One result of the September 11 terrorist attacks has been a tightening of security at U.S. border crossings from Canada and Mexico. This has caused big traffic delays and financial problems for merchants in the border areas who rely on transnational commerce.
As the hot sun beats down on them, thousands of men, women and children pack the pedestrian walkway that extends across the bridge from Juarez, Mexico. The roadway next to them sit hundreds of cars, trucks and buses, moving at a snail's pace, bumper to bumper, as U.S. Customs inspectors thoroughly check each vehicle. For the pedestrians, there are similar checks of documents and items they are carrying with them.
One woman with a baby in a stroller complains about the ordeal. She says it usually takes only five minutes to cross the bridge, but today it took two hours.
U.S. law enforcement officials say they are trying to make the crossing less arduous and time-consuming, but that they also have a responsibility to protect the United States from terrorists. Since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, the border areas have been on a level one alert, the highest state of alert.
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman Leticia Zamarrippa says this has disrupted the normal cross-border flow on which businesses in both El Paso and Juarez rely.
"For the daily commuters, people who come over to work, people who come over to go to school every day, the longer waiting times are an inconvenience," she said. "However, the public has been very understanding. They know why these added security measures are needed and they have expressed their concern as well and they are very understanding. The business community on both sides is concerned and they have expressed concern about the sales decreasing. Here, in El Paso, a lot of the merchants have reported that their sales have decreased and they are concerned about that. Again, they express understanding and they are being very patient."
Merchants along the U.S.-Mexico border reported more than a 50 percent drop in business in the week after the terrorist attacks, but the situation has now improved. Still, business at many El Paso stores is off by 15 percent or more. The delays at the border have also put a dent in trade. There are more than 400 assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, operating in Juarez and providing employment for hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. Since the special security measures went into place, there have been long delays in moving products across the border.
U.S. Customs spokesman Roger Maier says the situation is unfortunate, but that little can be done about it at this time.
"That type of international trade is going to happen regardless of the level of inspection," he said. "It is a business and these people are in it to make money and serve their customers, so they are going to find a way to cope and make the crossing. Individuals - we have seen the number of cars and pedestrians crossing the border go down somewhat. I think people are adjusting their schedules to make the trips to El Paso or other border communities to shop, visit, attend school and go to jobs. It is a bit more of an inconvenience for people, but it may be an inconvenience that we are going to face for some time."
Mr. Maier says new technology may one day help speed the border crossings, but for now agents must rely on their own powers of observation and do thorough inspections of all vehicles. One sign of things getting back to normal can be seen in the illicit drug trade. Mr. Maier says there was a dramatic drop-off in drug seizures at the border in the first week or two after the terrorist attacks. But, he says, drug traffickers have become accustomed to the higher level of security and seizures are now back at normal levels.