Escobar: Border crossings likely to get infrastructure money, but benefits for migrants still up in air

Border Report Tour

El Paso congresswoman gives briefing on how infrastructure law, pending Build Back Better Act will impact region

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Southern ports of entry likely will get upgrades to speed up vehicle traffic with money from the recently-passed $1 trillion federal infrastructure act, a Texas congresswoman says.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of investment over the decades. Most ports of entry haven’t seen any investment aside from minor maintenance and upgrades and some technology,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said on Monday. “This bill doesn’t address exactly what I want to do […] but will provide funding that will help upgrade facilities and hopefully expedite the (cross-border) traffic that we’re seeing.”

Escobar on Monday gave reporters her vision of how the infrastructure law and the Build Back Better Act – on which the Senate has yet to vote – will impact the border region. The act could prove a game-changer for low-income El Paso families who lack health insurance, affordable childcare, or high-speed internet, she said.

It could also provide work permits to thousands of undocumented migrants here who came before 2011, but Escobar admits that’s been a hard-sell with holdout Democratic Senators who hold the key to the act’s passage.

“I am cautiously optimistic that the immigration provisions will make it through the Senate,” Escobar said. “These provisions were strategically tailored […] Does that mean we will get them? It does not mean that. But I am hopeful, and I am optimistic.”

The Build Back Better Act allows undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States continuously to get a reprieve from deportation through a process called “immigration parole” and temporarily secure work permits while they apply for legal immigration status. That could impact up to 7 million people, according to Democratic estimates.

But while the benefits of the Build Back Better Act are pending, border communities are already jockeying for federal infrastructure funds. El Paso, and nearby Southern New Mexico, want money for their ports of entry with Mexico.

Hours-long waits plagued most border crossings prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re slowly getting back to those pre-pandemic levels now that the federal government has lifted non-essential border travel restrictions.

wait time for passenger vehicles and trucks not only frustrate visitors coming to spend money in the U.S. but also create pollution, Escobar said.

“It’s not good for the neighborhoods near the ports of entry, it’s not good for the people coming across sitting in idling cars and it’s not good for our federal personnel. This should help alleviate that,” she said.

It’s still not known how much of the estimated $35 billion that Texas will get from the infrastructure bill will be spent on ports of entry such as the four in El Paso proper and at least one more in El Paso County. New Mexico will get only a fraction of that federal infrastructure money, but officials in El Paso are rooting so some of those funds go to nearby Santa Teresa, which is just across the Texas-New Mexico state line.

“I know (Santa Teresa port expansion) has been identified as a number one priority for the state of New Mexico, as well as on the Mexican side. So, I think that the chances of that port being expanded are very good, and also very needed,” said Eduardo Calvo, executive director of the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Santa Teresa is in New Mexico but still in our metropolitan area, so it is a very important piece of the system of border crossings for our area.”

Business promoters are trying to secure funding for a study to prove to the federal government that commercial truck traffic growth at Santa Teresa warrants a port expansion. The port recently underwent a minor overhaul to accommodate the passing of 150-foot turbine wind blades manufactured in Juarez.

Calvo said he foresees an expansion of the port in “three to five years.”

Escobar, meantime, said she’s working on additional legislation to “reimagine” U.S. ports of entry not only to accommodate commerce, but to properly welcome visitors, returning U.S. citizens and asylum-seekers.

“When you go to airports, especially international airports, they are beautiful, welcoming; ports of entry are not,” she said. “I would like our ports of entry treated the way our airports are treated. That we have modern, beautiful, welcoming ports of entry that provide us not only security but are customer service-based. Our (customs) officers deserve better facilities. We also need to get back to what ports were designed for, which is also process asylum claims on the front end.”

Escobar earlier proposed legislation to route asylum-seekers away from the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and into the care of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement as soon as they establish their claim of credible fear.

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