By John Waters, Publisher
The Department of Homeland Security has completed the necessary legal rulemaking process to make the imminent Boquillas border crossing legal.
Highlights of the Boquillas document include:
The new crossing facility will cost $3.7 million to construct.
The National Park Service estimates 15,000 to 20,000 visitors will use the crossing yearly.
When Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and his Mexican counterpart Juan Rafael Elvira ceremoniously picked up shovels and lifted soil during the groundbreaking for the Boquillas crossing on October 24, one sticking point remained: the crossing had not yet been made legal.
To make it so, the federal government must implement what is known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). Shortly after the late October press conference at Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park heralding the environmental cooperation between the United States and Mexico, and the groundbreaking for the Boquillas Crossing, Bill Brooks, Public Information Officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Big Bend Sector confirmed to the Gazette that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Nopalitano had signed off on the rulemaking, to be published within days in the Federal Register.
On October 28, in Volume 76, Number 209 of the Federal Register the “Opening of Boquillas Border Crossing and Update to the Class B Port of Entry Description” was published, making the proposed border crossing at Boquillas legal.
White House involvement
Where the momentum started for the reopening of the border at Boquillas remains unclear. The rulemaking document states “Efforts to establish this new border crossing were set in motion by discussions between the White House, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Homeland Security.”
In September of last year the Gazette broke the story of the imminent re-opening of the border at Boquillas after Gazette Publisher John Waters spent two days on the Rio Grande with Park Service employees, river guides, and Homeland Security officials based in Washington, D.C.. During the river trip, officials from both federal agencies openly discussed the proposed crossing.
When the Boquillas Crossing officially reopens, it will utilize technology known as Remote Port of Entry Program (RPEP) that has been employed along the border with Canada for several years. The unmanned station will employ video cameras and a telephone by which people entering the United States are enabled to clear U.S. Customs via picking up the phone, showing their travel documents (such as a passport) and speaking with customs officials on the other end, in El Paso.
According to federal documents the cost of the new building is $3.67 million—$2.1 million funded by the National Park Service and $1.57 million for the RPEP technology, surveillance equipment and an agricultural waste disposal system funded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The estimated yearly cost to maintain and staff the crossing is $217,800; of that $200,000 will be funded by Customs and Border Protection.
The Park Service estimates 15,000 to 20,000 people annually will use the Boquillas crossing in the first year, mostly American tourists seeking to experience a day trip to Boquillas del Carmen, a stone’s throw across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
The proposed rulemaking will also make changes to current laws regarding Class B Ports of entry to make them compliant with Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) laws. Under this initiative, everyone seeking entry into the United States must hold a valid passport, passport card or border crossing card.
As proposed, residents of Mexico, including those from Boquillas, will need to have a WHTI-compliant document such as a passport, a document difficult to obtain in Mexico. Last January, residents of Boquillas confirmed to the Gazette that very few of them have passports.
The proposed Boquillas rulemaking will continue to allow entry to Mexican nationals holding U.S.-issued border crossing cards. Those seeking border crossing cards must apply in person for them at a U.S. Consulate. The nearest consulate to Boquillas is several hundred miles away, in Monterrey.
The Boquillas rulemaking document also states that Class B crossings do not provide full service processing, including issuing documents, and specifically states that those seeking to use the facility “must be admissible without further arrival documentation or immigration processing.”
Boquillas Crossing public comment period open until December 27, 2011
The public comment period for the Boquillas crossing and citizens wishing to express their views may do until December 27.
All comments must include the Docket number USCBP-2011-0032 and the agency name, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
By email, comments may be filed at the Federal eRulemaking Portal.
By USPS mail: Border Regulations Branch, Office of International Trade, Customs and Border Protection, Regulations and Rulings, Attention: Border Security Regulations Branch, 799 9th St NW 5th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20229-1179.
Officials break ground at the new Boquillas border crossing scheduled to open in March 2012. The crossing will provide the first legal crossing between Mexico and Big Bend National Park since the informal crossings throughout the region were closed to traffic in 2002. In the fall of1986, officials at Big Bend National Park were informed by U.S. Customs officials in Presidio the historic river crossings to and from Mexico were in violation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which amended the Tariff Act of 1930. The new act required all persons arriving into the U.S. by maritime vessel immediately report to the nearest customs facility. The informal crossings were still used until U.S. Border Patrol agents began abruptly enforcing the existing law beginning in May 2002. (John Waters, photo)
Boquillas Crossing Timeline—from a reporter’s notebook
May 2002: In the aftermath of the September 2011 terrorist attacks, Boquillas and other informal border crossings including those at Santa Elena and Lajitas are closed when U.S. Border Patrol begins to enforce existing laws.
