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Truckers at Calif., Texas borders protest program allowing Mexican carriers on U.S. roads
Mexican Trucks CADP 5987911
Robin Hvidston, right, and Raymond Herrera, center, protest as a truck entering the U.S. from Mexico leaves the California Highway Patrol Otay Mesa Inspection Station Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007, in San Diego. Dozens of protestors waved signs and U.S. flags at the border crossing Thursday to protest a program that will allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to freely haul their cargo anywhere in the United States. - photo by Associated Press
    LAREDO, Texas — Dozens of truckers protested at border crossings in Texas and California on Thursday, denouncing as dangerous and unfair a pilot program allowing up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to transport 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 at the World Trade Bridge 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 was expected to begin issuing operating permits in the program as early as Thursday. As of Thursday morning, 38 Mexican firms were poised for U.S. permits, said Melissa Mazzella DeLaney, a spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety.
    The Teamsters union, 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 that the Bush administration could move ahead.
    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.
    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 on things 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.’’
    Interstate 35, which stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo north to Minnesota, is a major north-south artery though the country.
    ‘‘Those guys run all the way here and all they way back without sleep,’’ said Roadway Express driver William Scribner, of Laredo. ‘‘They don’t respect the laws, they don’t respect the people.’’
    Scribner said he has seen drivers come across the border in two-seat cabs, then pick up two workers, meaning there aren’t enough seat belts for everyone.
    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 current 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 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.
    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.’’
    About a dozen Laredo police officers stood watch Thursday, but the Teamsters said they weren’t there to cause trouble. As trucks passed by, some honked in support, other drivers gave the group the thumbs up.
    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.
    Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell in El Paso and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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