Mexican trucker Brigido Moctezuma lives in a city just south of Mexico’s border with Texas, far from talks on whether he’ll be able to drive his loads of vehicle air bags all the way to assembly lines in Detroit.
All he knows is that he and his boss’ fleet of trucks are ready, and have been for years.
“The line is ready. We’ve bought many new trucks; everything is in good order,” he said. “But it seems like every time it almost happens that we can go, it doesn’t.”
Access to all U.S. highways was promised by the year 2000 under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, as was access through Mexico for U.S. carriers. A similar exchange with Canada has been carried out without a hitch.
But U.S. trucking companies, unions and environmental groups blame Mexico’s loosely regulated trucking industry. They contend that trucks used by Mexican carriers are older and poorly maintained, the result of that country’s less stringent environmental and safety standards. The provision will cost Americans thousands of jobs, pollute the air, damage highways and threaten national security, they say.
Mexican carriers insist their rigs meet U.S. standards. Meanwhile, however, their trucks can’t go beyond a 20-mile border zone in Texas.
Mexico has said the United States is reneging on part of its NAFTA role, and a February 2001 international arbitration panel agreed.
President Bush said in 2001 said he would allow the trucks, and a June 2004 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to remove the last legal barrier.
In an unanimous decision, the court said that the president – not federal agencies – had ultimate say on whether the trucks could enter.
The ruling in response to a lawsuit by Public Citizen against the U.S. Transportation Department rendered moot the nonprofit organization’s efforts to keep out Mexican trucks until air quality issues are studied.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court that agencies may not “countermand the President’s decision to lift the moratorium or to act categorically to prevent Mexican carriers from registering and Mexican trucks from entering the country.”
But two and a half years later, the trucks still aren’t rolling.
Ian Grossman, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration , said a safety plan for Mexican trucks is ready should the highways be opened. But he added negotiations with Mexico are ongoing.
He said he was not at liberty to discuss the details.
“There’s a number of topics that continue to be ironed out,” he said.
A Bush spokesman said Grossman was the administration’s spokesman on the trucking issue.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and the former head of the NHTSA, said the sticking point is legislation calling for U.S. inspectors to perform safety checks at trucking companies in Mexico.
“The Mexican government disagreed or disapproved,” she said. “That has caused a standoff. That’s why the border hasn’t opened.”
She said Public Citizen is now working on legislation requiring drivers from Mexico to have “black boxes” to record driving hours and prevent fatigue, something the group also is seeking in the United States.
Fairborn Ghadar, director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Pennsylvania State University, said the delays were political and that NAFTA was being compromised.
“I think this is just embedded with all sorts of politics – local politics, labor union politics,” Ghadar said. “The law can say one thing but you can put so many barriers in front of people that finally it just doesn’t make any sense for people. I think that’s what’s going on.”
What it means is that truck loads are transferred from a Mexican to U.S. carrier, Ghadar said, and the consumer ultimately pays the added cost. The transfer business itself is a thriving border trade.
“If we really have NAFTA and NAFTA’s serious, why shouldn’t the trucks be able to come? We first said they were dirty, then we said it’s not safe …. They’ve gone through all the hoops and loops and jumped this way and that way, and soon as you have an election in the state or the county or this or that they just put new barriers. When you put enough of these small barriers together, you prevent free trade.”
George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William & Mary said it was a simple equation.
“Environmental Protections (plus) Safety (plus) Potential Job Loss (equals) politics,” he wrote in an e-mail. “For many lawmakers, especially those in the House of Representatives, NAFTA represents a four-letter word. They are not only concerned about the possible loss of jobs by American drivers, but many point to safety hazards and environmental degradation that, they believe, would follow.”
For Moctezuma, the Mexican trucker, it’s a continuing frustration.
“They talk a lot about we’ll be able to go but things always return to normal,” he said. “There are maquilas (Mexican border factories) that want to be able to go all the way … I want to go, it earns a little more, right?”