Texas Ports of Entry Tapped for Federal Pilot Program

EL PASO — Major ports of entry in Texas will be part of a federal pilot program that allows local governments to enter into public-private partnerships with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to boost staffing levels.

Selected were the South Texas Consortium Assets, which includes international bridges in Laredo, Cameron County, Pharr, McAllen, and Rio Grande City; operators of international bridges in El Paso; George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston; and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the office of U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said on Friday. Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami were also included.

The program is part of H.R. 1108, the Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013, a bipartisan effort filed in March by O’Rourke and U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin; Pete Gallego, D-Alpine; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; and Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, filed a companion bill, which also addresses infrastructure improvements. The legislation was included in an appropriations bill President Obama signed in March. It allows the local entities to negotiate the terms of the individual partnerships to address their specific needs, O’Rourke’s office said.

The improvements in staffing and infrastructure have long been the focus of stakeholders and lawmakers on the border, who say that staffing delays means millions on potential revenue lost daily.

Mexico is Texas’ largest trade partner and the United States' third-largest overall. In 2012, more than $229 billion and $86 billion in trade passed through the Laredo and El Paso customs districts, respectively, according to U.S. census data analyzed by WorldCity, a Florida-based company that uses U.S. census data to track trade patterns.

“Because of recent federal budget cuts, CBP does not have the resources to hire additional staff at ports of entry along the border,” Cuellar said in a news release. “These new partnerships are an opportunity for state and local governments and private businesses to step in with support where federal funds fall short.”

O’Rourke, a freshman who beat longtime incumbent Silvestre Reyes in the 2012 Democratic primary, made the wait times a key part of his campaign.

“El Paso is the second busiest port of entry in the nation, accounting for $92 billion in annual cross border trade with Mexico and $1.45 billion in retail shopping that supports nearly 100,000 jobs in our area,” he said. “Today’s news was possible thanks to the strong leadership of current and former El Paso city councils. I look forward to continuing to work with CBP, Mayor Oscar Leeser and city leaders to execute the pilot program and deliver real and measureable results for the people of El Paso.”

Earlier this year the Texas Border Coalition, composed of elected officials and private-sector leaders who advocate for border communities, said in a study that at least $6 billion is currently needed to improve border infrastructure and 6,000 additional customs inspectors are needed to reduce wait times. It’s unclear how much revenue is expected from the pilot program, but lawmakers laud the move as a positive first step.

“This step recognizes that Texas’ international trade and travel is vital not only to the economy of Texas, but also the nation’s economy,” Cornyn said in a statement. “Our successful trading relationship with Mexico has the potential to create even more jobs and opportunities for Texans, and this move by the CPB is the first step towards achieving those goals.”

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