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Border Delays Grow as Customs Officers Shift to Handle Surge in Migrant Families

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Cargo trucks line up next to the border fence to cross to the United States near the US-Mexico border at Otay Mesa crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on April 4, 2019. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Truck drivers moving cargo between Mexico and the United States are used to tedious waits to cross the border, with the agricultural products and industrial parts they carry sitting idle in their vehicles.

The time it takes for commercial vehicles and other travelers to cross into the U.S. has spiked in the past week — with wait times in some cases four times as long — after U.S. immigration authorities reassigned hundreds of officers to cope with a record number of Central American migrant families.

Fewer staffers screening cargo and passengers at airports and other ports of entry is leading to lane closures and reduced hours of operations. Those delays are costing millions of dollars to the U.S., experts say.

Citing an “unprecedented humanitarian and security crisis,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have temporarily reassigned 51 CBP officers in California to help process, transport and care for migrants crossing the border without documents. The U.S. Border Patrol, part of the Customs and Border Protection agency, is responsible for policing the expanse of U.S. borders in between the official ports of entry.

Nationwide, CBP redeployed 545 officers to support Border Patrol, most of them in Texas, because agency officials say the influx of migrants is overwhelming them.


“This has been an all hands on deck for us,” said Brian Hastings, Border Patrol Chief of Law Enforcement Operations, in a call with reporters to announce new border arrest figures.

The staff changes come as Border Patrol arrested 92,600 migrants in March, most of them from Central America. About 53,000 of the migrants were traveling in family groups — significantly more than in any other month since 2013, when the government began tracking children traveling with parents.

Family units plus children traveling on their own now represent nearly 70 percent of all Border Patrol apprehensions.

At California’s busiest commercial border crossing in Otay Mesa, near San Diego, cargo trucks waited 4.5 hours on Tuesday to be processed by Customs and Border Protection officials — compared to 50 minutes on the same day last year, agency figures show.

Truckers can't cross the border within the day due to the reduced CBP staff at Otay Mesa, said Paola Avila, vice president of international business affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

KQED coverage of the border

“So they spend the night and by the time you open the next day you already have a long queue,” said Avila, who traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby members of Congress to reinstate CBP officers at ports of entry, and ratify a successor trade agreement to NAFTA.

In Texas, border time waits have grown to seven hours. Increased delays at border crossings result in lost wages for drivers, and higher costs for businesses in the millions of dollars a day, Avila said.

“Millions of dollars that will be passed on to the consumer. And in some cases ... the small- to medium-sized businesses that can't absorb that increase will have to shutter their doors,” said Avila.

Avila pointed to the steep price paid when trade was disrupted: Authorities shut down the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing over the 2018 Thanksgiving weekend after a group of migrants stormed the area and Border Patrol agents responded by firing tear gas at them. The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce estimates that five-hour closure resulted in a loss of $5.3 million dollars for local businesses.

Most truck drivers won’t be paid for the additional time it takes them to cross the border since they are generally paid by the load they deliver, said Alex Cherin of the California Trucking Association.

“Most of the time, truck drivers unfortunately do not get paid if they're simply waiting in line,” said Cherin. “There's a ripple effect for sure. If there is a longer wait at the border that means potentially a longer wait at the warehouse, which means a longer wait to get goods to market.”

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