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Othal Brand, Jr., is pictured on the banks of the Rio Grande River near the Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 pump station in Hidalgo in June, 2013.

McALLEN, RGV – Two Rio Grande Valley business owners and experts on border security testify today before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs.

In addition to speaking before the panel, Monica Weisberg-Stewart and Othal Brand, Jr., will present written testimony. In the written testimony they focus on different issues and make different recommendations.

Weisberg-Stewart concentrates her commentary on helping the “men and women in blue,” namely officers handling security at the ports of entry.

Brand concentrates his commentary on helping the “men and women in green,” namely Border Patrol agents handling security between the ports of entry. Brand does, though, offer support for southbound checkpoints at the ports of entry.

Weisberg-Stewart has a retail business in downtown McAllen that relies on Mexican shoppers. She is also the longtime chair of the Texas Border Coalition’s immigration and border security committee.

Brand, also of McAllen, and his family farmed on the banks of Rio Grande River for decades.  He is president and general manager of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3, which pumps water from the Rio Grande for farmers and the residents and businesses of McAllen.

The subject of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing is Securing the Southwest Border: Perspectives from Beyond the Beltway. The hearing starts at 10 a.m. in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Weisberg-Stewart and Brand, the other three individuals who have been asked to testify are Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent in Rio Grande Valley Sector (testifying on behalf of the National Border Patrol Council), Mark J. Dannels, sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, and Howard G. Buffett, chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and an Arizona landowner.

The Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee is chaired by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin. The ranking member is Tom Carper, D-Delaware.

Here is the written testimony of Monica Weisberg-Stewart:

Thank you for inviting me to testify before you today. I am a businesswoman in McAllen, Texas. The family retail business founded by my father in 1958 – Gilberto’s Discount House – was located eight miles from the Rio Grande River and recently closed after 57 years in business.  

I want to share with you today my experiences on the border, both as a businesswoman and as the chairwoman of the Texas Border Coalition’s Committee on Border Security and Immigration. TBC is the collective voice of Texas border mayors, county judges, and communities on issues that affect our quality of life in the Texas-Mexico border region. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who cares more about the issue of border security than those of us who live, work, and raise our families on the border.

You will hear from others today about community needs, mostly as they relate to the areas of the border between the land ports of entry. Last year, U.S. taxpayers spent $3.6 billion on Border Patrol for the area between the ports – more than triple the agency’s entire budget in 2000. That effort, combined with better interior enforcement and an improving Mexican economy, has contributed to an 80 percent reduction in apprehensions of undocumented border crossers since 2000. I have great admiration for the men and women of the Border Patrol, or as I refer to them as “the men and women in green,” and I applaud them and say, “Good work.”

At the same time, I believe our farmers and ranchers have legitimate complaints that you should strive to address. TBC has consistently opposed the massive federal investment in fencing between the ports of entry, because as army trainers teach, “there is nothing man can build that man can’t overcome.”  This certainly holds true with the border fence – people are going over it, under it, and around it.

Moreover, using the decline in apprehensions between the land ports of entry as a measure of border security success overlooks the fact that between one-third and one-half of all the undocumented persons in the U.S. today entered this country lawfully through the ports of entry – and later overstayed their visas. We have to help our Customs and Border Protection agents (the men and women in blue) do a better job of preventing the entry of people who intend to overstay.

Few would contest that transnational crime on the Mexican border is the principle threat to security on the border. However, measuring border security success based on apprehensions between the ports of entry also ignores the fact that the cartels – the narco-traficantes – have built a successful business model based on the smuggling of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines into the U.S. from Mexico, and the overwhelming majority of that smuggling activity occurs through the ports. CBP officers performing immigration inspections are the primary line of defense against illegal drug flows through the ports of entry.  

Narcotics seizures on the border are at all-time high levels, according to the Justice Department. However, the continued success of the $40 billion illegal drug traffic into the U.S. shows that traffickers are not being deterred by the current effort. I believe if these traffickers where selling a legal product they would be a Fortune 500 company that is well manned, funded, and equipped. The issue is our men and women in blue aren’t funded to compete and win this battle. We have to help our Customs and Border Protection agents do a better job of preventing the importation of illegal drugs through our ports of entry by the transnational crime networks.

And as we all know, the 19 Al Qaeda attackers involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 entered the United States legally through U.S. air ports of entry – not land ports of entry. They did not swim across the Rio Grande. Overnight, constraining terrorist travel was recognized as a critical defense against terrorist attacks within the United States. The fact that no large-scale attack from foreign terrorists has occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11 indicates that the intelligence and enforcement that has gone into securing the homeland from terrorism has exceeded any of our expectations. In fact, there is not one case of a terrorist attack that involved someone coming across the Mexican border and we would like to keep that way. With that superior record, we have to continue to help our Customs and Border Protection agents prevent terrorist agents from crossing over to U.S. soil.

Proposals to “fix” border security on the Southwestern border often come from people who don’t have daily experience on the border, moving legitimate goods between Mexico and the U.S., working with our manufacturers, our farmers, the Customs Inspectors at ports of entry or the Border Patrol agents between them.

I suggest that Congress focus on these two priorities: preventing the unlawful entry of people, especially those who might pose a threat to our nation, through the ports of entry; and preventing the smuggling of high value drugs that are the lifeblood of the transnational criminal networks through the ports of entry.

