SANTA TERESA – U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., paid a visit to the Santa Teresa Port of Entry Wednesday morning for a tour and briefing on upgrades in progress at the port as well as the needs of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
Heinrich toured the complex with his staff, but port authorities barred reporters from following. The senator spoke with reporters from the Las Cruces Sun-News in the parking lot at the end of his visit.
In Washington, Heinrich sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and is Vice-Chair of the Joint Economic Committee. He said the purpose of his visit was “getting my pulse on exactly what has changed, what we need to invest in to continue positioning Santa Teresa as a regional alternative to a lot of these ports of entry that have come under strain over the years.”
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President Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, including $17 billion in improvements for waterways, coastal ports, ferries and land ports of entry like this one.
Santa Teresa ranked ninth in the top 10 U.S-Mexico Ports of Entry in 2020, per data compiled by the University of Texas at El Paso’s Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness. The port registered 80,806 crossings by trucks with loaded containers in 2020, down 29.6 percent from the previous year.
All ports saw declines in traffic, attributable in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession.
The top U.S. port of entry with Mexico is at Laredo, Texas, while the El Paso port ranked fourth in 2020 for loaded truck crossings.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions led to even larger decreases in passenger vehicle and pedestrian crossings, including a 51.4 percent drop at Santa Teresa.
Overlap of border security and trade
Those trends interrupted what had been a period of growth for the southern Doña Ana County facility, growth Heinrich predicted would resume as traffic ramps back up between the U.S. and Mexico.
“I think we’re at an inflection point with COVID,” Heinrich said. “There are all kinds of implications for ports of entry, for travel management, that we need to be thinking about now, to maximize the economic recovery from this past year.”
Upgrades in the works include facilities for storing fuels and hazardous materials and seeking designation as a hazmat port, which Heinrich said may be operational “in a couple of months.” Others include infrastructure supporting heavier and oversized loads, expanded space for commercial vehicle inspections and widening an access road to assist trucks transporting wind turbine blades manufactured by TPI Composites in Ciudad Juárez.
With additional facilities and increased commercial traffic, southern Doña Ana County business leaders and public officials say more companies will establish facilities near the border crossing, resulting in more jobs.
TPI is a participant in the CBP’s Donations Acceptance Program, which allows private entities to make donations toward “port of entry construction, alteration, operation, or maintenance purposes, including land acquisition, design and the deployment of equipment and technologies,” under a 2016 amendment to the Homeland Security Act. Heinrich co-sponsored legislation reauthorizing the program in December.
More:By the numbers: How Santa Teresa Port of Entry emerged as leader in exports to Mexico
On Wednesday, Heinrich called the private-public funding mechanism “a bridge to the long-term solutions, not a substitute for the long-term solutions.”
He said CBP personnel on-site told him they were chronically understaffed and in need of resources to fulfill their mission.
When it comes to appropriations, Henrich remarked that many members of Congress “don’t understand the distinction between the Border Patrol and CBP and that a small investment in ports of entry actually makes an enormous difference, not only for trade but also for security.”
According to U.S. Census data, Mexico surpassed China as the U.S.’ largest trading partner during February, with $48.5 billion in total trade. Although that figure remained essentially static compared to January, Mexico’s share of total international trade grew to 15.3 percent in February, its highest share since last October.
New Mexico has three land ports of entry at the Mexican border: A small facility in Antelope Wells near Hachita; the Columbus Port of Entry in Luna County; and Santa Teresa, the largest.
“This is a port that is going to continue to grow,” Heinrich said, “and I think we need to view it holistically — not through the lens of where we are right now in the middle of COVID, but where do we want Santa Teresa to be five years from now as trade continues to grow and as some of the other ports of entry become more difficult for large, oversized products.”
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.
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