HOUSTON – President Bush has "sucker punched" American workers and threatened national security by opening the nation's southern border to Mexican truckers, Teamsters President James Hoffa said Saturday.
Speaking to the union's annual women's conference, Hoffa said the Bush administration's new pilot program, which took effect Thursday, shows a lack of concern for homeland security.
"Oh, George Bush is so worried about national security," said Hoffa, who added that his biggest problem with the program is not knowing enough about the truckers and what they are hauling.
"And they're going to be coming across that border driving all over Canada and the United States. That's his vision of America, that's not our vision," Hoffa told about 1,000 women and guests in a downtown hotel ballroom.
The U.S. Transportation Department granted permission Thursday to Transportes Olympic, based in a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico, to haul cargo anywhere in the United States as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In turn, Mexico granted authority to Stagecoach Cartage & Distribution Inc. of El Paso to travel anywhere in Mexico.
Government lawyers said the program is a necessary part of the North American Free Trade Agreement and that trucks enrolled in the program would meet U.S. regulations.
The government says it has imposed rigorous safety protocols in the program, including drug and alcohol testing for drivers done by U.S. companies. Additionally, law enforcement officials have stepped up nationwide enforcement of a law that's been on the books since the 1970s requiring interstate truck and bus drivers to have a basic understanding of written and spoken English.
Neither trucking company began crossing immediately, needing first to determine new routes, said John Hill, who runs the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety.
Hill said the Mexican carrier indicated it would begin crossing into the U.S. during the weekend; the American outfit was expected to start sometime next week.
NAFTA requires 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 new pilot program is designed to study whether opening the U.S.-Mexico border to all trucks can be done safely.
Even before the first truck crosses, detractors like Hoffa have spoken out.
Dozens of truckers protested at border crossings in Texas and California on Thursday, denouncing as dangerous and unfair the program that will allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to haul throughout the U.S. In Laredo, Texas, protesters carried signs reading "NAFTA Kills" and "Unsafe Mexican Trucks."
By the end of the month, the U.S. plans to give up to 25 Mexican firms permission to haul cargo and will add another 25 per month until reaching 100 by the end of the year under a one-year pilot program.
Mexico also has committed to allow trucks from up to 100 U.S. firms to travel anywhere in Mexico by year's end.
The Teamsters, Sierra Club and watchdog group Public Citizen sued to stop the program, arguing there won't be enough oversight of drivers entering the U.S. from Mexico. But a federal appeals court ruled last week the Bush administration could move ahead.