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Customs and Border Protection Authorization Act Can Improve Trade, Training and Stakeholder Engagement at the Border | Commentary

The U.S. – Mexico Border Mayors Association is heartened by Congressional steps these past few weeks to formally authorize the security functions of U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the first time since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002.

Last month, the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security discussed and passed the CBP Authorization Act. Congress has never authorized CBP to perform the mission it does today, and this legislation provides an opportunity to do just that.

Unlike other federal agencies, CBP performs the dual mission of securing our homeland while also facilitating legitimate trade and travel across our country’s ports of entry. The full House Homeland Security Committee will also soon have a chance to review and revise H.R. 3846 which, if enacted, would go far in helping the Department of Homeland Security build a truly unified workforce within CBP.

Cities along the southwest border have for years borne the brunt of border security policy enacted by Congress, often without close collaboration of elected officials, community and business leaders who actually live and work in border communities. Border security should not be only measured by how many miles of fence we construct along the U.S.-Mexico border. Rather, security should be measured by how well we protect our country and region’s vital interests: our people, our economy, and our infrastructure among them.

Security, for example, should be measured not only by how many criminals CBP catches, but also how quickly they process legitimate trade and travel through our ports of entry. Cross-border trade with Mexico contributes to 6 million American jobs throughout the United States. In Texas alone, nearly half a million jobs rely on the $86 billion of trade with Mexico. However, annual delays at our land ports of entry cost 26,000 U.S. jobs and $6 billion in lost economic output. Much of these delays are a result of inadequate and outdated port infrastructure and significant staffing gaps within CBP. The act attempts to bridge this gap and places the responsibility of trade facilitation, port modernization, and personnel management directly with the commissioner of CBP.

Given the number of people that engage with CBP every day, Congress must ensure that the CBP establishes clear standards of professional conduct for its officers and agents. We applaud the Subcommittee’s inclusion of several bipartisan provisions that aim to improve the professional conduct of CBP agents and officers and quality control systems within the agency. Included among them are requirements for the CBP commissioner to:

Create a uniform complaint process throughout the agency.

Create standards that CBP must follow when searching through a person’s digital devices.

Adopt a standardized methodology to assess wait times at ports of entry.

Make publically accessible data regarding migrant deaths and describe what CBP can do to prevent them in the future.

Require CBP agents and officers to participate in additional training and continuing education classes.

Establish standard use of force procedures and uniform system to track and evaluate the use of deadly force by CBP personnel.

The act can be strengthened to include a formalized way for border stakeholders, such as trade associations, local governments and local law enforcement engage with CBP to provide feedback on ways to further facilitate economic growth, enlist civil society partners in securing the border while holding firm to the protection of civil rights. This ‘DHS Border Oversight Commission’ of stakeholders can be appointed by Congress and serve as a compliment to its oversight duties which can further align our border enforcement infrastructure to our American values.

This commission would be a venue where, for example, we could promote the idea that our businesses and our economy will benefit if CBP has the ability to promote the use of public-private partnerships and technology to streamline procedures and facilitate trade.

Additionally, the CBP Authorization Act can be strengthened to ensure that border agents receive more modernized training so that they facilitate trade in the most professional and respectful way possible. All would agree that more training of our border agents can only serve the interests of our citizens.

John Cook, formerly mayor of El Paso, TX, is the Executive Director of the US-Mexico Border Mayors Association.

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