SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico (Border Report) – Since before it became a city in 1983, residents of this Southern New Mexico community have been lobbying for a border crossing into Mexico.

With a young, growing population base of 17,978, abutting both El Paso, Texas, and Mexican manufacturing giant Juarez – and with Interstate 10 a short drive away, city leaders are once again making their case for a port of entry.

The $80 million project is undergoing review by various agencies and presidential permit requests have been submitted in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, Javier Perea, the mayor of Sunland Park, said.

“Right now, we’re going back and forth with the various agencies reviewing those studies and we’re working on the Mexican side as well,” Perea said. “We’re scheduling a trip to Mexico City to see if the project can be moved to the Federal Register. Diplomatic notes have been exchanged and my hope is this year we might have a determination as to this particular project.”

The U.S. State Department told Border Report it received Sunland Park’s petition and has passed it on to the White House for evaluation.

The proposed Camino Real de Tierra Adentro border crossing. (courtesy City of Sunland Park)

The feasibility study for the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Port of Entry predicts daily traffic flows of 1,500 passenger vehicles and 205 pedestrians by 2022. That would increase to 2,300 vehicles and 575 walkers by 2040. The crossing would cut through vacant land to connect with Sunland Park Drive and consist of a bridge over the border wall and nearby BNSF railroad tracks.

The border crossing would encompass 94.1 to 119.1 acres, with inspection facilities and administrative officers occupying 73 to 97.5 acres of that.

The border wall at Sunland Park in the general area where the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro proposed border crossing would be built. (Border Report photo)

Proponents say the crossing would ease congestion at El Paso’s international bridges – the Paso del Norte, Bridge of the Americas and Ysleta-Zaragoza ports of entry – and establish a new commercial corridor with northwest Juarez.

Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea (photo by Julian Resendiz)

“It’s not just about Sunland Park. It’s about complementing the system of (international) bridges in the El Paso region. […] The more time we spend waiting in line to cross either to Mexico or the United States, the bigger the negative economic impact it has on our communities,” Perea said.

He was referring to pre-pandemic two-hour-plus waits El Pasoans coming back from visiting family, tourists checking out Juarez and Mexican residents coming to shop in El Paso faced to cross the border.

But that logic has hit a brick wall before. Similar projects fizzled in the 2000s and early 2010s due to lack of state support, competing interests in nearby Santa Teresa and political scandals in Sunland Park.

The Santa Teresa Port of Entry has sustained its growth despite the COVID-19 pandemic and is scheduled for remodeling to accommodate the passing of giant wind blades manufactured in Juarez and sent to Midwest wind farms. The remodeling was made possible through the federal Donations Acceptance Program.

Behind-the-scenes efforts are also ongoing to fund a study for a full expansion of the port.

“For us, any investment on the border is going to promote economic development,” said Marco Grajeda, executive director of the New Mexico Border Authority. “For me, the priority is trying to expand and modernize the Santa Teresa Port of Entry. […] Sen. (Martin) Heinrich is trying to include funding in the infrastructure package being debated in Washington. We’re hopeful we will get that investment for the design or even construction on the (expanded Santa Teresa) port.”

In this Jan. 5, 2016 photo, blades for wind turbines sit in a field in the booming New Mexico town of Santa Teresa along the U.S.-Mexico border. The nonprofit group that operates Santa Teresa is working to transform the area from a place where people work into one where they might live. Officials are drafting plans that call for the building of a plaza on an upslope, surrounded by Mediterranean-style housing and international restaurants. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Heinrich, D-New Mexico, in 2020 introduced legislation to reauthorize the Donations Acceptance Program that is making it possible to remodel in Santa Teresa. In April, he met with port officials to discuss how expanding hours and the physical infrastructure could create more trade opportunities for the state.

“I’ve been proud to work with business and community leaders to build public-private partnerships and secure millions of dollars in federal funds to facilitate lawful international trade at New Mexico’s ports of entry,” Heinrich told Border Report. “I remain focused on building on our recent successes, like those at the Santa Teresa port of entry, and making sure New Mexico’s border businesses and communities have the resources they need to thrive.”

Sunland Park’s Perea said there is no competing interest between the existing Santa Teresa port and the proposed Camino Real de Tierra Adentro border crossing. Project documents, though, show an option for commercial bridges lanes as well.

“When the original ideas for these ports were submitted, the idea was that Santa Teresa would be a commercial port and Sunland Park a non-commercial one. Hopefully, we can make that come to fruition in the next couple of years,” Perea said. “It is viable and worth to proceed.”