In FY 2009-10, CBP and ICE seized nearly $300 million in illegal currency, in excess of seven million pounds of drugs, and more than 6,800 weapons along the Southwest Border. Respectively, this represents increases of more than $73 million, more than one million pounds of drugs and more than 1,500 weapons compared to FYs 2007-2008.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

For every success that the Border Patrol has in squeezing illegal immigrants and narcotics from the deserts of the Southwest, Mexican drug cartels reevaluate their options for moving contraband into the U.S.

Increasingly, the illicit activity is being shifted to the ports of entry, where CBP’s Office of Field Operations has seen responsibilities rise exponentially since 9/11. In addition to checking for terrorist activity, the Office of Field Operations (OFO, commonly referred to as Customs) is tasked with apprehending illegal immigrants, seizure of narcotics, intercepting counterfeit goods, protecting American agriculture from invasive pests and disease and a host of other duties.

In all, Customs officers enforce hundreds of U.S. regulations on behalf of dozens of agencies. Customs literally is the first line of defense for economic and homeland security.

But in light of the emphasis on these security functions, what’s being lost is the ability for Customs to perform efficiently the original function of facilitating legitimate trade and travel.

Ports of entry, especially along the Southwest border, are extremely understaffed, to the point where the United States is turning away business. Lines for Mexican pedestrian shoppers waiting to cross the border in Nogales, Ariz., for instance, often take in excess of two hours, sometimes longer.

Consider this: if it took you this long to get through the line at a department store, would you ever go back?

For truckloads of commercial goods, the situation can be even worse. A truck carrying goods, such as perishable fresh fruit and vegetables, may spend up to four to eight hours in line at the port, up from a worst-case scenario of a couple hours perhaps a decade ago.  

The cumulative loss in output due to border delays over the next ten years is estimated to be $86 billion. It is estimated that for every extra minute that trucks spend in line at the border, an additional $116 million is lost from the economic output of the United States, according to the Department of Commerce. 

Taken together, these developments only threaten to turn away legitimate commerce and tourism that is desperately needed, especially in border communities already plagued by high unemployment. Whether it’s Arizona, California, Texas or New Mexico, the story is the same. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce identified some ways to help improve commerce, as detailed in the report “Steps to a 21st Century U.S.-Mexico Border.” The expansion of trusted-shipper programs is a priority. Other improvements could include better infrastructure for southbound inspections and more technology for non-intrusive inspections to minimize damage to goods, including perishable fruits and vegetables.

But what it really boils down to is putting boots on the ground. It has been estimated that CBP’s Office of Field Operations needs an additional 5,000 officers along the Southwest border alone. Without adequate staffing, the situation will only deteriorate.

The Department of Homeland Security FY 2012 Budget request supports 21,370 Border Patrol agents, and 21,186 Customs officers at the ports. These Border Patrol numbers, supported by a $3.5 billion budget, are up four-fold from the 4,000 agents employed in 1993, when the agency's budget was $400 million. By contrast, the budget for Customs has grown from $1.6 billion in 1993 to a little over $2.7 billion. Of that increase for Customs, about 68 percent has been consumed by inflation.

These numbers illustrate why cartels are increasingly re-routing their activities to the overworked ports of entry.

There are efforts being made to get the Department of Homeland Security to reveal the CBP staffing model, which examines commercial, passenger vehicle and pedestrian traffic patterns to put forth a realistic idea of what it will take to staff effectively each port of entry. Release of this staffing model is crucial to advancing the nation’s economy, for both northbound and southbound goods and traffic.

With the Customs Reauthorization bill on the table, it’s time for Congress to acknowledge reality, move past the rhetoric and ditch the unbalanced approach toward the border.

Lance Jungmeyer is President of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a trade association representing U.S.-based importers of fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico.