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Illustration by Steve McCracken

Bottleneck at the Border

​Sales representative Bernie Sargent crosses from El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Chihuahua, about twice a week to visit his clients. To cross the border, Sargent drives to a port of entry and waits in line anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, on good days—bad days will leave him cooling his heels for up to three hours. Sargent is one of 230,000 people who pass through one of the 43 ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border each day, and after almost 29 years of living in El Paso and crossing into Juarez, he knows what variables will affect his commute. 

If it’s extremely cold or hot outside, he says, crossing goes faster because agents will speed up their inspections to get back inside their booths. If you get a new border agent, be prepared to wait—“maybe it’s because they’re trying to get that first big bust or whatever, but they tend to take more time,” he notes. 

Border agents can work only 25 or 30 minutes at a time before switching out due to the high amounts of pollution caused by vehicles, and the staff changes can add to the wait, he says. And early in the morning, around lunchtime, and from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.—border rush hours—are the worst times to cross.

“I think the strange irony is it seems as though the agents don’t man the gates in higher numbers during peak crossing times,” Sargent points out. “You might see an array of 20 lanes, 10 on each side of the building, and maybe four or five of those lanes are closed because they don’t have enough people working the gates there. That’s a big frustration.”

Sargent has it easier than the masses of commercial vehicles crossing the border—approximately $55 billion in goods pass from Mexico through El Paso via freight each year. Sargent uses a trusted traveler pass, which he says takes about 10 minutes off of his wait time. A similar program exists for trailer trucks transporting goods into the United States, but most commercial vehicles have to be x-rayed and possibly searched manually. 

Border crossing wait times are the main grievance for both individual and commercial travelers in the region, and Sargent says it’s just a fact of life. “We used to jokingly measure the wait times in six-packs of beer,” he laughs. “You had to find a way to entertain yourself on the bridges.”

Unfortunately, the combination of inefficient infrastructure and low border staffing leads to more than boredom and a wasted afternoon. Mexico is the United States’ second-largest export market and third-largest trading partner, and the two-way trade of goods and services totaled more than $550 billion in 2013. More than 75 percent of U.S.-Mexico trade crosses land borders, making land ports along the 2,000-mile border some of the busiest in the world. According to some estimates, wait times can cost up to $12 billion a year and lead to the loss of some 54,000 jobs in the United States. 

This negative economic impact on border communities also creates a precarious state of security along the border. Border infrastructure, economy, and security are inexplicably linked, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture report on the consequences of border wait times. 

“In order to make a border that is more efficient and secure, it is essential to invest in border security, facilitate trade through efficient supply-chain security, and invest in improving infrastructure,” the report states. And a sluggish border with inconsistent security measures, such as those mentioned by Sargent, creates opportunity for black and gray markets to flourish.

“Currently, there’s this great kind of bottlenecking at these ports because there are all these goods and services being produced in Juarez and central Mexico, and they’re trying to get over the border to satisfy the U.S. market and fit into supply chains,” says Patrick Schaefer, the executive director of the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness. “However, they are being impeded by these security regulations and structures on the border, not just in Juarez and El Paso but all along the U.S.-Mexico border.”​


Mexico and the United States have always been significant partners in trade. After the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994, the free flow of goods, services, and people across international boundaries blossomed—binational trade has grown six-fold over the past 20 years. Investors flocked to industrialize northern Mexico, enticed by lower operating costs and proximity to international transit hubs. The Paso del Norte region, encompassing El Paso in the United States and Juarez in Mexico, flourished in the wake of NAFTA. The area, dating back to the 1600s, is the oldest of the border regions and boasts the highest number of crossings in the world—a testament to the fluidity and integration of the two cities, says Erik Lee, executive director of the North American Research Partnership and author of Wilson Center reports on the border. 

“These border communities are places where for several generations people have felt comfortable moving back and forth across the border for legitimate travel reasons,” he notes.

In the mid-1990s, infrastructure along the border was bolstered—highways were built, bridges were strengthened. At the same time, an influx of capital and industrial growth, along with an internal migration of Mexicans to booming Juarez, created what Schaefer describes as a “tremendous demographic explosion, side-by-side with the industrial explosion in Juarez.”

However, the free-flowing legitimate binational trade was accompanied by growing gray and black markets. The illegal exchange of drugs, weapons, cash, and people flourished within border cities to the point that it caught the attention of both U.S. and Mexican authorities.

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, everything changed. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, and it took over customs operations along the border. Unprecedented security measures were implemented. The divide between U.S. and Mexican border security practices grew. The global economic downturn halted infrastructure development along the border. The spike in drug cartel violence from 2009 to 2012 stymied industry growth and foreign investment in the region.

And now, much like the 230,000 vehicles that wait in lines to cross the border every day, growth along ports of entry is stalling.​


Though the biggest complaint at the border is wait times, the issue has many contributing factors, including data collection, staffing, mission, and cooperation.

