The first Mexican carrier is set to roll into the U.S. interior within days, but American trucking union leaders and two California congressmen haven't given up on stopping the cross-border trucking program that had been stalled for years by safety concerns and political wrangling.
U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter and Bob Filner joined Teamsters union leader James Hoffa at the border on Wednesday to take a bipartisan stand against the bilateral pilot project that will allow approved Mexican trucks to come deep into the United States. The first Mexican truck will enter Texas on Friday.
The lawmakers and Hoffa were surrounded by more than 75 union members from at least five states who attended the news conference near a major international truck crossing in San Diego. Hunter is a San Diego-area Republican, while Filner is a Democrat whose district includes California's border with Mexico.
Allowing Mexican trucking companies to deliver the goods rather than transfer them onto U.S. haulers at the border will put American jobs and highway safety at risk, they said.
"We're literally taking good jobs here in America and passing them over the line to Mexico," Hunter told the crowd, many holding signs reading "NAFTA kills" and "Stop the war on workers."
Washington on Friday approved the first Mexican trucking company, Transportes Olympic, nearly two decades after the hotly contested provision of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement set off lawsuits and a costly trade dispute between the neighboring countries.
Transportes Olympic employees were busy Wednesday finishing the preparations for its historic, maiden trip.
The long-haul truck will cross the border Friday at Laredo, Texas, and head about 450 miles north to Garland, Texas, to deliver industrial equipment, said Guillermo Perez, the transport manager at the firm in the industrial Monterrey suburb of Apodaca, about two hours south of Laredo.
He dismissed claims by Hoffa and the lawmakers that Mexican trucking companies and their drivers do not meet U.S. safety standards. He said his company has a strict random drug testing policy for its 61 drivers and it has bought more than a dozen trucks in the past two years.
U.S. inspectors will check them Thursday, and will also have a database on truckers who have been approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Perez said.
"It's a really controlled program. There's no way to avoid the law," he said. "We are really prepared for this. It's not weird for me that some (U.S. trucking) companies are willing to shut it down because now they have to compete with us."
The company was also the first approved under the 2009 pilot program before President Barack Obama's administration cancelled it. Mexico retaliated by placing tariffs on 99 agricultural products worth more than $2 billion annually.
Mexico cut the tariffs in half this summer after Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon approved an inspection and monitoring program for the companies that had been approved in 2009. The Mexican government has vowed to lift the rest once the truck heads out of the border zone Friday.
"We're really excited," Perez said. "Now we can provide door-to-door service so it's about a 15 percent savings for companies."
Opponents say the fight isn't over.
Hunter has co-authored a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that would require the pilot program to be ceased in three years and Congress to vote on the issue again. Filner said Wednesday that opponents may have to "escalate" demonstrations to get the Obama administration to realize it made a mistake.
"We hope we can stop this before we have a disaster," he said.
Criminal activity has been a problem for years even within the U.S. government's strictest trusted carrier programs. Drug trafficking organizations have smuggled tons of drugs inside trucks driven by approved truckers coming from inspected and certified facilities inside Mexico.
Todd Spencer, the executive vice president of the Independent Drivers Association, which represents small independent trucking businesses, said 100,000 trucking jobs will be lost. Proponents say it will spur economic growth by saving companies millions by sending the goods door-to-door.
"We certainly hoped that it cannot be stopped," said James Clark, director of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce's Mexico Business Center. "The U.S. has been in violation of the NAFTA agreement ever since the beginning of the trucking issue. Mexican trucks have every right to come into the U.S. under NAFTA as long as the trucks are fully inspected to U.S. standards and the drivers speak English."
They say especially strict safeguards are in place: The U.S. government is paying for electronic monitoring devices to be installed in all Mexican trucks used in the program.
Mexican trucking companies had to fill out an application, pay a fee and then submit the names of any drivers who will participate so they can undergo national security and criminal background checks by the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security.
Inspectors will check out the trucks for safety violations, verify the drivers' qualifications and administer oral English-proficiency exams.
About 70 percent of goods from the $4 billion trade between the two nations is transported by land to its destinations according to the Mexican government.
Copyright NBC San Diego / Associated Press