Lawmakers call for more transparency in port-of-entry funding

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John Wagner, assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations at CBP, left, and Eugene Schied, assistant commissioner for of the CPB Office of Administration said the mission of CBP is to ensure efficient international trade at ports of entry while maintaining security. (Anna Giles/SHFWire)

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser makes his case for more funding of border crossings that connect El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico at a House Subcommittee on Border and Martime Security hearing Wednesday. (Anna Giles/SHFWire)

WASHINGTON – Texas needs more funding for its ports of entry. So does Michigan. Lawmakers from both states berated federal officials Wednesday for failing to improve the ports and for not even having a current list of which ports are on a list for funding.

“The lack of transparency is troubling, to put it kindly,” Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said during a House subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security hearing. “Customs and Border Patrol cannot continue to be a big black hole when it comes to ports of entry infrastructure needs, which can impact both trade facilitation and homeland security.”

Infrastructure needs at ports of entry often refers to CBP staffing, identification technology and roads. Nearly 170 ports of entry are used daily for U.S. trade with Mexico and Canada, the country’s two largest trading partners, Miller said. In addition to a lack of data on investment priorities, Miller warned that more broadly “delays and backups caused by old and inadequate infrastructure cost businesses millions of dollars in lost opportunity.”

El Paso, Texas, Mayor Oscar Leeser advocated for more investment at ports of entry that connect  El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He said more investment in U.S. ports near the U.S.-Mexico border would ensure the economic security of the entire country. One in 24 workers in the U.S. depends on trade from Mexico, Leeser said, claiming a lack of manpower and investment in El Paso would affect business and trade in states all over the U.S.

John-Wagner-and-Eugene-Schied-CBP

John Wagner, assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations at CBP, left, and Eugene Schied, assistant commissioner for of the CBP Office of Administration said the mission of CBP is to ensure efficient international trade at ports of entry while maintaining security. (Anna Giles/SHFWire)

“The city of El Paso’s economic security depends on the flow of goods and people across our international ports of entry, so it’s important not only to ensure trade continues to flow freely but that people and vehicles can move quickly across the border,” Leeser said.

He said his biggest concern is manpower, a worry shared by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who represents the El Paso area. He called staffing at U.S. ports of entry a “serious problem” and that it was important for the U.S. to “get border crossings right.”

More people and goods are coming through U.S. ports of entry than ever before, John Wagner, CPB assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations, said.

During the hearing CBP officials did provide Miller information from four years ago about how they choose which ports of entry to invest in – a process that takes into consideration how economically important a port of entry is, whether it has already been awarded funding by Congress and security needs, Wagner said.

An updated list should be ready next year.

Miller slammed officials from CBP for their selection of which ports of entry top the list, citing concerns over a delayed upgrade to the Blue Water Bridge Plaza that connects to Canada about 60 miles north of Detroit. It’s  the second busiest border crossing in the northern part of the U.S.

At a time when federal funding for port-of-entry investment is strained, CBP is trying to find new ways to fund more efficient processing at border crossings, Wagner said. One such project, launched by Congress in 2013, is being piloted at five port of entry locations, including El Paso. It allows private businesses to help pay for additional overtime for CBP officers at border crossings through donations and reimbursements. If the project runs smoothly over the next five years, CBP might replicate it nationwide.

Some members of Congress said they are concerned that trying to speed up border crossings by processing people faster would create security vulnerabilities.

Eugene Schied, assistant commissioner for the CPB Office of Administration, said deteriorating infrastructure surrounding ports of entry, such as roads, is making the work of CBP officers very difficult.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., called the southern border “porous” and criticized CBP officials “for having no idea what’s coming through the southern border.” He said he his concerns are especially urgent considering a recent flow of thousands of unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Most CBP port of entry facilities are not designed to meet post 9/11 security needs, Wagner said, and more “innovative approaches are needed to meet the growing demand for new facilities.”

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Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Scripps Howard Foundation Wire. Reproduced under their guidelines.

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