Data. Determining exactly how long the wait times are is problematic because there is no reliable, accurate information on border wait times, and no way for private sector organizations to collect that information. 

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service has a website and mobile app reporting border wait times, but Lee and Schaefer agree that it’s common knowledge the numbers aren’t reliable. “The wait times on the CBP site are basically surveyed by customs agents at the ports of entry asking people how long they’ve been in line,” Lee notes. “There are all sorts of issues with the methodology of people self-reporting. Very few people believe that.”

Indeed, a 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report called CBP wait time data unreliable due to inconsistent data collection methodologies. “For example, five of the six crossings GAO visited require observation of the end of the queue to estimate wait times, but officials at these crossings reported the lines extended beyond their view at times,” the report notes. “As a result, these data are generally not used by the private sector and are of limited usefulness for CBP management decisions on staffing and infrastructure investments.”

Schaefer explains that the Hunt Institute, along with numerous other academic and research institutions, has attempted to study border wait times at ports all along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, DHS doesn’t permit this type of data collection, he says.

“There’s this resistance from DHS and the U.S. government to allow researchers to really set up camp and do the measuring of border wait times to find out how it can be improved, how to handle backlogs, those kinds of issues,” Schaefer says. “All these institutions have tried to get a sense of the situation along the border, and the best we can do is through proxies and certain ways of trying to count trucks and how long they’ve waited. It’s hard.”

Besides causing frustration for border researchers, the lack of transparency ultimately inhibits understanding and progress of the border supply chain, as well as national security and financial consequences of an inefficient border.

Staffing. Depending on the port of entry, there are separate lanes for pedestrians, passenger vehicles, and commercial traffic. Lanes are further separated depending on the status of the traveler—low-risk, preapproved travelers through programs such as Free and Secure Trade (FAST) or Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) can pass through expedited lanes. The staffing of those lanes, though, can be an issue.

“You’ll have a case where you have 20 lanes and maybe a dozen are open on any given day,” Lee says. “This varies quite a bit.”

There are a number of factors at play here, Lee explains. Beyond the generally lower levels of staffing in Customs, attrition is a big issue; agents are often looking to move on from jobs at ports into other areas of federal law enforcement, and it can take about 18 months for Customs agents to become sufficiently trained before they are put into the field. CBP is also in charge of performing both inbound and outbound inspections. The agency has identified a need for 3,811 additional officers at U.S. ports of entry.

“This is trickier than it looks, keeping the lanes staffed,” Lee acknowledges. “This drives people in the border business crazy because it contributes to wait times when you’ve only got 50 to 60 percent of the lanes open.”

Some history on the U.S. Customs Service along the border can provide perspective on the CBP’s current situation, Lee notes. Before it was brought under the DHS umbrella with Border Patrol after 9-11, the U.S. Customs Service was a division of the U.S. Department of Treasury. In fact, Customs is still the second largest revenue-collecting agency in the government after the Internal Revenue Service, Lee says. But after being paired with the U.S. Border Patrol, which has a different institutional history and is more autonomous than Customs, funding became harder to come by.

“Border Patrol has been much more aggressive in terms of selling themselves as an agency protecting the United States,” Lee explains. “Their public relations game is much more effective. Customs, on the other hand, is much more closed. They’ve resisted being studied, but also when it’s come time for Congress to fund border security and specifically Customs, in the minds of people in Washington, they become confused and assume they’re funding the Border Patrol.”

Staffing and funding at CBP has affected border wait times so much that in 2014 a law was passed allowing the agency to accept property and monetary donations from the private sector for resource optimization—that is, boosting infrastructure and staffing to reduce wait times. 

“DHS will not provide sufficient staffing for the checkpoints or gates, and it’s gotten to be so ridiculous that the city of El Paso has entered into an agreement with DHS to subsidize overtime pay for Customs personnel so they can staff the checkpoints,” Schaefer says. “The city of El Paso is essentially paying its money and resources to help facilitate binational trade.”

Mission. Lee also points out the need to look at the bigger picture: What is CBP’s priority at the border? Is it to facilitate trade, or to keep the border secure? He notes that Customs’ traditional mandate, under the Treasury Department, was to promote trade. That’s shifted since the creation of the CBP under DHS, but maybe it’s shifted too much, Lee speculates.

“I think Border Patrol is overstaffed in a number of sectors, and Customs is generally understaffed across the board, and that is a reflection of our confusion about the border,” Lee summarizes.

This paradox is evident in the Merida Initiative, a collaboration between the United States and Mexico to fight organized crime along the border. The program includes plans to encourage human rights reforms, build resilient communities, and create a 21st century border—coordinating infrastructure development and expanding trusted traveler and shipment programs. But there are questions as to whether the funding is enhancing security resources in the most effective way.

