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FEBRUARY 2019 • 19


The Wheels of Progress

Port of Entry improvements scale up Columbus/Palomas area


ast summer at the US-Mexican border it looked as if someone was building a little city just east of the Columbus highway. A new wider Port of Entry (POE) is a $96 million project being built by the US Department of Homeland Security. It started officially at the groundbreaking event on April 17 last year and will continue until the middle of this summer. The main purpose of the expansion is to create more space for the inspection of commercial trucks, especially the ones carrying chile from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. The NAFTA trade agreement allowed Mexican producers to bring their chile across the border without tariffs. It’s a huge construction project and a beehive of activity. They’re tearing down and building up at the same time, while managing everyday traffic. I watched in December as workmen wrenched out metal parts of the former “canopy,” or roof, of the inspection booths for private vehicles. They were 16.6 feet high. They used a specially made machine, like a steam shovel but smaller, called in Spanish a “mano de chango” (hand of a monkey), described for me by a couple of grinning Mexican-American workers. The size of the new POE has grown many times over, looking something like a park with its Southwest plants, small pools, and big rough-hewn rocks. The style is low and lean. There are many low walls in the area with bricks arranged in horizontal stripes of different shades of brown. It looks to me as if it was a visitors’ center on the border between California and Arizona, made in about 1964. (Some sketches of the project on-line do show sketches of 1964-type long, aerodynamic cars passing through the booths.) At a groundbreaking ceremony in April, former Congressman Steve Pearce (Rep.) said, “Not only will the new port aid in the overall strategy to secure our southern border and keep communities in New Mexico safe, but it will increase the economic opportunities for Columbus and the County.” The issues of maintaining the security of the border and producing jobs may be controversial. The extent of the border “crisis” in the last couple of months was two small groups of migrants from Honduras who were in the caravan – women and children – who stayed a few days at the Fire Station in Palomas. They were helped with blankets, food, and clothes by Border Partners, Promotoras de Salud, and Grupo Beta. They then moved on to Tijuana. But it’s clear the POE will be busy. There will be 14 inspection fa-

a museum about Pancho Villa open to people in Mexico and the United States. The building was constructed in 1910 and used as a casino until 1931, when it became the Aduana. Others are considering the possibility of creating or paving two streets on either side of Palomas to unclog the main street from traffic. The east side road would be for trucks and the west side would be for regular traffic waiting in line to cross the border. Help us continue food donations for Palomas. Please send checks to: Light at Mission Viejo, c/o Jim Noble, 4601 Mission Bend, Santa Fe, NM 87507. Also, write: “Casa de Amor food donations” on check. A shipment of green hot chile awaits inspection by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist who checks for pests and signs of disease at the Columbus port of entry in 2014. (Photo by Chad Gerber/Wikimedia Commons)

cilities in the new port, instead of the six there used to be. They are mostly huge docks that haven’t been built yet. Big trucks loaded with chile and other produce used to park in the sweltering heat for hours on the street to the east of Cinco de Mayo, Palomas’ main street. It was the NAFTA agreement of 1994 that caused the chile harvest in Mexico to soar to 90,000 acres a year because growers didn’t have to pay tariffs anymore to cross over their northern border. The flip side of this development is that the New Mexico crop plummeted from 34,500 acres down to about 8,000 acres a year. New Mexico can’t compete with the low wages in Mexico. There will also be three booths for private vehicles crossing north of the border, instead of the former two, in order to free up the traffic. But two workers in the inspection booths told me the same number of employees will be working when the project is finished, so the lines waiting to cross will still be long. Work on the US side of the POE project has mostly been for Hensel Phelps Construction Company, a $3.4 billion business with an office in El Paso. Isabel Gutierrez, owner of the San Jose Grocery in Columbus, remembers a year ago when Irma’s Restaurant was filled with local residents filling out application forms for Phelps. But almost nobody got the jobs. Almost everyone working with Phelps comes from El Paso every day, in vans with a few men in them. Gutierrez said there are people in Columbus with skills, especially in driving and carpentry, that could have been hired, but she says she knows of only two local people working on the Port of Entry project. But the few businesses in town, including her own, have

benefited from the POE project. “The first year, the construction was great,” Lawrence Haddad, owner of the Borderlines Café, said. On the Mexican side, the workers were from many Mexican states. They were part of a “military project,” but only the very top echelon of employees are army people. Manuel Sorut, chief manager of the project, said various Mexican states are identified with certain skills. For example, bricklayers come from Puebla and Oaxaca, painters are identified with the State of Mexico and electricians come from Mexico City. According to Sorut, 550 people were employed in the POE jobs last year, 80 of whom were Palomas residents. With the low level of education in Palomas, these tended to be involved in clerical work, cleaning and cooking. Workers worked regular Mexican hours, from 8-10 hours from Monday to Saturday. But certain people worked seven days for 12, 14, or even 16 hours. Sorut said they slept in private houses at 30 or 40 people per house. But another man, Ramon Diaz, who got to know the workers because he sells used clothes and other things, said that wasn’t true. He said there were about six or eight people per house. Diaz also said the workers earned from P1,500 to P2,500 per week ($79 to $132). As for restaurants where workers ate, it was the lower-priced ones that benefited the most. Axel Figueroa of Tortas Chacon said they earned about $30 extra from the workers each morning and evening. But the more expensive San Jose Restaurant was not affected. Most Mexican workers have already left Palomas – with some extra money to give to their families. In line with the radical reno-

vations at the border, there are plans to turn the current customs building in Palomas into

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