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Monday, August 27, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Commercial racial profiling: Mexican truckers singled out

Special to The Times

Efforts by Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans to keep our borders closed to Mexican truckers — in violation of NAFTA — amounts to little more than commercial racial profiling.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States agreed to open its borders to Mexican trucks by 1995. It is now 2001, and we have not kept our word.

Quite the opposite. The U.S. House of Representatives, in passing a Department of Transportation (DOT) appropriations bill in July, attached an amendment that would essentially impose a total ban on Mexican carriers from operating in the U.S.

This was followed by the U.S. Senate's action to impose burdensome and unnecessary regulations on Mexican carriers before they can travel American highways — regulations that do not apply to Canadian truckers.

The Senate legislation, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., is an improvement, but will slap Mexican truckers with prohibitively expensive and unworkable regulations that will effectively ban Mexican trucks from U.S. highways indefinitely. These same regulations do not apply to Canadian or American truckers.

Charges that Mexican trucks should be denied entry based on safety considerations are a political smokescreen.

As the New York Times reported on Aug. 2, experts on both sides of the border say that Mexican long-haul carriers are just as safe as their American and Canadian counterparts. The Mexican trucks failing safety inspections at border crossings are mostly short-haul trucks confined to a narrow 20-mile zone along the border.

As in the United States, there is a distinction between short-haul fleets, which use older vehicles to transport cargo short distances, and long-haul fleets, which employ newer and better-maintained vehicles.

The DOT has told Congress that "once the border is open to long-haul traffic, the number of safety-compliant Mexican trucks will dramatically increase because long-haul carriers will be different from, and in better condition than, the shorter-haul trucks."

Also, according to the experts, only the largest and best-maintained Mexican carrier fleets will have the resources to operate in the United States.

The provisions of the Murray amendment are impractical and unworkable for several reasons. They would require that every time a Mexican operator crosses the border, his commercial driver's license must be electronically verified. Such a requirement would significantly impede the flow of traffic and commerce at the border, exacerbating current four-hour delays at some border crossings in Texas. Needless to say, nobody has proposed erecting such barriers on our northern border.

The Senate would also require all Mexican carriers seeking to operate in the U.S. to undergo an extensive "compliance review" that would include on-site inspections before the carrier could even get a conditional license to travel in the U.S. By comparison, Canadian and American truckers need only complete an application available online and transmit it to the DOT along with $300.

"Commercial racial profiling" is not an overstatement.

Congress' refusal to comply with NAFTA is serious. A NAFTA dispute-resolution panel found the United States to be in violation of the trade agreement and said unless the border is opened, American businesses could face steep retaliatory duties on products sold in Mexico. Moreover, reneging on our promises to other nations diminishes America's standing in the world community.

Let's be clear. Congress should apply the same rigorous safety standards to Mexican, U.S., and Canadian truckers. Applications should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and carriers with unsafe records should have their licenses revoked, but Mexicans should not be targeted.

The transportation appropriations bill now goes to conference committee where the differences between the House and Senate versions will be reconciled. President Bush has pledged to veto the final bill if it contains discriminatory regulations against Mexican truckers.

A great nation keeps its promises, and it is long past time for America to honor its commitment to our friend and trading partner.

Massey Villarreal is chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. Pedro Celis, of Redmond, is chairman of the Washington Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

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