The Bush administration urged a federal appeals court Thursday to let Mexican cargo trucks cross the border and freely travel anywhere in the country, arguing that to do otherwise could strain diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Mexico.
The Teamsters Union on Wednesday asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stop the program, which the administration said would go into effect on Sept. 6. The plan would let as many as 100 registered Mexican truck carriers drive their cargo anywhere in the country for the next year as part of a "demonstration project."
The court gave no indication Thursday afternoon when it would rule.
The union, along with the Sierra Club and the nonprofit Public Citizen, argues that the administration plan would endanger public highways because safety issues have not been resolved.
But in its filing Thursday, government lawyers said the trucks enrolled in the program meet U.S. trucking regulations and the program is a necessary part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Participating Mexican carriers must comply with all legal requirements governing operations of domestically owned carriers, and in some cases stricter requirements," wrote Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler.
NAFTA requires all roads in the United States, Mexico and Canada to be opened to carriers from all the three countries. Canadian trucking firms have full access to U.S. roads while Mexican trucks can only travel about 20 miles inside the country at certain border crossings like in San Diego and El Paso, Texas. The government's filing said some 4.5 million of those short trips across the U.S.-Mexico border are made each year.
"With respect to those operations, Mexican carriers are maintaining a regulatory compliance record that meets or exceeds that of United States carriers," the government said in its Thursday filing.
In its papers, the government also said "the critical bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico would be placed under considerable strain by further delay in the demonstration project, which is an important interim step toward fulfilling U.S. obligations under NAFTA."
In court papers filed Thursday, the Teamsters said the U.S. and Mexico have been wrangling over this issue for at least seven years.
The Bush administration "can not seriously contend that a few months delay now to make sure that the pilot program is implemented in conformity with and not in violation of the laws of the United States is going to be critical after all the past delays," Jonathan Weissglass wrote for the union.
Letting Mexican trucks travel throughout the U.S. would be a financial boon to Mexican carriers who have to now transfer their loads at the border. The government also argues that U.S. consumers will benefit because it will be less expensive to ship Mexican goods if Mexican carriers are given access to the entire country.
Earlier this year, Congress ordered the Department of Transportation to launch a pilot program to study whether opening the U.S.-Mexico border to all trucks could be done safely.
The Teamsters and Sierra Club argued in their court papers the program proposed by the administration won't yield statistically valid results and the public wasn't given ample opportunity to comment.
"This is just more deceit from the Bush administration," said Teamsters President Jim Hoffa, who said he was skeptical of administration claims that Mexican truck drivers will be tested for drug and alcohol use.
"How can that be when there are no drug testing labs in Mexico?" Hoffa asked.
John Hill, head of the DOT agency charged with managing the program, said the testing will be done by U.S. companies.
"We believe the established safety protocols are quite rigorous," said Hill, who is head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Also, the union complained American truckers should be given similar access to Mexico, but the U.S. government said it's "beyond question that Mexico has committed to provide reciprocal authority to U.S. carriers."
The union countered in court papers filed late Thursday that the government has provided no details of the reciprocal agreement.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)