BORDER TRADE ALLIANCE FIGHTS TO KEEP CONSULATES IN MEXICO US STATE DEPT. PLANS COST-CUTTING CLOSINGS

BORDER TRADE ALLIANCE FIGHTS TO KEEP CONSULATES IN MEXICO US STATE DEPT. PLANS COST-CUTTING CLOSINGS

The Border Trade Alliance is attempting to rally business and legislative leaders in the Southwest to fight a planned closing of two border consulates in Mexico by the U.S. State Department.

The agency intends to close consulates next year in Matamoros, across from the southeasternmost Texas border city of Brownsville, and Hermosillo, near the Arizona border with Mexico.The closings are part of a State Department downsizing worldwide, but the BTA argues the closings in Mexico run counter to the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"There are other consulates around the world that aren't our neighbors," said BTA Chairman William V. Stephenson.

HERMOSILLO IMPORTANT

The trade advocacy group is particularly upset about the planned closing of Hermosillo, a city in the Mexican state of Sonora that is important for the ranching and livestock sectors and is a major automobile production site.

If the Hermosillo consulate closes, Arizona trade interests or Mexican businesses wanting federal government help in trading with Arizona will have to do business through consulates in Tijuana, across from San Diego, Calif., or in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.

"Those people would have to drive about 600 miles to Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez to get business done that currently is being handled in Hermosillo," Mr. Stephenson said.

The BTA has written a letter to Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., seeking his help in reversing the planned State Department action. Mr. Stephenson said the Arizona lawmaker has been soliciting help from other southwestern legislators to try and change the agency's planned action.

NEGATIVE POTENTIAL

In a letter to Rep. Kolbe, the BTA chairman warned that the consulate closings have potential negative effects on bilateral trade.

"U.S. business people conducting business in Mexico rely on consular offices to step in and protect their welfare when necessary," Mr. Stephenson wrote. "In fact, these offices provide an immeasurable feeling of comfort and safety needed to minimize the risk of investing, joint venturing or conducting commercial transactions in Mexico."

While the Hermosillo closing would mean a long commute to the closest U.S. consulates, the Matamoros consulate is about a two-hour drive from the industrial Mexican city of Monterrey and a large U.S. consulate.

The head of the Hermosillo consulate, Bill Francisco, is expected to discuss the potential closing with the Arizona chapter of the BTA at an Aug. 29 meeting.

Provided Figures

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City did not indicate whether it opposed the plan, saying only that it provided information.

"The embassy provided the Department of State with information about the nature and volume of work at the two consulates and an estimate of the cost savings that would be realized by the closures," said an official. "This was for the purpose of allowing the State Department and Congress to reach an informed decision."

Also irking the Border Trade Alliance are recently announced fees for Immigration and Naturalization Service documents needed by Mexican and Canadian business people.

The INS announced on Aug. 4 that it will begin charging fees to issue replacement border crossing cards at the Mexican border and to issue five other INS travel documents at the Canadian and Mexican borders.

NEW FEES SET

The new fees take effect Oct. 9, and an INS bulletin said revenue raised will "enhance customer service to the traveling public at land border ports of entry."

But the BTA feels the new fees will simply encourage greater illegal immigration from Mexico.

"We see it as another hindrance to getting people to come into the U.S. legally," said BTA Executive Director Luis Ramirez. Documentation already takes as long as seven months and now will cost Mexicans who, because of their economic crisis, are less able to afford the fees, he said. "It's just an additional incentive to come across illegally."