New Mexico’s exports to Mexico appear to be headed for a record year. The vast majority of that southbound commerce moves through the Port of Santa Teresa, headed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Port Director Ray Provencio.U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Santa Teresa Port Director Ray Provencio speaks during an interview in his office in Santa Teresa, N.M., Wednesday Aug. 31, 2016. (Andres Leighton/For the Albuquerque Journal)
Provencio, who has roots in southern New Mexico, took the port reins in 2013. He has overseen a near doubling in commercial traffic through the crossing and has developed close ties with the business community in Santa Teresa’s fast-growing industrial area.
Exports to Mexico jumped 17.4 percent in the first half of 2016, to $890 million from $758 million during the same period a year ago, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Sales to Mexico have been climbing steadily for the past six years and reached an all-time high of $1.68 billion in 2015.
Inaugurated in 1997, the Santa Teresa port of entry is open to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, with a southbound lane open till midnight five nights a week, thanks to a “reimbursable service” agreement in which Dell pays overtime and other costs to CBP. Dell manufactures its computers at the huge Foxconn plant in San Jeronimo across the border for just-in-time delivery to consumers in the U.S.
Provencio is also working on an innovative pilot program – not yet launched – in which CBP officers will work in Mexico at the Foxconn site to clear merchandise for import to the U.S. before it crosses the border.
Provencio is an 18-year veteran of CBP and its predecessor, the U.S. Customs Service. He has worked at ports across West Texas, at the CBP training academy in Georgia and in administrative roles in D.C. Originally from El Paso, his family grows pecans in Anthony, N.M., and he considers southern New Mexico home.
He spoke with the Journal about the growth in commercial traffic, the significance of the pilot program and about working closely with the business community.
Here are excerpts from the Journal interview.
Can you tell me where traffic figures are headed?
I remember when I came in, we’d process anywhere from 250 to 300 commercial conveyances a day. Right now. we’re currently processing up to 500 a day, which to me is significant growth. I think it’s also indicative of the plans and initiatives that the state of New Mexico and the stakeholders have implemented here in the region.
Is traffic simply shifting from El Paso, or is it new traffic created by the development in Santa Teresa?
I think it’s a little bit of both. El Paso is pretty much landlocked. A lot of their infrastructure was built way before CBP was even created in 2003 (and they) are restricted in their growth because of the city around them. The difference out here is that we have the ability to expand.
There is a vision in the state of New Mexico and the stakeholders, which attracts new business, new growth. I think the challenge out here is there is a high demand and a limited supply; the warehousing is at capacity. And I think that is what right now may limit exponential growth.
Is the infrastructure at the port of entry at Santa Teresa enough now to accommodate the pace of commercial growth?
We’re handling our workload right now. As far as projected growth, I think we should be OK. I’m looking at the next three to five years.
We’ve also got to understand that this port of entry is one of 329 in the grand scheme of things. Everyone is having to address an increased workload. We’re having to be more fiscally responsible, improving efficiencies. We’re not the quickest at getting what we need. I think it’s great that Congress appropriated funding for an additional 2,000-plus frontline personnel and we’re doing our best to on-board them.
You’ve got to understand we don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution. Any additional minute waiting in line, that can be an impact to the gross domestic product. For every officer that we add on primary (inspection) after a 30-minute wait or so, we contribute 33 jobs into the U.S. Our contribution to the gross domestic product in the U.S. is huge and I think Congress recognized that when they gave us the additional staff.
Dell has been paying to keep the southbound lanes open until midnight five days a week under CBP’s Reimbursable Services Program and has said other companies could take advantage of those hours. Are other companies using that time frame?
The majority of commercial operators are from Dell or the Foxconn facility. We haven’t really seen too significant of a use from other carriers or other exporters, but others are using it.
And those kinds of agreements can be put in place not only by a company, but also by another entity – the state, for example?
It could be by the state or by an organization.
Is there critical mass yet for additional hours at the port?
