U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Truckers Brace for Potential Changes to NAFTA | NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
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U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Truckers Brace for Potential Changes to NAFTA

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    NEWSLETTERS

    President Donald Trump has backed off threats to eliminate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, at least for now.

    (Published Friday, May 5, 2017)

    President Donald Trump has backed off threats to eliminate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, at least for now.

    Trump is still promising dramatic changes to the agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

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    South Texas is bracing for any potential shifts in policy. Laredo is home to the busiest inland port for commercial entry in the United States, according to the Laredo Field Offices of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

    Drive along Interstate 35 in Laredo and you will find yourself surrounded by semi-trailers on the so-called "NAFTA Highway."

    Inside the international bridge crossing, CBP agents screen cargo truck drivers coming into Laredo. Agents use technology to scour the trucks and their shipments for illegal products and drugs.

    NBC 5 was allowed to document the agency's latest seizure in mid-April.

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    At first glance, one shipment appeared to be cardboard headed into Texas.

    Each cardboard pallet was carefully packaged.

    But something was hiding inside.

    "They're dismantling the pallets," said Albert Flores, deputy port director.

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    As agents removed several layers of each pallet, they discovered carefully cut-out squares containing white plastic-wrapped bundles.

    In total, agents seized 36 bundles.

    "It's pretty impressive, of course, it's teamwork all around," said Flores.

    An even closer inspection involving agents peeling back several layers of the packaging revealed what CBP agents already knew and we could smell: marijuana.

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    "You're looking at 10 kilos, 9-10 kilos per package," said Flores.

    The seizure totaled more than 700 pounds of pot, considered a small seizure compared other others made here.

    The agency reports a 35-percent increase in methamphetamine seized in the fiscal year ending in September 2016.

    "We can't obviously check every single one of them, but we can surely try our best to identify the high-risk ones and then obviously use our different technologies and resources to conduct inspections," said Flores.

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    This discovery is credited to the layered enforcement and screening at the bridge with more commercial cargo than any other inland port in the country: the World Trade Bridge in Laredo.

    An estimated 7,200 cargo trucks come into the U.S. through Laredo every day. Drivers spend several hours maneuvering through different checkpoints in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo.

    There are tall, yellow towers that screen for radiological materials and dirty bombs.

    "For every single truck coming through, they're getting screen for any of those materials," said Flores.

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    A second checkpoint includes K9 officers and agents checking each driver's documentation and cargo.

    Many trucks are deemed high risk depending on the cargo and the driver's demeanor.

    They are sent to be X-rayed.

    Meanwhile, licensed Mexican drivers who are allowed to make long-haul trips into the U.S. with their cargo stand and wait outside the main exit gate.

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    These men have gone through customs and await their driving partners to be cleared to leave.

    Uncertainty lingers in the hot, humid South Texas air.

    "It's going to get really bad for us because of what this president is doing," said driver Luis Alvarado.

    Alvarado and other drivers worry about potential changes coming to NAFTA and a pilot program, that for the past couple of years, has allowed some Mexican drivers and trucks to deliver cargo to destinations deep into the U.S. instead of unloading at the border.

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    "Brooklyn, Manhattan," Alvarado said, firing off a few cities where he has delivered cargo.

    Inside the checkpoint, his partner was flagged and sent to be X-rayed.

    State commercial inspectors randomly select some trucks to receive a closer inspection, all around and underneath.

    Alvarado's partner is cleared to leave after approximately three hours.

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    Alvarado carefully walks between semis leaving customs and hops in with his partner.

    "We're going to Morgantown, North Carolina," said the young man in the driver's seat.

    They are delivering car parts made in Mexico to North Carolina.

    He says if there are big changes to NAFTA, "it's going to affect everybody. It's going to affect all the big companies."

    Customs and Border Protection reports an increase in cargo traffic over the past eight years.

    Bradd Skinner, assistant director for trade in the Laredo Field Offices, overseas eight ports of entry from Del Rio to Brownsville.

    Skinner says most of the drivers coming through the World Trade Bridge are not Mexican long-haulers, but rather truckers who unload their cargo at the border and return to Mexico.

    "That's actually a pretty small percentage of the cross-border flow of goods that are out there," he said.

    When it comes to changes to NAFTA, Skinner his office will implement whatever new policy that comes along.

    "We're the boots on the ground, so whatever the final decision is we're the ones that have to make it happen," said Skinner. "I know shippers that I've talked to, they're already thinking of the 'what-if' scenarios if there were to be major changes."

    As Alvarado and his traveling partner settle in for the long haul, they hope this won't be their last in the United States.

    "I hope things work out for the good of all drivers, Mexican and American," said Alvarado.

    The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation regarding the pilot program.

    "We are watching the issue, but we do not know any new information about what might happen," said Norita Taylor, director of public relations.

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