Editor's Journal

Border Politics

Parade of Mexican trucks storming into the United States seems unlikely

Mexican officials say Mexican trucks could be rolling again in the United States by mid-summer. An optimistic view, but an unrealistic one.

Randy Grider is editor of Truckers News. He is the son of a career trucker and holds a CDL. Write him at [email protected].

President Barack Obama and President Felipe Calderón announced in early March an agreement to end the trucking dispute between the countries. Aside from a “concept document” released in January and vague hints at what the program would entail, nothing suggests the new agreement will be less controversial than the previous cross-border program. After all, the arguments for cutting funding for a pilot cross-border trucking program implemented by President Bush remain unresolved.

Numerous reasons were cited for killing the pilot program soon after Obama took office, including concerns about the safety and environmental standards of Mexican trucks; the hours-of-service compliance, reliable drug testing and language barriers of Mexican drivers; border security, especially the potential of cross-border long-haul to include smuggled illegal drugs and other contraband; and the loss of American jobs.

While the short-term program with its limited participation of Mexican carriers showed promise of fulfilling the United States’ obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement, it did little to silence its critics. When the Obama administration pulled the plug on the program in 2009, Mexico retaliated with tariffs on many U.S. exports to the tune of approximately $2.4 billion annually.

Pressure from certain agricultural and manufacturing segments hurt by the tariffs brought both sides back to table.

A true open border in less volatile times would be good for both economies. But these are hardly ideal circumstances for Mexico or, for that matter, the United States.

Still, not much has changed for either side of the issue. Labor unions are still opposed, as well as many American truckers and safety advocates. Other organizations like the American Trucking Associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are in favor of an open border for economic reasons.

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But the issue in Congress has hardly been a partisan matter in the past. It’s much more complex. Take, for instance, that as former members of Congress, both Obama and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood voted against opening the border.

While Obama promises Mexican carriers that are ultimately granted authority will be held to a higher standard than American truckers in meeting certain criteria, including the use of electronic onboard recorders, the successes of the previous pilot program weren’t considered worthy enough in the eyes of many to continue it.

There is no argument over the fact that the United States has failed to uphold its end of NAFTA obligations when it comes to allowing authorized Mexican carriers the right to haul cargo beyond the 25-mile commercial zone. The disagreement, as it has been for more than two decades, is the why.

Making it more contentious than ever are the drug cartel wars that have increased in the past few years, especially in Mexican border towns. Making a cross-border program reciprocal seems even more difficult now than in 2007 when the Bush pilot program was implemented. And then there is Mexico’s mandate that the proven carriers be given permanent authority to haul in the United States after 18 months of satisfying all U.S. requirements. The Mexican government is no longer interested in a limited pilot program. This could be a real sticking point for some opponents of NAFTA.

With the blessing of Congress, the Obama administration could make the authorization of Mexican carriers restrictive enough to satisfy all parties until Mexico resolves its internal problems, which could take a while.

A true open border in less volatile times would be good for both economies. But these are hardly ideal circumstances for Mexico or, for that matter, the United States. We commend the Obama administration for taking positive action on the issue, though it seems the president has been forced to try to mend fences that were torn down in a fit of political posturing.

This has become as much about politics as it is economics, and we are not convinced Obama has enough clout in this controversial quagmire to pull it off. While he may be able to ink the deal, we don’t share the optimism of Mexican officials the border will open in the near future. Best case, we could see some of the tariffs lift temporarily.

We’ve been down the road several times and the same roadblocks are still looming on the horizon.