McALLEN, RGV – The Speaker Pro Tem of the Texas House of Representatives has won praise from Rio Grande Valley leaders for including southbound checkpoints in his border security legislation.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said he included a provision that local and state law enforcement check for weapons, cash and stolen vehicles going into Mexico at the request of Valley officials. Gov. Greg Abbott has made border security a priority issue this legislative session and Bonnen’s legislation – House Bill 11 – has garnered bipartisan support.

Speaker Pro Tem Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.
Speaker Pro Tem Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

“I commend Speaker Pro Tem Bonnen for listening to us and for including southbound checkpoints in his border security legislation,” said Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra. “I particularly like the fact that the checkpoints will be no more than 250 yards from the border and therefore will not be used as compliance checkpoints.”

Guerra said Bonnen and other House leaders reached out to Valley law enforcement leaders when they paid a visit to McAllen late last year. Among the law enforcement officials to meet with Bonnen, Guerra said, were McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, Pharr Police Chief Ruben Villescas, Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez and Edinburg Police Chief Rolando Castañeda. “We all sat down in a room at the McAllen Public Library and we talked in-depth about border security,” Guerra said.

Asked why southbound checkpoints are important, Guerra said: “We are talking about the weapons and the money and the stolen vehicles that are used by the drug cartels. If we can hurt them in the pocketbooks, if we can take away the cash and cut down on the supply of weapons it really hurts them and it helps Mexico. I am very happy with this provision in the border security bill.”

Among the legislators to meet with Valley law enforcement officials at the McAllen Public Library was Rep. John Otto, a Republican from Dayton who was named chair of the House Appropriations Committee this session by Speaker Joe Straus. Also participating in the discussions were various Valley legislators, Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Republican from League City and brother of Speaker Pro Tem Bonnen, and Rep. Ana Hernandez, a Democrat from Houston.

“We got the idea to include southbound checkpoints from our visit to McAllen and from Sen. Eddie Lucio, who had filed a similar bill last session,” Bonnen told the Rio Grande Guardian, in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I went down to the Valley late last year and had some really meaningful roundtable discussions with business leaders and local elected officials and chambers of commerce folks. I was impressed with what they had to say. One of the significant measures proposed was southbound checkpoints. They requested that we help do something about this. I wanted to be responsive to their request.”

Asked why southbound checkpoints are important, Bonnen cited statistics from a federal government report. “A federal report in 2009 found that 87 percent of the guns seized by Mexican law enforcement between 2004 and 2009 were tracked back to the United States. More significantly, of the American-sourced guns seized, 39 percent came from Texas. That is a higher percentage than came from any other state in the nation,” Bonnen said.

Bonnen said the plan is to have the southbound checkpoints situated within 250 yards of the border.

“They are going to be near the actual boundary. We would be working in conjunction with the existing inspection stations. For some reason the feds are not properly manning those and so our hope and belief is that DPS and local law enforcement can do this. Local law enforcement today puts an effort into doing southbound checkpoints. They just do not have the manpower and resources to do it continuously,” Bonnen said.

“Our hope is that DPS, having more troopers down there, can be a better partner with the feds on southbound checkpoints on the international bridges. They have to be manned on a more consistent basis.”

Asked how much the program would cost, Bonnen said: “It would not cost anything and yet it would cost $100 million. Let me explain why I say this. We are looking to provide the funding for an additional 250 DPS troopers. That cost is a broad cost and it is our hope and belief that some of those troopers, whether they be new or existing would go towards the effort of helping support southbound checkpoints.”

State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya, was one of the Valley legislators to meet with Speaker Pro Tem Bonnen on his visit to the Valley late last year. Longoria said he appreciated Bonnen’s willingness to listen to local law enforcement officials.

“One of the things we discussed was southbound checkpoints. It was not even brought up by us. It was brought up by the community. Rep. Bonnen took this to heart and adapted the legislation to take in the local input,” Longoria said. “Rep. Bonnen wanted to pick the brains of local leaders and to see what was affecting the local area. I commend him for this approach. I think he got a very good grasp of the issues.”

Longoria said that in addition to meeting with sheriffs and police chiefs, the visiting legislators held sessions with local educators, economic development corporation leaders, and advocacy groups like La Unión del Pueblo Entero. “The sessions were very informative,” he said.

“None of the media was notified about Rep. Bonnen’s visit. He wanted to pick the brains of local leaders outside of the limelight and see what was affecting the local area. I commend him for taking this approach. I think he got a very good grasp of the issues.”

Asked why the southbound checkpoint provision is important in Bonnen’s legislation, Longoria said: “We want to start a dialogue with the federal government. We have got to stop the flow of money and the firearms that are heading southbound to Mexico and Central America. This has been a big concern for a lot of individuals in South Texas for a very long time. The cash and the firearms are having a really negative effect on Mexico and some of the countries in Central and South America. We want Texas and the United States to extend our arms out to our brothers and sisters to the South.”

Longoria said HB 11 is currently a work in progress but he thinks the benefits will be great.

“I am very optimistic about it. It has been a very different approach. Rep. Bonnen really did put the time and effort into going down and listening to our concerns. He did not use border security as a publicity stunt. It has been a very hot political issue but he wanted to go in low-key and be there for a few days, meet with the local folks and hear what their needs were. He took his notes and started working on legislation. I applaud him for working with our sheriff and our local police departments. I am optimistic we can roll out a bill that the whole Valley can be proud of.”