Two-Way Street

By Randy Grider
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The Mexicans are coming!

That was the initial alarm of some truckers, labor unions, politicos and safety officials when they heard in early June that the U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that President Bush could open the U.S.-Mexico border to fulfill terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Others, including fleets, trade organizations, Mexican officials and, again, many truckers, welcomed the news as a sign of new opportunities for commerce and growth for both countries. No doubt, the Supreme Court decision, which allows the Bush administration to open the border without completing a comprehensive environmental study, will be debated for months to come.

Major arguments of opponents concerning opening the border are that most Mexican trucks will pollute the environment and are unsafe for travel on our highways. Many truckers fear Mexican drivers operating in the United States will undercut rates and hamper their ability to earn decent wages. “I don’t think [opening the border is] gonna do us any favors,” says Dean Harbison, a driver from Tallapoosa, Ga. “They’ll drive for $5 a day. Their trucks won’t come up to par. I don’t believe it’s gonna work.”

“It doesn’t bother me one way or the other,” says Bill Gibson, a trucker from Bentonville, Ark. “They should be able to pass our inspections, and 99 percent won’t.”

While some of these are legitimate concerns, opening the border is still a far cry from being a Chicken Little matter. The NAFTA deal has been in the works since former President Nixon laid the groundwork for improved global trade. Since then, each administration, while not without concerns and roadblocks, has moved both countries closer to the reality of free trade.

Parameters are in place to address many concerns, especially those having to do with the safety of Mexican trucks. Regulations must be followed. Mexican trucks and Mexican drivers must conform to our standards and laws – no ifs, ands or buts. And we must hold this administration and future administrations to the task of maintaining these standards.

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If the border does open soon, don’t expect a flood of Mexican carriers operating outside the commercial zone in the near future. “I honestly don’t believe this is going to have a very big impact,” says Bill Webb, president of the Texas Motor Transportation Association. “The day the border opens, I just don’t see anyone standing there with a green flag with all these Mexican trucks coming in.”

One big reason for this is that Mexican truckers can haul only international cargo. A Mexican trucker who hauls freight to a U.S. city must immediately head back, either with cargo bound for Mexico or empty, which cuts profits.

Webb also points out the current wait time to clear the border just isn’t practical or financially feasible for a large number of Mexican trucks to be able to haul outside the commercial zones already in place. Plus, those investors who control the distribution infrastructure have too much money invested to completely revamp the system in the immediate future.

Perhaps our biggest concern should be the overall border situation itself. We haven’t done enough to secure the border from potential terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. NAFTA aside, the border is a huge liability to our national security.

On the same issue, we need to know who these drivers are. We don’t need unscrupulous Mexican drivers who decide to quit and abandon their rigs inside our country in order to disappear. There has to be accountability for all drivers entering our country. If we open the border before fixing these existing problems, the potential for trouble increases.

As for NAFTA itself, the ideas, principles and goals can be good for economic growth. What we have to remember, and what is often overlooked, is that NAFTA is not just an issue of Mexican trucks hauling goods into the United States. It’s a two-way street that also leads into Mexico for American drivers looking for new opportunities. Managed properly, it could be a street paved with prosperity.