I think what is interesting about this (reimbursable services) program is it gives the agency an answer now for a request from stakeholders. Every port of entry is receiving continuous requests for additional services. Can’t you do this? Can’t you do that? In the past, this port has always received a lot of requests for additional hours. “We need a 24-hour commercial facility.” Now we have a mechanism. We can’t always keep up with that demand but, if they are interested, they can submit their application and we can review it.
I spoke with a logistics services provider in Santa Teresa about the port staying open later or 24 hours, but the provider expressed security concerns. On the Mexican side, there isn’t much out there and you don’t see a police presence. What would your concerns be if you did start opening later?
A lot of the feedback from stakeholders was similar (to that logistics services provider).
I do know on the other side that it is about a 12.6-mile highway from the edge of Juárez to here. There have been people expressing concern regarding the lighting and other security issues. However, I can tell you, once they get to our facility, it is very safe.
Can you give an update on the pilot program to bring CBP inspections into the Foxconn plant in Mexico?
The concept is, we have trade going south and it has to be inspected by Mexican customs, and you have trade going north and it has to be inspected by CBP. Why not combine those processes, so there is a one-stop shop? Mexican customs and CBP doing a simultaneous review to promote efficiency. We are still in the preliminary stages of the pilot. There still is some infrastructure that needs to be built. A road, some office space. It has been more of working out the higher-level agreements. It was a big change. We are going to have officers working in Mexico dressed the same way I am now.
You mean with your weapon?
Meaning with firearms. While we have authority in the U.S. to carry our firearm anywhere we are conducting our duties, this is an extension. It required Mexico to change their legislation and they did.
Will that be a game-changer for this port of entry?
I think it’s already a game-changer in that it gives recognition to this area of the importance of the port of Santa Teresa and how much we contribute to the U.S. Depending on the success of the pi lot, it might mean we change the way we’re doing business. We also may realize that not every idea is a good idea.
You seem to be frequently engaged with the industrial base in Santa Teresa. Why?
If you notice, we’re at every stakeholder meeting here. We have an open-door policy for any of the business community or stakeholders who have concerns. We want to address them appropriately and quickly. I said it earlier, but we definitely don’t want to be part of the problem. If there is a way for us to be doing our job better, we will.
It’s a twofold mission. People tend to think of us, “Oh they’re just holding the line there at the border.” Well, we also have a responsibility to our economic security. People tend to forget we also have to foster legitimate trade and travel, and part of that is ensuring the free-flowing goods across the border while maintaining the security of the U.S. and the people we’re charged to protect.
I’ve seen a lot of news releases lately about drug busts at Santa Teresa. What have you seen in terms of an increase in illegal traffic?
There is always going to be somebody trying to get through or identify a vulnerability that could further illicit activity. I think our officers and agents out there do a good job in making sure we interdict those and identify problems before they enter the U.S. As far as an overall increase, what I can tell you is that I believe that we are being pretty effective. Do I think we could be better? There is always room for improvement.
How do you stay ahead of the creative ways people try to smuggle?
Border Patrol uses the analogy of the cat and mouse. I like to say the needle in the haystack. We realize that 99 percent of the people coming across are law-abiding and are not coming to engage in illicit activity. But we have to be good about identifying that 1 percent and we can’t have a bad day. We can’t make a mistake. We have to keep up to date on the latest intelligence, the latest trends, the latest concealment techniques. Our officers are highly trained. They go through a rigorous academy. They have ongoing job training. They (the smugglers) adapt. We adapt.
Anything you would like to add that I didn’t ask about?
I’d like to compliment the state. It was great coming here because they have all sorts of plans. They have a binational plan, they have a local engagement plan, everything kind of mirrors up. It’s great to come to a place where you can kind of see the vision of the state of New Mexico, and be a little bit more proactive and less reactive to the problems.
By: Lauren Villagran (Albuquerque Journal – Las Cruces Bureau)
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