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The Line

Long waits at the Arizona-Mexico border hurts business and builds frustration

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All the Third World's misery is on display this torpid afternoon, in a long line lumbering towards the U.S.-Mexico border. There's the blind man, professionally dressed in a button-down and slacks, reduced to playing his shabby keyboard for change. There's the guy with a thatched haircut, fishing food and leftover drinks from a filthy trash barrel. Yet another man lacks his lower torso, but still he smirks, skin stretched like jaundiced canvas across his gaunt face; one bony hand grips his wheelchair, the other a Styrofoam beggar's cup.

The line in which I wait offers ample time to contemplate those yawning gaps between our two countries, and the relative nature of poverty—my measly budgetary woes relative to the profound destitution staring back. But it also offers fewer excuses for this line itself, which snakes past ramshackle shops and endless, grimy sidewalk, before finally shuffling to the busy turnstiles of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

As one among many arms of the Department of Homeland Security, the CBP is charged with checking people and goods coming across our border. But despite the right-wing clamor for making that boundary a cactus-laced Berlin Wall—complete with 650 miles of steel fencing, and Border Patrol agents stumbling over themselves—those same conservatives often fall curiously silent when talk turns to boosting our Customs service and improving our ports. Never mind that through those ports flow more nearly $500 billion in trade with Mexico each year.

A reliable chunk of that exchange used to stop right across the line in Nogales, Ariz., where a string of downtown merchants depend on cross-border shoppers for their livelihood. But that's before CBP short-staffing resulted in the very long waits, which led to a nearly 50 percent drop in people coming north to buy goods or visit relatives.

Bruce Bracker is on the front lines of that plunge, both as the member of a longtime Nogales business family with stores along the border, and as the recently elected chair of the Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority. That means he glimpses the big picture behind such declines—and the very personal toll they take.

Bracker blames perennial understaffing at the three Nogales ports, compounded by $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, called sequestration, and enacted when Congress failed to reach agreements on federal deficit cutting. Not only did that mean no new inspection officers, but it also eliminated the overtime hours CPB used to the gap. "In Nogales alone, we're missing over 250 Customs officers," he says, adding that the ports were already short about 100 inspectors before the recent addition of new lanes for passenger vehicles and commercial traffic.

The unsurprising result are marathon waits that Bracker believes have caused crossings to plummet from more than 16 million in 2006 to less than 9 million last year. He says those numbers mirror the drop in business. "We're getting killed. Who wants to wait an hour and a half in line to go shopping?"

Still, Bracker doesn't blame Customs. "These guys are doing the best they can," he says. "But there's only so much you can do of you don't have enough personnel and they restrict your overtime."

This cutback has taken a toll. A Bloomberg report two years ago pegged the annual cost of border delays to the U.S. economy at $7.8 billion annually.

According to the City of Nogales, sales tax revenues have also dropped noticeably in recent years, from $9.4 million in fiscal year 2008-2009 to $9.1 in fiscal year 2012-2013, which ended in April.

But even those stats don't necessarily reflect the oversized impact on downtown retailers such as the Bracker family's clothing business, which are heavily reliant on cross-border foot traffic.

Potential impacts statewide are equally troubling. A 2008 study by the UA's Eller College of Management showed that Mexican visitors spent roughly $3.6 billion in Arizona that year—more than 37 percent of it in Pima County—and were responsible for creating some 30,000 jobs.

Nor are numbers from California particularly encouraging; the San Diego Association of Governments recently found that long border waits cost their region about $2 billion in annual revenues.

Another analysis shows that a doubling of trade with Mexico, coupled with increased border security since the Sept. 11 attacks, have turned the 42 U.S.-Mexico ports into huge bottlenecks. The slowdowns costs the U.S. economy approximately $7.8 billion each annually—a toll projected to triple in coming years if a remedy is not found.

Impacts on our local economy are less clear. Mike Varney, president of the Tucson Metro Chamber, didn't return a phone call seeking comment. And over at the recently renamed Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau—now simply called "Visit Tucson"—spokeswoman Jessica Stephens doesn't provide hard numbers. But she does describe how Visit Tucson has been cooperating with Nogales officials to expand the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection or SENTRI program, which prescreens frequent crossers, allowing them to bypass long Customs lines after they've been prescreened through law enforcement databases.

Nogales is among a handful of ports employing the program, which dramatically cuts wait times. "I don't know how many Mexican visitors have signed up for SENTRI," says Stephens, "but visitor's centers in our Mexico offices are actually working with Customs to sign people up for it."

Still, the $122.25 per person price tag will likely put SENTRI out of reach for most working class Mexicans who frequent discount stores in Nogales, Ariz.

Meanwhile, border waits have undoubtedly put pressure the CBP, which in turn blames Congress for the crisis. "The effects of sequestration continue to have serious impacts on CBP's operations, including nearly $600 million in cuts," writes agency spokesman Andy Adame in an email to the Weekly. "We continue to encourage all parties to work together on a solution that can replace sequestration entirely and avoid the damaging impacts to CBP and critical services across the country."

Whether Congress will answer that call remains uncertain. In March, Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake toured the border for a firsthand look at security issues. And amid the current debate over immigration reform, they have proposed improving port facilities, along with boosting the number of Customs officers to 24,500, up from the current 21,000. But in the current climate, such allocations will certainly take second place to the more politically useful issue of border security.

As for me, I won't be rushing back to Sonora anytime soon.

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