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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's truck inspection policy draws ire

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an alternative view this morning of a drive by Texas to slow down border crossings. Governor Greg Abbott acted earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: With the Biden administration ending Title 42 expulsions in May, Texas will be taking its own unprecedented actions this month.

INSKEEP: Title 42 - President Biden is lifting COVID limitations that reduced the number of people entering the United States from Mexico. Governor Abbott did not approve, so he took a variety of steps. He called for state authorities to conduct enhanced safety inspections of commercial trucks from Mexico. That has led to massive delays for commercial trucks. And a member of his own party is not pleased. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller called the new inspection policy catastrophic. Here's his understanding of the state policies.

SID MILLER: One is to haul the illegal aliens to Washington, D.C., and dump them out there. He's had three trips. I think he's totaled of about 75 - you know, about 25 to 30 in each busload. They have to volunteer to go. In other words, anybody that was planning on going to Washington, D.C., we give them a free ride up there now. The other one is the one I had more problems with. And he decided to stop every commercial truck that's coming into Texas from Mexico and give them a safety inspection. This caused a lot of economic hardship, a backlog clogged up all of our ports, completely shut them down for a while, for the most part. It set us back. And we've had disruptions. We've got rotting produce and fruit on trucks that can't, you know, get across in a timely manner. We've got American trucks in Mexico that can't get out. So I've already seen the price of avocados double. And lemons and limes have doubled in this - just this one week, period.

INSKEEP: Was there any evidence beforehand that people were using produce trucks to sneak into the United States?

MILLER: My people and the USDA people, we inspect every truck. We go through all the contents. CBP, Customs and Border Patrol, the manufactured goods, the non-produce trucks, they send all them through X-rays. They have drug-sniffing dogs. They have people that check the trucks for hollow compartments. We've been through all those. We just checked them. And the governor's people have no authority to open the trucks. All they can do is check for faulty turn signals, brake lights, you know, brake linings, tire tread, that kind of stuff - just safety issues.

INSKEEP: I don't quite understand what you're telling me, Commissioner. I think you're telling me that the trucks are already inspected. But they're delayed now at the border so that the state can inspect them again in a superficial way. Is that right?

MILLER: You got it. But they don't inspect the trucks. They just do a safety inspection. They don't inspect the contents.

INSKEEP: You told me about trucks stuck at the border. What is the scene, then, at some of the ports of entry from Mexico into Texas?

MILLER: Well, Laredo is our biggest inland port. One day's time, normal day, we'll have from 15,000 to 20,000 trailer trucks back and forth through that port. They're averaging about 500 a day through Laredo. So we've got 20,000 trucks or more backed up, waiting to get through. Some of these truckers, you know, there's no restroom. They're running out of diesel. The only other option they have for the produce is to drive to Nogales, Ariz., which is 1,250 miles. It's open. You can go through there. And you have to drive another 1,250 back to Dallas, Houston or San Antonio to the distribution warehouses. So that's a 2,500-mile detour.

INSKEEP: Isn't this something that is going to affect food prices way beyond Texas?

MILLER: Yes, it already has. You're already seeing things like bananas, avocados, lemons and limes, you know, winter vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, you know, leafy greens - those prices are all - they were already rising. But the biggest deal is we have a crisis on the border. But we also have a shipping and a delivery crisis. And this is compounding that. So you can't fix one crisis by creating another one. The governor is kind of backtracking now. He's cut a deal with three of the four governors. We have - let's see - four of the 29 bridges open now. He did a memorandum of understanding that the governors of those three Mexican states won't let any unsafe trucks come through. And that's it.

INSKEEP: Did the governor call you before he announced this policy?

MILLER: Well, you know, he says I'm uninformed, and I guess I am because I haven't heard from him. He hasn't told me. He hasn't explained anything. I sent him a letter laying out what I just laid out to you, that we're going to see higher food prices if it goes on long enough. We'll have, for the third time in his administration, empty grocery store shelves in the produce aisle.

INSKEEP: Could he argue that this is just hardball politics, he wanted to have some leverage to hold over the Mexican state governors and now he's getting something for it?

MILLER: You know, I think there's some truth into that. I certainly wouldn't have taken that approach. I'd have used a kinder, gentler approach and see if I couldn't have negotiated a deal, you know? This is our best trading partner. And we don't need to be making them mad and creating friction and hard feelings. We need to, you know, work with our brothers and sisters to the south and see if we can't work in an equitable, agreeable, non-threatening way to solve this problem.

INSKEEP: This, in a way, is a prelude. You talked about the importance of your partners to the south. There's going to be increasing tension, it would seem, with your partners to the south because Title 42 is going to be lifted. COVID restrictions are being lifted for people to enter the United States. There's a giant backlog of people waiting to enter the United States. And we're expecting to see a great number of people in late May. And I can imagine now and you can imagine also the headlines, the political statements that will be made, the concerns that will be raised. What's the best way to get through that?

MILLER: Well, these two moves by our governor do nothing to stop the flow of illegal immigration or illegal drugs, I mean, absolutely zero. It's a very easy fix, actually. If you want to fix the immigration problem and head off the Title 42 surge, you just reinstate the Trump-era policies. I'm not talking about just building the wall, but stopping the surge before it gets to American soil. Stop it on the southern border of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras. We had agreement worked out down there where those surges weren't coming through. And that slowed the influx of illegal immigration into Texas, you know, immensely.

INSKEEP: Isn't it an election year in Texas?

MILLER: It is. I'm up for reelection. And, you know, I want the governor to be reelected. I'm not, you know, looking to Beto O'Rourke to be my governor. I hope the governor is successful, you know? I would like to - you know, hopefully, he'll take some advice. I think this has really hurt him in south Texas.

INSKEEP: Commissioner Miller, thanks so much, really appreciate you taking the time.

MILLER: Any time. Thank you, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "AEREOAVIONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.