The country's understaffed land ports of entry need massive investments in infrastructure, technology and personnel to avoid becoming the path of choice for human and drug smugglers, according to a report released Wednesday by a border advocacy group.
The Texas Border Coalition, a group representing border city mayors, county judges and economic development commissions, called for $6 billion to improve land ports of entry and 5,000 new customs officers during the next four years. The group said the money is needed to correct the imbalance between the security at ports of entry and the security covering the points between.
"We definitely have to redirect the way we've been thinking," said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chairwoman of the coalition's Border Security and Immigration Committee. In addition to shoring up security at the ports of entry, the additional funding and staffing would also help with facilitating legitimate trade and travel, said Weisberg-Stewart, a McAllen business owner.
From 1993 to a projected 2010, the Border Patrol budget has grown from $400 million to an expected $3.5 billion while funding for customs inspectors increased from $1.6 billion to an anticipated $2.7 billion during the same period, according to the report.
Comparisons between the security situation in the two areas are difficult. The only hard numbers available are for apprehensions of illegal immigrants, leaving how much gets by beyond that to guessing. But the coalition argues that the funding discrepancy is making ports of entry more attractive targets for smuggling.
"In the present environment, the (drug) cartels are choosing to conduct their trade across the bridges and highways, through the ports of entry and are rejecting the risk of crossing the Rio Grande and open spaces between the ports of entry," the report said.
It echoed one of the recommendations from the Southwest Border Task Force, created by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, which advised in September that the ports of entry were in serious need of improvement.
And last month, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents customs officers, testified before Congress that the federal Customs and Border Protection agency needed several thousand additional customs officers and agriculture inspectors.
A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office noted that the agency's managers at land ports said understaffing contributed to "morale problems, fatigue, lack of backup support and safety issues when officers inspect travelers _ increasing the potential that terrorists, inadmissible travelers and illicit goods could enter the country."
Representatives of Customs and Border Protection and the General Services Administration, which controls the majority of the land port facilities, were not immediately able to offer comment. Government offices were closed Wednesday for Veterans Day.
There are 42 land ports of entry on the southern and northern borders.
The Texas Border Coalition, which opposed the border fence built along 670 miles of the southern border, plans to formally present its report at a conference Friday in Laredo.