Holy week traffic expected to clog international bridges in South Texas

Most years in mid-April, authorities working the international bridges along the southern border are paid overtime by local municipalities to help handle the large flows of traffic crisscrossing the border for Holy Week.

Semana Santa, as it’s more commonly known, typically sees a 20 percent jump in traffic, leading to South Texas stores full of shoppers and restaurants packed with patrons.

This year, though, there will be no overtime to pay for Semana Santa. There are not enough U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers for local cities to even pay. Hundreds of CBP officers have been reassigned from ports of entry to assist Border Patrol agents with attending to large groups of immigrants crossing into the country illegally.

“They’re not allowing us to pay overtime,” said Rigo Villarreal, McAllen’s superintendent of bridges. “They don’t have enough staff.”

Normally around this time, McAllen issues thousands of dollars to help facilitate traffic on the two international bridges the city is in charge of — the Anzalduas International Bridge and the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. Other entities have often pitched in to help international bridges, too. But not this year.

“There’s nothing we can do except advise travelers as much as we can to travel early in the morning,” Villarreal said, adding: “It’s disappointing.”

Villarreal isn’t alone. Others along the border have spoken up about the issues at the ports, as well as some in Congress.

“Some Texas ports of entry have reported cross-border wait times in excess of seven hours, resulting in lost revenue and perished goods,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wrote in a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan this week. “In the coming days, many individuals on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of the border will begin to celebrate the Semana Santa holiday, a time of historically increased travel which will result in further strains and likely increased wait times at our most active land border crossings.”

Pete Saenz, president of the Texas Border Coalition and mayor of Laredo, also wrote a letter to the recently appointed McAleenan.

“In addition to the spiritual significance of the holiday season, Semana Santa is a major vacation and shopping time, and many Mexicans traditionally come to Texas to celebrate and shop,” Sanez wrote. “The week represents as large a boost in retail sales for our region as the Christmas holiday does for most of the rest of the country.”

The Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, meanwhile, is the only full-service cargo bridge in the area, and has already lost 60 CBP officers in recent weeks who have been reassigned to assist the Border Patrol. Fortunately, Bridge Director Luis Bazan said, none of those reassigned were agriculture inspectors.

Pharr is the country’s largest produce port of entry, crossing an average of more than 14,000 produce trucks per month. The agriculture inspectors are busy.

“None of the CBP ag specialists were deployed to deal with the immigration issue, so we’re good there,” Bazan said, hoping to pay the inspectors overtime.

Saenz went add in his letter that any clogs at the international bridges could harm communities.

“Border communities in Texas are concerned that significant delays at our international bridges could interfere with shoppers crossing the border and inflict significant harm on our retail community,” Saenz wrote. “The delays result from the decision by DHS to reassign border inspection agents from their duties at border ports of entry to help process migrants.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, brought some positive news to those concerned about delays in a statement.

“I spoke with CBP Deputy Commissioner Perez and received the commitment that additional 100 agents will be replenished at struggling ports of entry as soon as Monday, April 15, 2019,” Gonzalez said. “The Deputy Commissioner noted that overtime for existing agents will begin and the agency will ask retired vetted agents to return to service in lieu of full-time new hires. I am putting my faith in the Deputy Commissioner and will hold the entire agency accountable until this is resolved. It’s time to get the border back in business.”