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As Texas Snarls Traffic at Border, Mexican Truckers Form Blockade

PHARR, Texas — Trucks attempting to enter Texas loaded with goods from Mexico sat motionless for hours on Tuesday as lengthy vehicle inspections ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott in a clash with the Biden administration over immigration snarled traffic at major commercial crossings.

In the city of Pharr, a major international bridge over which about $12 million in produce is shipped to the United States daily has been effectively shut down in both directions since Monday as scores of drivers in Mexico set up a blockade of their own in protest over the new inspections. A similar protest by truckers also blocked a bridge into El Paso.

Since last week, commercial vehicles entering Texas have faced not only the usual federal immigration and customs inspections, but new checkpoints set up by Texas police on the roadway immediately after a measure Mr. Abbott said he was ordering in response to the flow of illegal drugs and human trafficking across the border. With delays stretching up to 14 hours, some drivers have diverted to Arizona and New Mexico.

“It’s at crisis level now,” Dante Galeazzi, the president of the Texas International Produce Association, said. “The biggest challenge is that we just don’t know how long this is going to last.”

The problems for businesses had been anticipated by the governor when he ordered the inspections and a “zero tolerance” policy for safety violations on commercial vehicles. “This is going to dramatically slow traffic from Mexico into Texas,” Mr. Abbott said last week.

But Mr. Abbott said the safety checks were needed to increase oversight at the border, even if state police were not legally authorized to search for migrants or drugs at the checkpoints. “We will use any and all lawful powers to curtail the flow of drugs, human traffickers, illegal immigrants, weapons and other contraband into Texas,” Mr. Abbott has said.

The arrival of migrants is expected to sharply increase next month with the Biden administration’s plan to end a Trump-era pandemic policy in which a majority of unauthorized migrants are turned away at the border under an emergency public health order known as Title 42.

Mr. Abbott, a two-term Republican up for re-election in November, has presented the inspections as a means of addressing the anticipated impacts of that termination, which is expected to lead to thousands of additional migrants seeking asylum across the border each day — the largest number of them in Texas.

Mr. Abbott strongly opposes some of the Biden administration’s moves to ease Trump-era restrictions on immigration. But because the federal government alone has authority over immigration matters, Mr. Abbott has sought novel strategies to insert the state into immigration enforcement, such as arresting migrants for misdemeanor trespassing. The vehicle inspections are part of that effort: a carefully constructed policy aimed at smugglers and migrants but carried out under powers available to the state, namely vehicle safety.

Mr. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the growing delays in truck traffic at the border.

In a news release, Customs and Border Protection said delays were being felt at major commercial crossings into Texas as a result of “additional and unnecessary inspections” by state police, leading to a drop in commercial traffic of up to 60 percent.

“This has national ramifications,” said John D. Esparza, the chief executive of the Texas Trucking Association. “This is trade going to Ford Motor Company. This is trade going to Minnesota. It’s not just about the city of Laredo trying to get stuff to their local H-E-B,” he said, referring to the Texas grocery chain.

The association endorsed Mr. Abbott for re-election in February, and Mr. Esparza said he immediately got in touch with the governor’s office after the order to express his concerns. “I haven’t had a response, quite frankly,” he said.

Mexico is the state’s largest trading partner, with more than $100 billion in imports in 2019, according to a report from the Texas Department of Transportation. At one of the busiest crossings, in Laredo, 16,000 trucks ordinarily pass through on a given day, Mr. Esparza said.

In the past, state police have conducted safety checks on a small fraction of the commercial vehicles coming over from Mexico, without dedicated checkpoints. The backups at the border began after Mr. Abbott called for checks on every truck entering from Mexico at certain major crossings.

The blockade on the other side of the border in Pharr, affecting trucks going into and out of Mexico, led to a total halt in truck traffic across the border.

At other major crossings, Mexico-bound trucks have been able to get through, while those bound for the United States back up in a seemingly endless line, moving slowly or not at all. Private vehicle traffic has in most cases remained unaffected.

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for governor, attacked Mr. Abbott during a news conference in Pharr on Tuesday, standing with affected business owners in a large and apparently empty cold-storage facility.

“Greg Abbott is killing businesses and the Texas economy with this stunt,” Mr. O’Rourke said.

Calls for the governor to end the inspection policy came not just from Democrats. The state’s conservative agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, also urged Mr. Abbott to reverse course.

“You cannot solve a border crisis by creating another crisis at the border,” Mr. Miller said in a statement.

Arnoldo Curiel, the general manager of Sunrise Produce in McAllen, said backups at the border had caused customers to cancel orders and left him wondering how much longer he could afford to keep a work force of 150 people. “We’re either going to have to let guys go or it’s going to cost us to keep paying them,” he said.

Mr. Curiel said he had four trucks that should have crossed from Mexico on Friday or Saturday but still had not made it. “They’re stuck, they can’t cross in Pharr, and they can’t go back to Mexico,” he said.

The Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge sees about 3,000 commercial crossings a day. That number has dwindled to between 500 and 700 since the inspections began, according to estimates from the National Chamber of Freight Transport, widely known as CANACAR, which represents Mexican trucking companies.

Crossings into the United States are occasionally closed because of weather or clogged by traffic, industry experts said, but the scale of the current delays and the indefinite nature of Mr. Abbott’s order left companies on both sides of the border frustrated.

The protest in Mexico began late Monday, when more than 100 drivers began blocking access to the Pharr-Reynosa bridge in protest of the Texas governor’s inspection order, said Edgar Zamorano, a delegate with CANACAR.

Mr. Zamorano said he had heard reports of drivers enduring up to 14 hours in line, under an unforgiving sun and without access to bathrooms or food, as a result of the Texas inspections. Some arrived at the bridge before sunrise and did not make it to the U.S. side until 9:30 p.m.

“It is a peaceful protest, to shed light on the inhumane conditions drivers have been enduring,” Mr. Zamorano said.

Truck drivers coming from Mexico already undergo rigorous inspections for drugs or people attempting to cross illegally by federal agents in the United States, examinations that can include X-rays and other screenings.

Since last week, Texas state patrol officers have conducted more than 3,400 additional inspections and taken more than 800 vehicles out of service for defective brakes, tires and lighting, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Asked if any of the checks turned up illicit drugs or migrants crossing illegally, the department did not provide any information.

On Tuesday, idling trucks bound for Mexico packed a Stripes gas station in Pharr as drivers waited for instructions from their bosses.

Gilberto Cruz, 54, made it across the bridge last Wednesday, offloading cilantro from Aguascalientes. By Monday morning, he should have been on his way back to Mexico, his truck filled with cotton. Instead, he was met with impossibly long lines on the U.S. side of the border because of the blockade protest in Mexico.

“If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” Mr. Cruz said. He said some truckers were going to other Texas border cities, including Brownsville and Rio Grande City, “to see if they can cross.”

Another trucker from Mexico, Miguel Martinez, 53, said crossing elsewhere was not an option for him. “I would have to pay for the extra diesel, and redo all of the customs paperwork,” Mr. Martinez said. He said he earned about $150 on each leg of the journey, and paid his expenses out of pocket.

Mr. Martinez said he did not have a problem with the inspections, though he wished that the Texas police would be more respectful of the long wait times truckers have been forced to endure without food, water or bathrooms.

“I heard one trucker went into spasms from the heat,” he said. “I think C.B.P. felt bad for us. They were handing out pizza and bottles of water.”

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