Last week, the Bush administration announced a plan to send U.S. inspectors to check trucks in Mexico that would then be allowed to cross over the border and deliver loads anywhere in the United States. This would be a pilot program, but the eventual goal is to open the border to more such traffic as called for by the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. The Teamsters Union and highway safety groups in the United States are among those opposing the plan. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Houston.
Allowing Mexican trucks to travel across the border and to all parts of the United States sounds like a great idea to Sarah Sanchez. The interim executive director of San Antonio's Free Trade Alliance says her city, which sits a little over 200 kilometers from the border, would benefit greatly by becoming a logistical hub for U.S.-Mexico trade.
"We see this as vital to the growth of San Antonio as an inland port and the inland port is a development strategy that includes service and trade that flows through San Antonio and developing logistics-related industries," she said. "Once the border is open manufacturers in Mexico cities, such as San Luis Potosi, Mexico City, Monterrey and Saltillo are more likely to consider distribution activities in San Antonio."
But what might be good for San Antonio's business leaders may not be good for the rest of the country and could pose a threat to motorists on U.S. highways, according to the Teamsters Union. The president of that labor organization, which represents most U.S. truckers, Jim Hoffa, says the administration's plan amounts to a "game of Russian roulette on America's highways."
The Teamsters say Mexican trucks are not up to the standards of U.S. trucks and that Mexican drivers are often pushed by their employers to drive longer hours than is safe.
Speaking by telephone with VOA, Teamsters Union spokesman Galen Munroe stresses that the number of U.S. inspectors involved in the program is inadequate to the task.
"It is a real concern of ours from a safety standpoint and, frankly, from a security standpoint," he said. "We do not know what is coming over these borders. They claim they are going to look at each truck and inspect each truck, but they try to do that now and they cannot even do ten percent of the trucks that come over the border."
But Sarah Sanchez says the pilot program includes an extensive inspection process carried out on every truck.
"Before the Mexican trucks can actually come into the United States, they will have to pass a 22-point inspection, safety audit in Mexico," she said. "The safety audit will be conducted by U.S. officials in Mexico before the trucks are even allowed to come into the United States."
She notes that Mexican trucks should have been allowed into the United States in the year 2000, under the terms of NAFTA, which was approved by both countries in 1993. She says that Canadian truckers have been traveling U.S. highways for years and that no one has complained about them.
Galen Munroe, however, counters that Canadian trucks operate under safety rules that meet or even exceed U.S. standards.
"We allow Canadian trucks over our borders because they meet those standards," he said. "In fact, their hours-of-service regulations are more stringent than ours. So, we know the Canadian trucks coming in are safe trucks, they have safe drivers, well-trained drivers. We are really not sure, we really cannot confirm that with Mexican drivers and Mexican trucking companies."
The program to allow Mexican trucks on U.S. highways has also drawn fire from the National Transportation Safety Board and some groups opposed to what they see as a border far too open already, both in terms of trade and such things as illegal immigration and drug smuggling.
One such group is Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation that promotes government accountability. Judicial Watch Director of Investigations Chris Farrell says the free trade agreement should not allow any participating country to be exempt from safety standards.
"Since the agreement has been struck, it has been ratified and is the law of the land, then if we are going to operate under that law, which we must, then we need to do it in a fair and complete way," he said. "That cuts both ways. That cuts against the Mexicans, in the sense that their trucks have to meet the standards, but then it also cuts back against the United States, because if they do meet the standards, then we have to abide by the law. It is a two-way street."
The first Mexican trucks are expected to cross the border under the new pilot program in less than two months, but Congress is expected to hold hearings on the safety issues as early as next week.