority in the past has criticized CBP over low staffing at Nogales ports, especially in the inspection facility. The agency has struggled to attract new officers for its Office of Field Operations since announcing nearly two years ago that it had been allocated 170 new positions in Arizona.
Kerlikowski said Thursday that several officers from the north and southeast regions of the country have been temporary assigned to Arizona.
"We're not about to lower our standards. Our hiring standards are very high," he said.
By Astrid Galvan, Associated Press, via Santa Cruz Sentinel