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Groups seek more efficient border for business, trade reasons

  • In this July 14, 2013 photo, Agustin Mendez, right, raises a chalice on the San Diego side of the fence during a cross-border Sunday religious service. As federal lawmakers thousands of miles away consider further sealing the border, many here on the ground are trying to blur the line and unite a region that was split apart by the security crackdown since the Sept. 11 attacks. (AP Photo/ Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO — Under the watch of a Border Patrol agent, U.S. and Mexican pastors set up two small altars — one on each side of a towering border fence — for their Sunday service that spans two countries.

The priests then break bread simultaneously and hold up their challises to the tightly woven metal barrier. The guitar player is in Mexico, strumming a song led by clergy on the U.S. side. The buzzing of a passing Border Patrol officer on an all-terrain vehicle interrupts the music.

The religious service is one of myriad ways that life is seeping across the border post 9/11 as Congress considers spending billions on further fortification.

Ranchers, deputies and lawmakers from border states have long pleaded for federal help, saying their areas were overrun by people entering the U.S. illegally and armed smugglers.

But today there is growing opposition along the nearly 2,000-mile boundary to more agents and fences. They include U.S. ministers, business leaders and mayors who say those measures have reached their maximum effectiveness.

The crackdown in the past decade should be applauded for bringing detentions of illegal crossers to historic lows — but ports of entry have been overlooked, said former El Paso Mayor John Cook, the director of the Border Mayors Association, representing U.S. and Mexican mayors.

Hours-long waits and overtaxed officers have become the norm at crossings, costing the region billions by deterring Mexican shoppers and delaying U.S. shipments, border mayors say. They favor expanding "trusted traveler" programs that give passes to pre-vetted crossers, digital fingerprinting and other technology to make ports of entry more secure, though Congress hasn't addressed those ideas.

"We don't need more Border Patrol agents — we need more customs agents," Cook said. "Basically, we have 20th century infrastructure and for the most part, a 19th century policy, trying to facilitate trade in the 21st century."

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