Border chaos forces truckers to wait hours, sometimes days

This April 2, 2019, photo shows the port of entry from Mexicali, Mexico to Calexico, Calif. The Trump administration has reassigned so many inspectors from U.S.-Mexico border crossings that it has caused huge traffic backups for truckers who are waiting in line for hours and in some case days to get shipments to the U.S. (Mark Holtzman/West Coast Aerial Photography Inc. via AP)

The Trump administration has reassigned so many inspectors from Mexico border crossings that truckers are waiting in line for hours and sometimes days to get shipments to the United States

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — To deal with a surge of migrating Central American families, the Trump administration has reassigned so many inspectors from U.S.-Mexico border crossings that truckers are waiting in line for hours and sometimes days to get shipments to the United States.

Truckers have been sleeping in their vehicles to hold spots in line in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. The city brought in portable toilets, and an engine oil company hired models in skin-tight clothing to hand out burritos and bottled water to idled drivers.

"My family doesn't recognize me at home anymore," Jaime Monroy, a trucker who lives in Ciudad Juarez, said after sleeping overnight in his truck hauling a load of wooden furniture. "I leave at 3 in the morning and come back at 10 at night."

The waits are a reminder that even though President Donald Trump walked back his threat to close the border, the administration has created significant impediments for truckers and travelers with its redeployment of customs agents.

Business leaders are starting to lose patience as they struggle to get products to American grocery stores, manufacturers and construction sites.

"This is a systemwide issue," said Paola Avila, chairwoman of the Border Trade Alliance, a group that advocates for cross-border commerce. "Everyone's feeling this."

The traffic congestion comes as a growing number of families from Central America have been arriving at the border in recent months, overwhelming the federal government.

The Border Patrol said Tuesday that it set a new monthly record for apprehensions of families in March. More than 53,000 family members were stopped at the border in March, an average of more than 1,700 per day. That breaks a record set in February, when 36,000 parents and children were apprehended.

Trump responded by shaking up the top ranks of the Department of Homeland Security, culminating with the resignation of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

The migrant families have forced many line agents into humanitarian roles and have strained detention facilities built when the Border Patrol primarily apprehended single adult men.

The administration has in turn reassigned 541 border inspectors to other jobs, including processing migrants, providing transportation and performing hospital watch for migrants who require medical attention. It is unknown when they will return to their regular job of screening people and cargo for smuggling.

Border Patrol agents, who guard areas between ports, are also doing jobs they were not trained to do, such as medical screenings for children and families in the migrant holding camps.

In El Paso, authorities have closed one bridge to truckers, directing them to two other nearby crossings. At San Diego's only truck crossing, two of 10 lanes are closed.

In Nogales, Arizona, the government on Sundays is closing a commercial facility that is crucial to cross-border trade. Up to 12,000 commercial trucks cross the border in Nogales every day, often bringing watermelons, eggplants, berries and grapes.

Wait times have doubled at the Santa Teresa, New Mexico, port of entry.

"What we're seeing is a lot of companies making their drivers sleep in their trucks to keep their place in line for the next day," said Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association and executive director of the International Business Accelerator.

In recent years, the rural outpost has become a boomtown of warehouses and industrial parks that funnel raw materials and products back and forth across the border.

"Here we are growing companies and growing jobs and everything is great. We added another industrial park with job prospects in tow and then all this happens," Pacheco said of the latest expansion.

The agency's commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, who was named acting Homeland Security secretary on Sunday, warned of traffic delays when he announced last month in El Paso that inspectors from across the border would be reassigned. Authorities raised the possibility that as many as 2,000 inspectors could be pulled from ports of entry.

A Customs and Border Protection mobile app suggested the bottlenecks may have eased by Tuesday. The wait time for truckers was estimated at three hours in San Diego, 2½ hours in El Paso and two hours in Laredo. Still, truckers said wait times have lengthened considerably since authorities announced the reassignments.

"This all started about two weeks ago with Trump," said driver Arturo Menendez, 44, who first entered the line at 4 a.m. Friday with his tractor-trailer full of cardboard used in boxes for U.S.-made products like Toro lawn mowers.

At 6 p.m. he was told to leave ahead of the unprecedented closure of all lanes at the Bridge of the Americas on Saturday.

He tried again Monday, waiting in a line behind of hundreds of trucks passing through three security checks back at the Bridge of the Americas.

Avila, who is also the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce's vice president for international affairs, said the delays could encourage more companies to move to Asia, hurting jobs in the U.S. and Mexico.

"Now we're discouraging overseas production," she said. "We're cutting out the American manufacturer or the Mexican manufacturer that employs U.S. workers."

___

Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Astrid Galvan in Phoenix and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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