MISSION, December 28 - One of the more remarkable stories of 2013 along the border was U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s shift in stance towards the border wall.
Cornyn voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The legislation called for 700 miles of physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Cornyn defended that vote vociferously for many years afterwards. However, over the past year the senior senator from Texas changed his tone on the issue and many put this down to input from groups like the Border Trade Alliance and the Texas Border Coalition.
In June, the U.S. Senate passed the Hoeven-Corker border security amendment, which called for an additional 350 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border. Cornyn opposed the measure and made clear his opposition at a “Smart Border” roundtable he and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar held Sept. 5 at a warehouse in Mission belonging to CiL Group, a major exporter/importer of Texas and Mexican agricultural goods.
Dozens of business and economic development leaders from the Rio Grande Valley were present for the roundtable. They applauded Cornyn’s stance on the border wall and on legislation he and Cuellar authored to allow public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure projects at border ports of entry.
After the roundtable discussion, Cornyn and Cuellar held a news conference. At the conference, Cornyn went further than ever before in distancing himself from those who believe a border wall will deter illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Asked about his stance on the border wall, Cornyn told a reporter:
“The problem is that there are some people who do not understand the border. When they think about border security they think, let's build a fence. Well, we know the Border Patrol has told us that that is useful in some urban areas but it is not something you are going to do across the entire border. It really is laughable because, as we have said at different times, if you build a 50-foot fence along the border there would be a boom in the sale of 51-foot ladders. Or there would be tunnels or something else. It makes no sense.
“What we need is a smart border approach. We need technology, we need boots on the ground, we do need some infrastructure but the part that we are here today to emphasis is that if you can isolate the bad actors by facilitating the flow of legitimate commerce and people who want to come here and spend money then that actually helps the law enforcement agencies focus their efforts on the people that they need to focus on; not everybody because as you know it is just a very small, very tiny percentage of the people who come across the border who want to do us harm or commit crime.”
Some of the elected officials at the roundtable could not believe the man making those remarks was Sen. John Cornyn. He had, after all, been such a big supporter of the border wall in previous years. At the news conference, Rep. Cuellar was full of praise for Cornyn. But, the Laredo Democrat appeared to take a swipe at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Senator Cornyn gets it. He understands the border. I appreciate the good work the Senator has done for our state and especially the dynamic border we call home, the Rio Grande,” Cuellar said.
“We have got to have sensible, smart, border security. When we think about border security, when we think about the border, this is what we ought to be looking at,” said Cuellar, pointing to bundles of Texas cotton in the Mission warehouse that CiL Group exports to Mexico.
“This is the trade that we ought to focus on,” Cuellar continued. “We have got to support people like Senator Cornyn that understand the border because there are other people that just come in, they have a press conference, they say they are going to take care of the border and they just do not get it. They ought to come up here, spend time like the Senator did here today with business people and say this is what the border is all about.”
Cuellar pointed out that when one considers FBI statistics, the border crime rate is lower than the national crime rate. He said where he and Cornyn work, in Washington, D.C., it is much more violent than the border region, with far more murders and rapes reported. “When people come here to the border, they come in and say they are going to do this and this. This is what they need to look at,” Cuellar said, referring again to the bundles of cotton that acted as a backdrop for the news conference. "Yes, we need to do border security but let us think about the trade, the business, the retail that is so important to our area,” Cuellar said.
Cornyn said the legislation he and Cuellar filed to boost infrastructure development at border ports of entry shows that Congress can, sometimes, work in a bipartisan fashion.
“We need what I like to call a smart border, that is one that strikes the right balance between security and one that respects the important role of binational trade and commerce and tourism and what that means to our economy,” Cornyn said.
“Six million jobs in the United States depend upon that binational trade. And, as Mexico continues to grow its economy, which it is, and we continue to see infrastructure improvements like transportation put more pressure on our Texas borders and our ports of entry it is important we have not only the infrastructure but also the staffing. And while we know the federal government has neglected those for a long time we are introducing legislation that will provide an opportunity for more investment in terms of staffing and infrastructure here in the form of public-private partnerships in particular.”
Marc A. Rodriguez, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was present for the “Smart Border” roundtable. At the news conference, Rodriguez said he was “totally impressed” with the regional approach taken by border leaders and the spirit of cooperation that existed between Cornyn and Cuellar. “As goes Texas, so goes the nation,” he said.
On Dec. 19 in Washington, D.C., Customs and Border Protection signed five public-private partnerships that will allow local entities to pay for additional CBP staff at ports of entry. The agreements are permitted under the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013. The idea is to allow CBP to set up a reimbursable fee agreement program to increase the department's ability to provide new or enhanced services on a reimbursable basis to support growth in cross-border trade and travel.
The five entities selected for these partnerships are Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport; The City of El Paso, Texas; South Texas Assets Consortium (STAC); The City of Houston Airport System; and Miami-Dade County. STAC consists of the cities of Laredo, McAllen and Pharr, Starr-Camargo Bridge Co., and Cameron County.
“The utilization of public-private partnerships is an important component of CBP’s strategy to optimize resources,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Thomas S. Winkowski. “Together with our private sector partners, we can better facilitate trade and travel to continue to grow our local and national economies.”
Winkowski said the reimbursable services proposals were reviewed and ranked based on criteria including: impact on current CBP operations, health and safety issues, community and economic benefits, and the feasibility of instituting the agreements in a timely manner. He said these agreements will not replace existing services, and new services can include all customs and immigration inspection-related matters.
“We congratulate the STAC partners for signing their annex agreement today, which will reflect the unique needs of port communities from Laredo to Brownsville,” Border Trade Alliance President Noe Garcia said. “We look forward to these pilots demonstrating that CBP and partners at the local level can craft innovative solutions for facilitating legitimate trade and travel through improved staffing levels.”
Sam F. Vale, president of Starr-Camargo Bridge Co., said his bridge is ready to begin implementing the agreements.
“These agreements take an innovative, regional approach to port management. Now bridge owners and operators have a greater voice in how needed resources will be deployed to the ports of entry. On behalf of all the STAC participants, we look forward to working with CBP in implementing these pilot projects, which we believe will greatly enhance our region’s economy and international trade competitiveness," said Vale, who is also president of STAC.