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US Border Alert Negatively Impacts Mexican 'Maquiladoras'

The heightened state of alert on the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico have had a negative impact on the vital trade between the three nations that are joined by the North American Free Tree Agreement. The delays at border crossings could have an especially debilitating effect on shipments moving from assembly plants known as maquiladoras in Mexico. VOA's Greg Flakus went to the biggest of these operations, in the city of Juarez, Mexico.

At the more than 50 Delphi auto parts factories here in Mexico, workers put together a wide variety of electrical components and other parts used in automobiles. Employment here is highly prized because the wages are good by Mexican standards and so are the working conditions. But the slowdown in the U.S. economy and then the terrorist attacks of September 11 have produced fear of layoffs. In the past year, more than 100,000 people have lost jobs at maquiladoras, but Delphi has managed to avoid any mass layoffs.

Delphi Public Relations representative Xochitl Diaz says workers are nervous. She says that since the events of September 11 in the United States, all the Delphi employees in Mexico have been very attentive to information being provided by the company and have been hopeful that things will get better. She says employees understand the link between their jobs and the economy across the borderline.

Delphi Corporate Affairs Manager Michael Hissam says that, in spite of delays for trucks going both north and south, the flow of material and products continues. He says this benefits people on both sides of the border whose jobs depend on it.

"Everyday, Delphi in Mexico uses up to 28 million U.S. made components. We source from about 48 of the 50 states for our operations, supporting tens of thousands of U.S. jobs," he says. "What is so important is the cooperation that, during this time, the governments of both sides have done to expedite the flow of material."

Back in his office, Mr. Hissam presents facts about Delphi's operations in Mexico. He says over the past decade or so it has become the largest private employer in the country, operating plants not just on the border but in several cities in the middle of the country. He says he does not believe the current problems will disrupt the dynamics of Delphi's business in Mexico.

"The future? I am confident," he says. "Delphi is confident and to be successful takes all parties, government, industry working together at all times to assure a future and it has to take that type of commitment that says, we are going to win."

But many economists and political observers of the border region remain concerned about what effect the current alert on the border could have on the regional economy. Antonio Payan is a Mexican professor of International Affairs who teaches at the University of Texas in El Paso. He lives in Juarez and crosses the international bridge each day to go to work. He sees a border area that has grown into a dynamic, cross-national economic zone now being threatened by both an economic downturn in the United States and the heightened security at the border crossings.

"The slowdown in the maquiladoras, I think, is obvious," says professor Payan. "The question is to discern how much of a slowdown is there from the economic slowdown that was already expected before September 11 and how much of the slowdown is due to the decisions post-September 11. That is very difficult to sort out. We do not know exactly."

Mr. Payan is also familiar with the nature of terrorism. He once taught a class on the subject at Georgetown University in Washington. He says a war against terrorism is likely to be a lengthy and costly battle.

"What does that mean for the border? Does that mean it is going to last a very long time?" he asks. "Does that mean the U.S. is going to be officially or technically at war for a very long time and therefore the border is going to be tightened for a very long time? I do not know how unsustainable or sustainable this situation is, but I think we should buckle down for a little while. It is not going to go away in the next month or two."

Mr. Payan says it would be in the interest of the United States to address the problem at the borders by assigning more agents, if necessary, to speed up the inspection process. Otherwise, he says, cities like Juarez and El Paso will become economic victims of the terrorist actions and the reaction to them.