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Trucking Program Raises Border Policy Questions

Some Texas Republicans are embracing a cross-border trucking agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that labor unions worry could kill jobs and drastically reduce border security.

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Some Texas Republicans are embracing a cross-border trucking agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that labor unions worry could kill jobs and drastically reduce border security.

The binational agreement would end a years-long standoff between the two countries by recognizing an original provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement that allows U.S. and Mexican tractor-trailers to travel beyond the current 20- to 25-mile limits. Critics of the move, primarily labor unions, blasted the decision, saying it would cost jobs and enable the expansion of the nefarious enterprises that have Mexico in the throes of a violent turf war.

But free-trade advocates and some Texas lawmakers and public officials, including Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, welcome the agreement as a boon for U.S. businesses, including those in Texas. “Trade equals jobs, and this agreement to reduce the trade tariffs on U.S. and Texas products entering Mexico will help level the playing field and remove the unfair burden placed on the backs of our hardworking farmers and ranchers,” Staples said after last week’s agreement was announced.

The Mexican government agreed to suspend tariffs it imposed on U.S. goods in 2009 after the Obama administration defunded a pilot program that had allowed cross-border trucking. The fees applied to about $190 million in Texas agricultural products, according to Staples' office.

Staples is no fan of Obama's border security policy — he launched a website featuring testimonials and news clips he says prove that ranchers and farmers along the Rio Grande are in danger and largely unprotected — but the trucking agreement has nothing to do with safety, he said. Eliminating tariffs and creating jobs by moving the trucking agreement forward should not be conflated with the violence on the border — or with the president’s policies, Staples said.

"The president's failure to provide safety to innocent Americans being terrorized on Texas land by violent drug cartel members has nothing to do with legal trade at designated points of entry," he said. "The differences between the insufficient manpower to secure our border and inspection protocols at legal points of entry are enormous and is an apples to oranges comparison, or in this case, onions to grapefruit."

Gov. Rick Perry, another loud and frequent critic of Obama's border security policy — and a potential 2012 contender for the White House — also has said he supports the cross-border trucking agreement. "Texas will closely monitor the implementation of this federal agreement to ensure the safety of those on Texas roadways and in Texas communities," said Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he supported the free-trade measure. When pressed to address the safety concerns, however, he declined to comment.

But opponents, including the national Teamsters union and the Texas AFL-CIO, say they see hypocrisy in politicians' repeated statements about border security concerns and their approval of a trade agreement they worry could cost jobs and make the U.S. even more vulnerable to Mexican drug cartels.

“The trucking issue is an economic issue for business people," said Texas AFL-CIO spokesman Ed Sills. "They are looking for cheaper costs of shipping goods.”

Sills said he's concerned not only about U.S. truckers losing jobs but about port workers, too. “If we are going to eventually see an influx of Mexican trucks in to the U.S., what’s also going to happen is a lot of goods are going to be shipped to Mexican ports, and that starts to affect the jobs of all the port workers in the U.S.,” he said.

Though the agreement was inked last week, both sides said it could be months until the first fleet of Mexican trucks traverses Texas highways beyond the current limits.

An official with the U.S. Department of Transportation said Mexican truck companies would be asked to advance through a series of stages before being permanently approved for international travel beyond today’s limits. A carrier’s vehicles and drivers would be issued provisional operating authority and would be inspected by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration when they enter the country for at least three months. They would advance to a second stage after a favorable review and receive a permanent authority after 18 months, pending another review.

The companies would also have to carry an insurance policy underwritten by a U.S. insurance or surety bond company, adhere to environmental regulations and be subject to a homeland security screening. And the foreign trucks must be equipped with electronic-monitoring systems, and drivers will be subject to English-language tests and narcotics screenings.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, whose district includes the South Texas port at Laredo, lauded last week’s move as a potential job creator and economic catalyst. But Cuellar also said motorists should not expect fleets of Mexican trucks to suddenly bombard Texas' ports of entry.

“That's not going to happen that way. It's expensive for a lot of those trucking companies ... because they have to meet so many requirements on this side," he told The Associated Press.

The status quo may still be the preferred policy, though. Current trade data indicates that despite a global recession and the tariffs on goods, trade between the U.S. and Mexico set a record in 2010. Despite the violence in Mexico, the country remains the U.S.’s third-largest trade partner behind Canada and China,  respectively. Trade figures from WorldCity, a data clearinghouse that ranks trade data by import, export and country of origin, showed that though March 2011, trade moving between the U.S. and Mexico was valued at about $108 billion. Of that, about $48.6 billion passed through the Laredo port, $18 billion through El Paso and $7.4 billion through Houston.

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