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New Mexico border crossing touted as safer, welcoming entry

September 9, 2019
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In this Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019 photo, Students from Palomas, Mexico cross the border through the new port of entry between Palomas and Columbus, N.M. While debate continues to churn over President Donald Trump’s plans to build a $6 billion border wall _ sharp-tipped and painted black _ the tiny New Mexico village of Columbus is inaugurating a new port of entry designed to make travel and trade easier. It's the architectural equivalent of a welcome with open arms. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)
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In this Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019 photo, Students from Palomas, Mexico cross the border through the new port of entry between Palomas and Columbus, N.M. While debate continues to churn over President Donald Trump’s plans to build a $6 billion border wall _ sharp-tipped and painted black _ the tiny New Mexico village of Columbus is inaugurating a new port of entry designed to make travel and trade easier. It's the architectural equivalent of a welcome with open arms. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)

COLUMBUS, N.M. (AP) — The new port’s walls mimic the color of the desert, the slanted roof mirrors peaks on the horizon and native vegetation freshens the landscape.

While debate continues to churn over President Donald Trump’s plans to build a $6 billion border wall — sharp-tipped and painted black — the tiny New Mexico village of Columbus is inaugurating a new port of entry designed to make travel and trade easier. It’s the architectural equivalent of a welcome with open arms.

“When people arrive, we want them to feel they have arrived at a special place,” said David Richter, co-designer of the new port and co-founder of Corpus Christi-based Richter Architects.

“We wanted to make entry into the United States an inspiring and dignified experience,” he said.

The new port went into operation nearly a year ago, in October, but officials are celebrating the $85.6 million project Thursday. The expanded, beautified port replaces a rundown building built in 1989.

The structure features a new customs building with east- and north-facing windows that capture the desert light at its coolest. The roof of the customs building slants eastward in steps — to evoke desert mountain peaks, Richter said — and is topped with solar panels.

The number of commercial trucking docks quadrupled in the redesign, providing ample space for CBP officers to unload and check crates of produce for contraband.

There are two southbound checkpoints and four northbound passenger vehicle checkpoints, built with rust-colored steel, and four pedestrian lines inside.

“The architecture is designed to celebrate the beauty of the desert ecology and the scale and expanse of the landscape,” Richter said.

Richter Architects redesigned the port with special users in mind: the hundreds of U.S. citizen children who cross the border each weekday from the small Mexican town of Palomas to attend school in Columbus or Deming.

In the pre-dawn darkness, Flor Apodaca watched from behind a steel fence on the Mexican side as her 10-year-old daughter walked into the U.S., backpack swaying.

The old port of entry was troubled by flooding, and her daughter and other children frequently trod through mud during the rainy season. They also had to dodge semi-trucks carrying green chile, jalapeño and tomatillo.

The new port “offers more protection” for the kids, Apodaca said.

“It was so dangerous before,” she said. “The access is much better.”

The children march along a new sidewalk on the Mexican side — teens headed to Deming High, grade school students and even 4-year-old preschoolers headed to the only elementary school in the Village of Columbus, population 1,664. Many of the little ones cross the border on their own.

The kids must still cross in front of the cars in line but the semis have been routed to a back road. They walk north under a new, shaded walkway to the customs house door.

Another unique feature of the Columbus port: The kids unabashedly cut the line.

The Columbus port, New Mexico’s only 24-hour crossing, also processes commercial truck traffic — highest during the late summer harvest season when the chiles and vegetables are hauled north to processing plants and distributors.

“CBP doesn’t open ports of entry everyday, so this is definitely a historical event,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Port Director Tony Hall.

“We wanted to make this as beautiful as possible on the outside but also give all the tools necessary for us to complete our mission, as well,” he said. “As we grow as CBP, hopefully this will be a standard.”

New Mexico U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Democrats, and former U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, fought for years to secure funding for a redeveloped port. Congress appropriated the money under President Barack Obama. The current design got underway in 2014, and construction began in 2017.

“This is a very productive investment,” Udall said. “It’s an absolute necessity to support our thriving trade relationship with Mexico.”

Commercial traffic has grown significantly in New Mexico over the past five years.

New Mexico exported $1.4 billion in goods to Mexico in 2018, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Despite a 10 percent dip in exports to Mexico last year, the state’s exports have risen from $603 million in 2012, thanks in large part to commercial growth at its Santa Teresa and Columbus ports.

Millions in goods flow north, too. Some $34 million in chile and $25 million in nuts were imported at the state’s border crossings in 2018, according to U.S. Census figures, with the majority of those two products passing at Columbus.

The Columbus port processed 16,401 trucks last fiscal year, compared with 5,666 trucks in 2008.

“The more traffic you can push through your ports of entry, the more opportunities it opens up to attracting manufacturers and logistics firms for investment,” said Jerry Pacheco, executive director of New Mexico’s International Business Accelerator, which provides trade counseling services.

Passenger and pedestrian traffic has grown at the Columbus port of entry, too.

The crossing saw nearly 277,000 pedestrian crossings in fiscal 2018, an increase of 28 percent over the decade. Passenger vehicle traffic grew more slowly, rising 10 percent over the same period to more than 353,000 cars per year.

On a Tuesday afternoon, an orange six-person golf cart rolled through the Columbus port, a convenience paid for by The Pink Store in Palomas to draw tourists to its brightly colored restaurant and handicrafts emporium.

Shelley Perkins, 72, was finishing a late lunch at The Pink Store before her nail appointment next door. She has been visiting Palomas from Deming for 20 years, she said. The port may be new, she said, but it’s not made crossing much easier.

“I feel like there is no change at all except they spent a whole bunch of money,” she said. “They aren’t opening the lanes. It’s no faster.”

It was a common complaint.

On two days this week, at peak traffic hours, CBP had staffed only one of four passenger vehicle lanes. Several Palomas residents said the car waiting line stretches to the edge of town on the weekends, with frequently just one lane open.

Two of four pedestrian lines were open early Wednesday morning, as hundreds of U.S. citizen children headed to their school bus stop starting at 6 a.m.

Inside, the line divides in two: one for children with passports and one for children carrying birth certificates.

Outside, crossing guards guide the children back again across the lane of car traffic. The bus used to pick the kids up near the borderline, in view of their parents who watched them closely from the other side. Now the kids have to walk much farther to the bus stop.

The new port “is more beautiful,” said Maria Gutierrez, who has worked for 11 years as a school crossing guard at the port of entry. “But it was more practical before.”

Some of what was lost in practicality for the children may have been gains for law enforcement functionality, Richter said. A brick wall protects the new inspection stations from view in Mexico, for example, to prevent bad actors from learning how revisions are done.

Richter said the government’s motivation was to “improve border security in general and to upgrade ports of entry, to have them be safe and functional but to be places where architecture reflects higher values.”

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Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com

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