A Wilson Center Mexico Institute report, The State of the Border Report, notes that an increase in funding and manpower along the border does not necessarily help speed up crossings or increase security. “Investments in infrastructure (fencing) and technology between the land ports of entry stands in stark contrast to the multi-billion dollar deficit in ports of entry infrastructure that hampers both legitimate trade and travel as well as effective security operations,” the report states.

CBP often relies on statistics regarding the amount of contraband seized at border ports as a measure of effectiveness, but the report points out that seizures “represent a very tiny percentage of the estimated number or volume of the illegal items passing through the border.” Given the resources at the border, the report asks whether a port of entry is the best place to stop illegal activity, “or whether a strategic enforcement approach away from the border is more rational and cost-effective.” 

Either way, improvements to ports of entry must strengthen both border security and trade efficiency at the same time, the report states. The goal of enhancing security along ports of entry shouldn’t focus solely on stopping illegal activity, but instead on giving border officials more time to focus on unknown and potentially dangerous individuals and shipments. Long lines and overworked staff promote neither efficiency nor security.

Indeed, passive or even active wrongdoing by border agents stretched thin can create serious security problems. A January 2016 Congressional Research Service study about the impact of the Merida Initiative on U.S.-Mexican security explores the evidence of corruption involving border officials: between 2005 and 2012, a total of 93 CBP employees were arrested or indicted for corruption-related activities, including smuggling. 

However, Merida officials have not addressed the issue, the study finds: “Congress may consider whether preventing, detecting, and prosecuting public corruption of border enforcement personnel should be a component of the border initiatives funded by the Merida Initiative.” The lack of action through the Merida Initiative to curb corruption and properly train employees is another example of the inefficient management of border reform programs’ efforts, critics say.

Cooperation. The aging infrastructure of border crossing checkpoints is a real problem, and one that requires coordinated, binational action to address. One barrier is the inherent organization of decision makers and funding in the two countries: Mexico approaches infrastructure development along the border as part of a larger national infrastructure plan, while in the United States it’s up to the states themselves to decide how to spend federal finances on developing border infrastructure in their jurisdictions. 

“This coordination is trickier than it sounds, because the two governments often need to engage in very detailed discussions over how this happens,” Lee explains. “There are a number of coordinating mechanisms to make that process go more smoothly, because if the United States decides to build a road up to the border in this one area that needs it, you also need someone on the Mexican side to build a road leading away from the border.”

As ports of entry continue to be stretched to their limit, the actions of both U.S. and Mexican governments can have significant effects on the growth of border communities. According to another Wilson Center report that Lee coauthored, titled The U.S.-Mexico Border Economy in Transition, the relative isolation of the border from federal and even state capitals can leave border communities feeling powerless. 

“There is little doubt that local and regional economies, the businesses that operate in them, and citizens making a living in border communities either prosper or don’t because of policy decisions,” the report states. “The manner in which policy is made depends significantly on the institutional architecture through which local, state, federal, and even non-governmental actors on both sides of the border organize themselves and interact.”

The private sector can also play an important role in binational conversations about the border that are traditionally government-to-government, Lee says. 

“Curiously enough, the private sector is not always present at those conversations,” Lee notes. “You have the federal governments making decisions about the future of trade without a lot of private sector input.”

But even when the private sector gets involved, there is a lack of unified focus, according to the Wilson Center report. “While these organizations lobby federal and state governments often on an individual basis, they rarely do so as one unified voice and are often absent from important policy discussions regarding border policy, management, and related topics,” the report states.

Schaefer agrees. “I think the way to fix this is to create frameworks and institutions that foster a dialogue and understanding of how things are done from one jurisdiction to the other in order to satisfy national security and economic activity at the same time,” he says.​


There are a number of pilot programs in the works to promote border efficiency and security, and Schaefer says that little by little they’re starting to make a difference. The private sector subsidy of CBP operations, which El Paso is involved in, is being fully implemented this year. A new preinspection pilot program was announced last fall that will permit cargo to be inspected in Mexico by customs officials from both nations, instead of once in Mexico and once in the United States. And Secure Origins, a trade facilitation organization, is looking to increase Project 21, its effort to prescreen cargo in Mexico and track it to the U.S. border, where it will be pushed through a trusted shipment lane.

Also making waves is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, once put into effect, will redefine economic policy and trade between the United States and Mexico, among other countries. The agreement “has the potential to really impact the U.S.-Mexico border, and could either increase or alter trade,” Lee notes. A continuing trend of “near-shoring” or “reshoring” sees corporations pulling their manufacturing operations back from overseas to Mexico or other nearby countries due in part to Mexico’s competitive economy. 

“The needs are enormous, and the two countries are in a position where they need to start building for needs 10, 15, 20 years down the line,” Lee says. “This trade is going to keep expanding and we’re going to be deeper and deeper in the hole in terms of infrastructure if we don’t begin to find innovative ways—or old-fashioned ways, like taxes—to fund this infrastructure.”  ​