Deep concerns, grave issues: Weighty opposition condemns opening border to Mexican trucks

by Sandi Soendker, managing editor

At a press conference Feb. 7 in Washington, DC, a coalition of trade and highway safety groups and members of Congress voiced fervent opposition to allowing Mexican trucks access to American highways. Alongside Teamsters’ president James Hoffa, representatives from OOIDA, AFL-CIO, Public Citizen, and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (AHAS) were joined by members of Congress intensely concerned with this week’s ruling by a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) arbitration panel.

The panel’s final ruling finds the U.S. cannot continue keeping Mexican trucks out of the United States, as it is in violation of NAFTA. What it means is that the U.S. must open the border to Mexican trucks or face sanctions.

Congressional leaders in attendance to oppose the opening of the border included Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Rep. Jack Quinn (R-NY), Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) and others.

Paul Cullen Jr. delivered OOIDA’s comments, expressing the association’s 59,000 members’ absolute opposition to opening the border at this time. “Beyond the physical conditions of a truck, states are ill equipped to review and enforce a trucker’s compliance with insurance, immigration and customs rules,” said the association spokesman. “OOIDA members feel that allowing even more trucks to come into the U.S. will only exacerbate these problems, and we should not do it until we are prepared for the consequences.”

On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of American small-business truckers, OOIDA called on President George W. Bush to maintain the current restrictions on Mexican trucks until there is a system in place to assure that Mexican trucks meet U.S. safety standards and comply with U.S. law.

OOIDA stated it is not concerned with whether the NAFTA panel decision is correctly based on the promises made in the NAFTA agreement. “Safety and economic concerns were never part of the negotiations,” said Cullen. “OOIDA is very concerned that neither country is yet prepared for the consequences of a border opened to more truck traffic.”

OOIDA was clearly chagrined at the panel’s failure to consider a number of critical issues. Even under NAFTA and the panel decision, a Mexican truck can only deliver a cross-border shipment to its destination in the United States and pick up another shipment for return to Mexico. Immigration and Customs rules prohibit Mexican trucks from hauling loads between two points within the United States. INS and the Customs Service must be able to enforce those rules that still prohibit Mexican trucks from operating freely within the United States. OOIDA pointed out that currently, neither the INS nor Customs are prepared to monitor compliance with such laws by tens of thousands of Mexican trucks and drivers. If these laws are not enforced and Mexican trucks are able to operate freely, they will quickly depress truckdriver earnings in the United States and drive many experienced and capable drivers from U.S. roads.

“The opening of a poorly kept Mexican highway system to U.S. trucks is hardly an equivalent exchange for the benefit of allowing Mexican trucks on the best highway system in the world,” said OOIDA. “Very few American truckers who have the choice will accept loads going into Mexico. Their legitimate concerns for safety and security prevent them from traveling south of the border.”

Speaking for the Teamsters, James Hoffa said “We believe the panel erred in faulting the United States for choosing highway safety over an ill-conceived and unenforceable trade regime. We all agree that unsafe trucks must be blocked at the border. Yet millions of them escape detection every year.” Hoffa said the Teamsters’ remain adamant that the safety of U.S. citizens must come before “diplomatic niceties.”

The overall message behind all of the participants’ condemnation of the panel’s directive was central to each group’s adamant conviction that the border is not ready to be opened yet. Dr. Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (AHAS) voiced AHAS’ concern that the needed safety enforcement programs are not in place and despite repeated promises, Mexico has failed to establish any meaningful border safety inspection program on their side of the border that could stop unsafe and dangerous trucks from crossing into the U.S. “This places the burden of stopping lawbreakers entirely upon the U.S. state and federal border inspectors,” said Donaldson.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) was not in attendance, but his comments were delivered by a member of his staff. Wolf, a vigorous proponent of truck safety, expressed deep reservations about the Bush administration allowing trucks from Mexico to travel throughout the U.S., regardless of safety problems with the trucks. In a letter to DOT Secretary Norman Mineta, Wolf cited his concerns with the non-existence of drug/alcohol testing for Mexican drivers, no database between the U.S. and Mexico to exchange information on past violations of Mexican drivers and the United States’ inability to enforce hours-of-service rules. “A truckdriver from Mexico could have been driving for 24 hours straight before even entering the United States,” Wolf wrote.

Also, notably not in attendance, was the American Trucking Associations (ATA), whose leadership not only has no objections to the panel’s decision favoring Mexico, but applauds it.

Panel says U.S. must open border:
Mexican trucking association objects

The five-member NAFTA arbitration panel’s ruling, released Feb. 7, orders the United States to examine the safety qualifications of Mexican trucking companies on a case-by-case basis.

The ruling did not require the U.S. to grant operating authority to a specific number of Mexican carriers, but directed the U.S. to consider applications on a case-by-case basis. The panel upheld that the U.S. is entitled to set its own safety standards and to assure Mexican trucking companies and their drivers comply. Will the U.S. respect the ruling of the arbitration committee? According to White House spokesman Claire Buchan, President George W. Bush’s aides continue to review the 84-page document that details the final findings of the arbitration panel. Buchan says the president clearly believes in free trade with Mexico, but has not yet decided when, or how, to implement the change. Amy Stillwell, of the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, speculated that implementation will be taking shape in the following weeks.

According to the NAFTA accord, Bush has 30 days to say yes or no to the panel’s directive. After the period, Mexico can ask for compensatory tariffs equal to the amount of damage incurred from a closed border. According to the Feb. 8 Journal of Commerce, U.S. government sources say they are waiting for Mexico to quantify the damages and to present a proposal for compensatory measures.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s largest trucking organization spoke at a press conference this week and said it wants a five-year delay before opening up of cross-border trucking between Mexico and the U.S. According to Reuters, the National Chamber of Cargo Transport (CANACAR) called for a postponement of the trade panel ruling, warning that Mexican haulers needed time to prepare themselves for competition with U.S. carriers. 

CANACAR President Miguel Quintanilla told media representatives that while U.S. trade officials have indicated that the Bush administration planned to open U.S. highways to Mexican trucks, the border should remain closed “while the conditions for (fair) competition are not in place.” 

Quintanilla said that Mexico’s “aging fleet” of some 375,000 trucks had an average of 15 to 20 years hard service on very rough Mexican roads and were in no condition to compete with U.S. trucks, whose age averages five years. CANACAR asked for transportation funding from the Mexican government to help the trucking industry meet NAFTA’s objectives of “healthy competition between (member) countries.”


Bush meets with Mexico’s President Fox

Paramount among those issues that face President George W. Bush and Mexico’s President Vincente Fox is the recent ruling by a NAFTA arbitration panel that the U.S. should give Mexican trucks access to U.S. roadways. But the meeting between the two on Feb. 16 was to build a relationship, not to break new ground on policy, so the meeting produced little in the way of commitments.

In Mexico, truckers are telling Fox they are not ready to operate on U.S. highways and are asking him to wait five years before acting on the panel’s decision. In the U.S., the panel’s decision has been met with opposition from a diverse representation of lawmakers, safety groups, trucking organizations and labor groups. 

As the presidents met Feb. 16, U.S. Congressman Sherrod Brown chose his home state of Ohio as the site of his public message. Flanked by safety advocates and representatives from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Congressman Brown urged President Bush to keep unsafe trucks off U.S. roads. OOIDA Director Ray Kasicki and Joan Kasicki, joined Brown at the news conference. In El Paso, TX, several hundred Teamsters staged a protest.