With Budget Cuts For Ports, Produce May Perish Nogales, Ariz., is home to one of the nation's busiest ports of entry. Trucks line up for inspection before heading to grocery stores in the U.S. But the sequester is forcing the ports to make cuts, leading some to fear higher prices for food and strained relationships with foreign trading partners.

With Budget Cuts For Ports, Produce May Perish

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Customs and Border Protection officers regulate trade at the nation's 329 ports of entry - on land, at harbors, and in airports. So, budget-cutting from the government sequester, which began last Friday, could affect U.S. exports and imports, including what we eat.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.


TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: One by one, drivers approach Customs and Border Protection officers in booths at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona. More winter produce enters here than at any other place in the U.S., semis filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, headed to your grocery store.

Lance Klump is the chief CBP officer here.

LANCE KLUMP: So it's not a little consideration. What goes on here is affecting people over the entire nation.

ROBBINS: Cargo from here also makes its way to Canada and Asia. Up to 1,600 trucks a day come through here. On this morning, Klump says it's not that busy - only a 45-minute wait for one of three open lanes.

Like your grocery store, more lanes open - or close - depending on the wait. But Klump says they've never had to stop letting trucks enter.

KLUMP: We have always been able to manage to continue processing. It may raise the wait times and everything, but we've always managed to do that.

ROBBINS: With sequestration cuts in effect, though, Port officials, have to reduce costs. Local officials wouldn't confirm how. But Jaime Chamberlain has been talking with them. Chamberlain is a Nogales produce importer. His company ships hundreds of millions of pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables every year.

JAIME CHAMBERLAIN: There's a very good possibility that we may lose hours during the week and also possibly crossing on Sundays.

ROBBINS: Fruits and vegetables don't stop growing. They have to be picked every day. So, imagine what happens to produce in loaded trucks backed-up at the border.

CHAMBERLAIN: It'll rot. It'll rot in our trucks, waiting to cross the line.

ROBBINS: Lost produce means higher prices for what does get to U.S. markets. And, Jaime Chamberlain says it also jeopardizes relationships in Canada and Asia.

CHAMBERLAIN: We are at risk, right now, of not only not maintaining the business that we already have with some of the countries we do business with, but losing this business.

ROBBINS: Let's emphasize - we don't know, yet, exactly what'll happen to Ports of Entry under sequestration.

Colleen Kelly has some idea, though. She heads the union which represents Customs and Border Protection officers.

COLLEEN KELLY: The agency has notified us that employees will be serving up to 14 unpaid furlough days between now and the end of September.

ROBBINS: Kelly's been told to expect the first furlough notices in the middle of this month. The furloughs would start 30 days later.

KELLY: So if they are served, say, in mid-March, which is what CBP has told us, then we would see the first furlough days in mid-April.

ROBBINS: That's only personnel. It's likely the one thing that won't be sacrificed is security. Even if only one lane is open, every truck will pass through radiation detectors. Officers also watch for explosives and drugs. Chief Officer Lance Klump.

KLUMP: We're going to stop everything that we possibly can in - for contraband or threats to the United States - here.

ROBBINS: In an odd twist, the Mariposa Port is in the midst of a quarter-billion-dollar upgrade to add lanes and streamline operations. At the same time, there may not be enough personnel to staff the new lanes.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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