EL PASO, Texas -- U.S. border agents have stepped up scrutiny of Americans returning home from Mexico, slowing commerce and creating delays at border crossings not seen since the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The increased enforcement is in part a dress rehearsal for new rules, scheduled to take effect in January, that will require Americans to show a passport or other proof of citizenship to enter the United States. The requirements were approved by Congress as part of anti-terrorism legislation in 2004.
Border officials said agents along the southern border were asking more returning U.S. citizens to show photo identification. At the same time, agents are increasing the frequency of what they "queries," in which they check a traveler's information against law enforcement, immigration and anti-terrorism databases.
The new policy is a major shift after decades when Americans arrived at land border crossings, declared they were citizens and were waved through. Since authorities began ramping up enforcement in August, wait times at border stations in Texas have often stretched to two hours or more.
The delays could remain a fact of life across the southern border for the next few years, border officials said, at least until new security technology and expanded entry stations are installed and until Americans get used to being checked and questioned like foreigners.
W. Ralph Basham, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the agency that manages the borders, said longer waits had resulted from added security measures at border stations that in many cases were aging, outmoded and facing surging traffic. Basham called on border cities, which own many of the crossing bridges, to invest in expanding the entry points.
In the meantime, he said, "A safer border is well worth the wait."
Wait times of up to three hours have also been reported over the past few months at crossings from eastern Canada. Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, who held a series of town meetings with border officials about the lines, said low staffing at border stations was the primary cause.
The longer lines along the Mexico border have been especially unsettling in El Paso, a border city long comfortable in its marriage to Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican metropolis on the other bank of the Rio Grande. Lines of cars and pedestrians at sunrise on the four border bridges here are a routine for tens of thousands of people, including many U.S. citizens, coming from Mexico on their way to school, work and shopping.
"International bridge wait times continue to escalate, causing frustration and concern in my district and across the nation," wrote El Paso's congressman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, in a letter this month to the House Committee on Homeland Security in which he called for a hearing on the matter.
Richard Cortez, the mayor of McAllen, another Texas border town that saw long lines this summer, said the waits had slowed some of the 45,000 trucks that passed the border there each month.
"There's a misconception that border communities care only about ourselves and our own local businesses," Cortez said by telephone. "Our border crossings affect trade across the United States."
Of $332 billion in trade last year between the United States and Mexico, this country's third-largest trading partner, more than 80 percent of it moved across the border by truck.