Imports to El Paso plummet while U.S.-Mexico trade hits all-time high

EL PASO, Texas, June 3 (UPI) — Annual trade has plummeted across the international bridges into El Paso by just over $4 billion, even though U.S.-Mexico trade recently reached an all-time high.

Although a local congresswoman contends the falloff has hurt the local economy, economists and policy analysts say the impact to businesses has been minimal because truckers are using alternate routes near the city and utilizing the same customs brokers other services as before.

The Dallas Federal Reserve Bank’s May report blames El Paso’s decrease in international trade on the federal government’s border slowdown that started in March. The report was issued before President Donald Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods to force that nation block the flow of Central American immigrants into the United States.

“The contraction in trade may be linked to the recent long delays at the border crossing due to Customs and Border Protection officers being diverted to process migrants,” according to the report from the El Paso branch of the Dallas Fed.

In March, Customs and Border Protection reassigned hundreds of El Paso’s customs agents from passenger and freight bridges to process the surge of asylum seekers. The sudden shift of officers immediately caused eight-hour delays for northbound trucks across the city’s two international freight bridges.

El Paso, a West Texas city across the border from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is the nation’s second-busiest land port after Laredo, Texas. Juárez is known for its maquiladoras — factories that produce goods for export to the United States through El Paso. Most of them supply U.S. auto manufacturers.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, seized on the city’s trade slump to criticize the Trump administration’s approach to the immigration crisis at the border. His “incompetent policy decisions have resulted in a partial shutdown of our southern border, negatively impacting trade, the movement of people and El Paso’s economy,” Escobar said in a statement.

But economists and policy analysis disagreed. They said immigration policies and the border slowdown blamed for El Paso’s trade slump are separate issues that rarely affect each other.

“They are mostly stand-alone issues,” said Chad Hart, a professor of economics at Iowa State University and a close observer of the trading relationship between Mexico and the United States.

“The immigration crisis hasn’t affected trade flows. The drop in trade in El Paso is substantial, but has not reached a historic low,” Hart said. “The level of trade has pulled back in El Paso, but today is still above where it used to be a decade ago.”

Hart noted, too, that Mexico recently became the top trading partner of the United States, and that despite the migrant crisis, “trade on the southern border has continued with minimal disruption.”

“The trade process hasn’t changed from two or three years ago, and Customs and Border Protection has been able to handle trade as they always have,” Hart said.

Having said that, Hart and other experts did not dispute a decline in trade in El Paso resulted because of reassigned customs officers.

“There was a shock to the system when customs officers were reassigned,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

“We know that truck drivers went from making three trips across the border a day to two trips and sometimes to even one trip,” Wilson said. “Clearly, there was an effect. But it wasn’t enough of an effect to change the trajectory of U.S.-Mexico trade, which continues to grow.”

The situation has started to improve, though. In the last month, freight wait times have decreased because “Customs and Border Protection figured out a way to make sure trade continued by moving officers from the U.S.-Canada border,” Wilson said.

Congested bridges in El Paso forced businesses to deal with the shock of lengthy wait times by using alternative ports of entry to transport their goods to market, according to a Texas’ border economy expert.

“It’s not like a trucker gets to the border, sees a long line at the port of entry and decides to go back to the factory. That just doesn’t happen,” said economist Salvador Contreras, director of the Center for Border and Economic Studies at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Goods might be moving more slowly north, but they are still moving north, just across different ports of entry, or maybe businesses choose to fly time-sensitive products across the border,” Contreras said.

One way to still move goods north and avoid El Paso’s lengthy freight lines is to use to an alternate port of entry with a shorter wait time.

The nearby Santa Teresa, N.M., port of entry acted like a safety valve for El Paso’s snarled bridges. When truckers began to face lengthy delays in El Paso, they drove 20 miles on a desert highway to Santa Teresa, where crossing times were shorter.

“About eight weeks ago, truckers I work with started to cross more at Santa Teresa,” said Martín Meléndez, a customs broker with 25 years of experience in West Texas and southern New Mexico. “It may take longer to get goods across the border, but they still gets across.”

Meléndez said business was as “good or better” than it had been in the past, and the value of Santa Teresa’s imports bear out the customs broker’s experience. For March, official statistics show Santa Teresa’s imports increasing by $600 million, a 19.4 percent jump over 2018. In other words, El Paso’s trade dropped while Santa Teresa’s spiked.

Business may be booming, Meléndez said, but the border slowdown still is frustrating. He said he had spent several hours at the Santa Teresa port of entry Tuesday, waiting to deliver a customs document to a trucker who had been held up on a previous job as he tried to cross into El Paso.

“The trucker I am waiting for at the moment is mad about the wait times,” Meléndez said. “Truckers used to be able to cross the border three times a day from Juarez. Now they are lucky if they can cross once.”

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