HOUSTON — “It’s a train wreck." That's how Brent Erenwert, CEO of Brothers Produce, is describing the ramifications of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s latest border security strategy.
“The produce industry became just like the big sacrifice for this decision we didn’t think about," Erenwert said.
On April 6, Abbott sent a letter to the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, ordered state troopers to conduct “enhanced inspections of vehicles” as they cross international ports of entry into the state.
The inspections, which began immediately, are Abbott’s effort to curb human and drug smuggling along the state’s 1,254 mile border with Mexico.
In a press release from the governor’s office, Texans learned Abbott “anticipates a significant rise in cartel-facilitated smuggling via unsafe vehicles upon the end of Title 42 expulsions,” a Trump-era policy the Biden Administration is ending this month.
Texas produce companies feel the squeeze
The increased inspections at 12 border bridges, from Brownsville to El Paso, immediately caused congestion of commercial trucks in Mexico. Houston's Brothers Produce, which receives truckloads of fresh fruit and vegetables from Mexico daily, is measuring the impact of Abbott’s directive as a three-day delay.
“We sell hundreds of thousands of cases every week," Erenwert said of his business which provides fresh produce to retirement homes, school districts, stadiums, restaurants and grocery stores.
“A lot of times we buy things in Mexico because it’s good quality. It’s convenient. It’s fast. We can get things overnight.”
In the business of fresh produce, time is of the essence.
“We try to turn our inventory every two to three days. I mean, we’re selling a dying product that the second it’s picked, we need it within like three or four days. Because we’ve got to get that to the consumers.”
Pushback from fellow Republicans
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a conservative Republican, called on the governor to “immediately end enhanced inspections of commercial vehicles at the southern border.”
“While I share the governor's goals and his frustration with Washington, D.C., and the Biden administration, we cannot cut off our nose to spite our face,” Miller said in an email sent to his subscribers. “The middle of an inflammatory surge and supply chain problems is no time to cause further disruptions."
While all 12 land ports of entry across Texas see commercial truck traffic, the World Trade Bridge in Laredo is the single busiest border bridge in Texas. On Tuesday, Abbott signed an agreement that Nuevo León, a Mexican state, would increase its border security operations. The agreement was enough for Abbott to pull back the additional screenings in Laredo.
On Thursday, he made a similar agreement with the governor of Chihuahua.
A majority of the state’s border bridges are across from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, with others across from the Mexican state of Coahuila.
“The efficient flow of trade on the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t only critical to Texas, but to the entire United States,” wrote Oscar Leeser who governs the Texas city of El Paso. “Any delays will continue to burden the supply-chain issues our country is already facing, and affect our state and nation economically in a negative manner. The number of commercial trucks that have been able to cross is down an estimated 55% to 90% over the last three days. That is a devastating blow, and effectively has made the cost of doing business in Texas much higher.”
'This supply chain's been broke'
Brothers Produce is now circumventing Texas ports of entry for Arizona.
“This supply chain’s been broke,” said Erenwert. “These products are going to cost the farmers a lot of money. Truckers a lot of labor. And ultimately, a lot of food waste is going to come out of this.”
Erenwert expects Texans will soon learn just how Abbott’s expansion of his border security strategy, Operation Lone Star, is clogging up the system when produce isn't available.
“It’s a rat race, at the end of the day. And when it affects the biggest people, it’s going to trickle down all the way," Erenwert predicted.
At a time when U.S. inflation has already exceeded records and the supply chain is still working to recover from the last two years of the pandemic, Erenwert describes the governor's decision as a manmade supply chain problem, “a knee-jerk reaction that really affected an area that wasn’t thought about, that affects all of our lives.”
Lieutenant Chris Olivarez, with the Texas Highway Patrol in the South Texas Region, says DPS has always inspected vehicles. Just not all of them.
According to the latest DPS statistics available, Olivarez said DPS inspected 3,443 commercial vehicles between April 6 and April 10. Of those, 807 were placed out of service for safety violations while 79 commercial drivers were placed out of service. Olivarez said 11,556 violations were detected.
So far, neither the DPS nor Abbott has confirmed whether state troopers have circumvented human or drug smuggling with the enhanced inspections of commercial vehicles at the border.
Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) routinely inspects vehicles coming into the U.S. A media fact sheet released by CBP on Tuesday called the DPS inspections “unnecessary.”
“As a result, vehicles have been significantly delayed in exiting the federal inspection plaza (in El Paso and Laredo) leading to traffic disruptions and critical impacts to an already-strained supply chain,” CBP’s statement reads, in part.