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‘We were at the mercy of the governor’: After suffering losses from Abbott’s border clampdown, businesses worry another one is possible

Infrastructure, such as ports of entry, play a vital part in the south Texas economy, but those gears grinded to a halt in April due to Operation Lone Star.

PHARR, Texas — Each keystroke heard at Armando Flores’ Pharr office guarantees we get our food at the grocery store.

Flores, a customs broker specializing in produce, is president of Ace Customs Brokers Inc. and leads 11 employees.

“[We] make sure everything is in compliance with customs,” Flores said. “We charge a fee per shipment.”

Flores and his team fill out a ton of paperwork so trucks from Mexico can clear ports of entry and drive into the U.S. No trucks clearing customs, no payment for Flores and his team. They make money off each shipment.

Flores told KENS 5 the point of pride for his company is the customer service as well as the speed with which he can clear food to enter the country. When dealing with fresh produce, timing is key because freshness is paramount.

“For example, (with) fresh berries, any type of berry, the shelf life is three to four days,” Flores said.

Since timing is critical in his job, as well as the structure of how his company gets paid, Flores remembers very vividly when the flow of trucks coming into the U.S. slowed down and then stopped for several days at the port of entry Flores works with the most, the Pharr Reynosa International Bridge.  

“We noticed it on a Thursday afternoon after lunch,” Flores said. “I remember the details of that day, the following day, nights. It was very, very stressful, painful.”

Flores is talking about Thursday, April 7, when he noticed the slowdown of traffic coming through international bridges. The day before, April 6, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to expand truck safety inspections, which meant that DPS went from inspecting trucks at random to stopping and checking out every single one.

In his letter to DPS Director Colonel Steven McCraw, Abbott wrote, “the cartels that smuggle illicit contraband and people across our southern border do not care about the conditions of the vehicles they send into Texas. These inspections should begin immediately to help ensure that Texans are not endangered by unsafe vehicles and their unsafe drivers.”

“Customs was clearing 45 shipments every three hours,” Flores recalled, “[at the] port that we receive over 2000 importations a day. So, imagine the backlog and it was just painful. There was nothing we could do. We were at the mercy of the governor.”

When the enhanced inspections were being carried out, DPS told KENS 5, they took place at seven ports of entry.

As a result, traffic was trickling through most international bridges. Pharr Reynosa International Bridge, one of the busiest in the country and the one Flores relies on the most, ended up shutting down for several days, as truckers stuck on the other side started a protest.

“Why, why, why us?” Flores recalled. “Why in particular this port, of all ports, this was the one port that got hurt the most by far?”

“There was spoilage on a lot of shipments coming in,” he said. “It’s not a win-win situation. Just a lose-lose situation.”

The Pharr Reynosa International Bridge is a huge revenue source for the City of Pharr. 

“We continue to be the number one produce bridge in the nation,” bridge Director Luis Bazan told KENS 5. “Our revenues are collected at our tolls. And that is one of the biggest revenue generators for the City of Pharr. The biggest traffic that we carry through this bridge is commercial.”

The bridge is so important to the city, in fact, that officials are working on building a whole new additional bridge in the next two years.

“It's about opportunities for growth, for expansions, for businesses,” Bazan said. “We want to open the doors for them here in the City of Pharr, so they can actually grow with us here and cross through this bridge.”

Bazan said the bridge delivered $42 billion in trade in 2021, up from $36 billion in 2019 and $33 billion in 2020.

“We can get these nice cameras, we can get our televisions, we can get our cars. When you build these products in Mexico, and you bring them across an international bridge, like Pharr, again, that's a cost savings for us as consumers,” Bazan said. “So, we must invest in infrastructure.”

“It's a great idea, and we need it,” Flores added . “But if something like this [the shutdown] happens again, what’s the use of it?”

Flores and the City of Pharr weren’t ready to tell KENS 5 how much money they lost during Gov. Abbott’s enhanced safety inspections, which occurred between April 6 and 15.

Industry experts like Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of The Texas International Produce Association, said even though the governor officially stopped enhanced safety inspections on April 15, it was not until the following Monday, April 18, that TIPA started seeing the return of business as usual.

“Following all the impacts of those safety inspections that saw trucks lined up for miles, days, and just some god-awful scenarios,” he said.

Galeazzi told KENS 5 the losses as a result of Governor Abbott’s actions will be felt for a long time to come. 

“When you have the backups, like what we saw with these DPS inspections, you're talking about millions, and then hundreds of millions of dollars stuck on the other side of the border—just waiting,” he said.

“You had spoiled produce, you had things that were soft,” Galeazzi added. “I saw pictures of pineapples with mold on them. It was an absolute travesty. Those companies, they're not going to be able to recover those losses this year. That's something they're going to work through for several years.”

“We really have advocated very hard for very long on border security,” Galeazzi said, “and in the future, we would very much love to be a part of the conversation prior to seeing an action like this where our companies are losing hundreds of millions of dollars that they will not get back.”

Economists have estimated Abbott’s bridge inspections cost the state billions of dollars. 

On April 12, near the end of inspections, DPS said it inspected more than 3,000 commercial vehicles. Of those, 807 were placed out of service for safety violations, while 79 commercial drivers were placed out of service.

A week ahead of this story, KENS 5 asked DPS for updated statistics on trucks inspected, violations found and if any drugs were seized as part of this operation, as well as if any migrants were apprehended as a result of enhanced vehicle inspections. 

DPS did not answer KENS 5’s questions. 

KENS 5 also reached out to the governor’s office for a comment on this story. As of this writing, we have not heard back. 

Flores told us he now lives in fear of the next bridge shut down. 

“The governor has the power to do it again,” he said. “Any time he wants to.  There’s no one that can stop him. I guess that’s the biggest fear.”