March 2005: In a four-part Gazette investigation titled La Frontera Está Cerrada (The Frontier/Border is Closed) the Gazette examines the border closure. The series also investigates the situation along the U.S.’ northern border with Canada. Although dismissed as minor program at the time by local Park Service officials, the Gazette finds a vibrant border crossing in Glacier National Park where park rangers cross designated as customs officials process thousands of visitors into the U.S. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Park Service, the Gazette discovers a Memorandum of Understanding between the Park Service and U.S. Customs authorizing the designation of park rangers in Big Bend National Park as customs officials. The Park Service confirms are three park rangers on staff who are certified to act as customs officials.
March 2010: Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visits Big Bend National Park with National Park Service Director John Jarvis and Congressman Ciro Rodriguez. During a speech to park employees, Salazar says, “I have great hopes, as does the President, about some of the work we’re going to do here in the future.”
April 2010: With no major announcements during the Salazar visit, the Gazette files Freedom of Information Act requests with both the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service seeking documents relating to the Salazar visit and possible discussions with officials in Mexico, and his counterpart Juan Rafael Elvira Quessada. The Park Service denies the request, citing exemptions to the act.
September 2010: The Gazette publishes the first news account documenting the Boquillas crossing will reopen.
January 2011: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin visits Big Bend National Park to officially announce the planned reopening of the international border crossing at Boquillas. He speculates the crossing will be open in the spring of 2012.
April 2011: A year after our Freedom of information Act request is filed, without fulfilling the request, the Dept. of the Interior deem it is no longer current. The Gazette again files a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents relating to ongoing binational cooperation between Salazar and Elvira.
May 2011: the Department of the Interior responds to the Gazette request: “After a thorough search within the Secretary’s Immediate Office, we were unable to find records on file that are responsive to your request.”
October 2011: Salazar is joined by Elvira in Big Bend National Park to celebrate binational cooperation and the imminent reopening of the Boquillas Crossing. After the ceremonial groundbreaking, and a release of silvery minnows into the river, officials held a press conference. Although other media outlets attended, the only questions came from the Big Bend Gazette and Marathon-based photographer James Evans.
Evans asked Salazar about the possibility of extending electricity to the un-electrified Boquillas. Salazar offered he thought it was more a local issue. Evans then thanked Salazar and the other officials for making the crossing a reality.
John Waters, Publisher of the Gazette, asked Salazar whether any exceptions would be made to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative travel requirements that people crossing into the United States have a passport or passport card, for the local residents of Boquillas, Mexico. Obtaining such documents in rural Mexico is difficult and expensive. Salazar declined to answer the question, deferring to Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher, who deferred to Ana Hinojosa, Director of Field Operations, El Paso, U.S. Border Patrol. Hinojosa said the U.S. would work with the Mexican government to help local residents comply with WHTI.
October 2011: Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano signs federal rulemaking documents pertaining to the Boquillas crossing. Several days later the rules are published in the Federal Register.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (left) talked with Big Bend National Park’s Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Mark Williams. Currently Customs and Border Patrol is expanding its presence in the park with a planned doubling of agents, as well as through ongoing construction of employee housing.
After the groundbreaking ceremony and silvery minnow release, Secretary Salazar took time during the luncheon to chat with (L to R) Greg Henington of Far Flung Adventures, Mike Boren of Big Bend Natural History History Association, Terry Boren of the National Park Service, Elizabeth Bishop and Jim Bishop, also from BBNHA and, not pictured, Valynda Hennington, Far Flung, and John Waters of the Big Bend Gazette.
Big Bend Natural History Association Executive Director Mike Boren said Salazar had complimented the group as an example of cooperation and told Boren, “Thank you Mike, We’re very proud of the [BBNHA].” The association sponsored a barbeque the prior evening for the Salazar entourage and park employees.
Salazar asked everyone at the table if they were in favor of the crossing or opposed to it. Boren said he was in favor of it and said it was an essential component to the dynamic of the Big Bend. Terry Boren concurred.
Gregg Henington told Salazar he and his wife Valynda own a river outfitting company and, prior to the border closure, had offered tours into Mexico and would certainly do so again, once the crossing reopened.
This reporter then reminded Secretary Salazar that I had earlier asked him a question during the press conference—whether the local residents of Boquillas might have some sort of waiver from the current Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requirements? If the crossing opens to U.S. residents, park visitors from this part of Texas, from elsewhere in the United States, and from around the world, what of the many residents of the remote town of Boquillas for whom it’s not easy to obtain passports, and so will be unable to utilize the crossing? I offered that the people of Boquillas will feel and be disenfranchised, as they watch a steady stream of visitors throng into their village, while they are unable to simply cross into the United States because they lack proper documentation.