The wait at the El Paso ports of entry has increased from 45 minutes before Sept. 11 to as long as three hours, U.S. officials said. U.S. inspectors must now check under the hood and the trunk of every vehicle crossing the border.
Gov. Rick Perry has assigned 120 Guard members to El Paso and Laredo on a 90-day assignment to assist U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Lt. Col. Robert Luna said Tuesday.
"They will do counter-drug inspections," he said. "They will check on vehicles and assist the Customs officers to expedite traffic flow at the ports of entry."
The 120 troops are among 2,000 members of the Texas Guard already assigned to security duty since Sept. 11. Most of the other troops are on security details at airports across the state.
"This is a whole new world for us. It's going to be a little more fun, more hands on," Senior Master Sgt. Teri Pomerleau told the El Paso Times.
The first contingent of about 15 Guard members have arrived at the El Paso international bridges where vehicles cross the Rio Grande into the United States.
"What they're here for is to gang up on the cars, what we call 'double up,'" Customs Port Director David Longoria said.
More than 16 million vehicles cross into Texas from Mexico annually at El Paso, officials say.
Guard members will check out vehicles for drugs and other contraband as Customs officers check the paperwork of the driver and vehicle. The Guard has special equipment that can quickly check out trunks and other storage areas of vehicles.
INS and Customs officials began more detailed vehicle inspections after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that led to longer waits for vehicles crossing the border each day.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and El Paso business leaders have asked for more use of the Guard to speed up the crossing.
The Texas Guard has worked behind the scenes at ports of entry since 1989 in the "Operation Guardian" program, providing special equipment to inspect and dissemble vehicles that might hold drugs.
Drug seizures are common at the El Paso ports of entry. Nearly 155 tons of illegal drugs were seized from October 2000 to the end of September 2001 in the West Texas and New Mexico region, according to Customs officials.