LAREDO, Texas – Dozens of truckers rallied at Mexican border crossings in California and Texas Thursday to protest a pilot program to allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to haul their cargo anywhere in the United States.
Carrying signs reading "NAFTA Kills" and "Unsafe Mexican Trucks," a few dozen protesters circled in the heat for two hours at Laredo's port of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"What do we want? Safe highways. When do we want them? Now!" they chanted.
The U.S. Transportation Department issued the first permit Thursday to Transportes Olympic, based in a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico. It won the permit after Mexico granted authority to Stagecoach Cartage & Distribution Inc. of El Paso, Texas, to travel anywhere in Mexico.
Both companies can cross the border immediately but may not do so for several days while they determine new routes, said John Hill, who runs the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety.
"What we're hearing from the carriers is they could be ready to go as soon as days from now," Hill told reporters on a conference call from Washington.
The U.S. plans to give as many as 25 Mexican firms permission by the end of September and add another 25 companies each month until hitting 100 by the end of this year under the one-year program, Hill said.
Mexico has also committed to allow as many as 100 U.S. firms anywhere in Mexico by the end of this year, he said, and 14 are poised to receive permission.
So far, 38 Mexican trucking firms have been prescreened to go anywhere in the U.S., Hill said.
The Teamsters union, Sierra Club and watchdog group Public Citizen had sued to stop the program, arguing there wouldn't be enough oversight of drivers, but a federal appeals court ruled the Bush administration could move ahead.
Government lawyers said the program is a necessary part of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the trucks would meet U.S. regulations.
Near San Diego's Otay Mesa border crossing, dozens of truckers led by the Teamsters mixed with anti-illegal-immigration activists. Business was uninterrupted, said Lt. Hector Paredes of the California Highway Patrol, which inspects about 3,000 trucks a day at the crossing.
"We're already inspecting Mexican trucks and will continue to inspect them the same way," Paredes said. "These trucks already haul product from Tijuana to San Diego. Now they will be able to go beyond San Diego."
Critics such as Teamsters organizer Hugo Flores doubt that Mexican drivers will be held to the same rules, such as the length of work shifts and drug testing.
"There are no means to regulate these guys. Bush has opened up highways to unsafe trucks," Flores said at the Laredo protest. "I don't want them sharing the roads with my family."
NAFTA requires that all roads in the United States, Mexico and Canada be opened to carriers from all three countries. Canadian trucking companies already have full access to U.S. roads, but Mexican trucks can travel only about 20 miles inside the country at certain border crossings.
The pilot program is designed to study whether opening the U.S.-Mexico border to all trucks could be done safely.
The government says it has imposed rigorous safety protocols, including drug and alcohol testing for drivers done by U.S. companies. Additionally, law enforcement officials have stepped up nationwide enforcement of a law requiring interstate truck and bus drivers to have a basic understanding of written and spoken English.
Besides the safety issues, Flores said there are also concerns about job security and pollution from emissions.
"Now they're trying to export all our driving jobs to Mexico," Flores said. "That's one less American job."
At a Petro truck stop near El Paso along Interstate 10, reactions to the program were mixed.
Carlos Moreno, who has been a truck driver for nearly four decades, said he doesn't begrudge anyone trying to make a living.
"There's enough for all of us," said Moreno, an El Paso resident.
But he is concerned that some of the drivers from Mexico can't read highway signs written in English. "You can always tell in construction zones," he said.
Omar Nunez, a 34-year-old driver from Pecos, said he worries that freight prices will drop as shippers turn to Mexican trucking companies that may offer cheaper services.
"As it is, I'm barely making it right now," he said.
Among those most concerned were a group of drivers gathered at the Flying J truck stop in Edinburg, Texas. Much of their business has come from picking up loads that Mexican drivers previously had to leave at the border.
"That's my business," said Gerald Fernow, 36, from Flatonia, Texas. "What am I supposed to