Increasing effective security measures at the ports of entry will also benefit every state in the union. Increased enforcement – more Customs agents, better technology and functional infrastructure – means more legitimate trade. According to the Wilson Center, 6 million U.S. jobs depend on legitimate trade with Mexico, one in every 24 workers, which amounts to half a trillion dollars of goods and services per year. On a typical day, CBP inspectors process 1 million travelers; handle 70,300 cargo containers; stop 425 agricultural pests from entering the U.S.; quarantine 5,000 harmful products and substances; and identify nearly 600 people who raise national security concerns.

Mexico’s trade with the United States rose to $534.48 billion in 2014, according to a WorldCity analysis of the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s a 5.5 percent increase from 2013. Not surprisingly, Texas’s largest trading partner is Mexico, with $22 billion in tech exports flowing to Mexico.

Yet, it can take three or four hours to legally cross the border from Mexico. And that costs the U.S. economy money. My business used to profit from the volume of Mexico residents legally making day trips to shop in McAllen, where the U.S.’s lower tariffs and agricultural subsidies make numerous products 30 percent cheaper to buy here than in Mexico.

In our region, retailers used to have a saying:  “when the U.S. has economic problems we would sneeze; when Mexico would devalue the peso we had pneumonia.” Unfortunately, because of Washington’s way of funding our ports of entry by “putting the cart before the horse” and the perception of criminal activity happening on the American side of the border have caused us to suffer from economic pneumonia all the way around. Our ports of entry suffer from antiquated infrastructure, lack of technology, poor bandwidth, bottlenecks, and an overall lack of preparedness to deal with the increased traffic from Mexican Federal Highway 40 (which begins in Mazatlán, Mexico, crosses the mountains and then goes down to the Texas border). Traffic along this route is predicted to increase 40 percent, making our ports of entry overloaded and inefficient to meet the border trade and security needs of today.

When your customer has to wait three or four hours merely to cross the parking lot without places to use the restroom, that customer is likely to judge even a 30 percent savings as not enough. These are just a few reasons why I chose to shut down my 57-year-old family business. I am not alone.

The result is a significant and chronic loss of jobs and trade on both sides of the border. But long waits at border crossings could be eliminated if the federal government would aggressively invest in our ports of entry with new infrastructure and technology. In business we look at what will give us the biggest bang for the buck, and we believe the biggest return on investment is at the ports of entry. We understand that resources are limited, but those investments in both security and legitimate trade and travel will give us the biggest return.

Let me give you a real world example. For years, the Texas Border Coalition called on Congress to allow local communities to help pay for additional overtime for Customs and Border Protection Officers. The City of El Paso was one of five pilot projects chosen for a five-year test under Section 560 of the 2013 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

The pilot started a year ago, and traffic volumes increased nearly 20 percent for pedestrians and almost one-third for vehicles. Even with the increased volume, wait times went down as well. We believe that as the program continues, we will see larger decreases in wait times. According to the Pharr International Bridge, which also participates in this pilot program through the South Texas Asset Consortium (STAC), their port of entry recorded $30 billion in trade in 2014. The City of Pharr tells me that they have found the pilot program very useful and a good return on investment.

A 30 percent increase in vehicular traffic across the bridge means a boost in local business, international trade and benefits every state – all because of an investment by local government. The program is too new for us to be able to quantify the return on investment, but local governments from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley are sinking their limited funds into these pilot projects because they cannot afford to wait for Congress to honor its constitutional obligations on the border.

This committee has a responsibility to protect the nation from unlawful entry, from transnational crime and from the threat of terrorism.  The Texas Border Coalition suggests you can best fulfill your responsibility; best fill the gaps in border security, by investing the same way that local border communities do – in our land ports of entry.

Here is the written testimony of Othal Brand, Jr.:

Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Carper, members of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to speak to you today on this very important subject.

My name is Othal Brand, Jr., and I would like to tell you about my experience living and working on the Rio Grande. I have lived in Rio Grande Valley of Texas for 60 years. My family farmed on and by the Rio Grande for 43 years. We were the largest fruit and vegetable packer in the state of Texas for over a quarter of a century. We were the largest onion grower in the United States for over a quarter of a century. We owned several thousand acres of land on the river. We had small colonias, unincorporated neighborhoods, on our land, with their own general store.

I serve in an elected position for a water district. I have done so for ten years. The water district has a pump station below the border wall on the embankment of the river. It draws its water from the Rio Grande. We supply a majority of the drinking water for the city of McAllen, which has a population of 135,000 people. It is the largest city in the county of Hidalgo and the 20th largest in Texas. We pump 15,000 acre feet of water a year.

What was it like in past years:

It was a very relaxed atmosphere with no sense of danger. As a teenager, I would swim, ski, swing off trees, picnic, BBQ, and camp out on the river. People had travel trailers and cabins on the river.

What has it been like in recent years:

According to our Sheriff – and he cites federal statistics – 53 percent of all illegal crossers came into the United States through Hidalgo County, my county.

Anzalduas Park is next to Anzalduas Dam on the Rio Grande. We used to picnic there. Next to nobody uses it today. It is too dangerous.

When the Government had Sequestration, the very next day and for several weeks we had dozens of illegals coming across the river. They did 20,000 dollars of damage to our property in the weeks that followed.

All the activities on the river that occurred in years are no more. All the buildings and homes that were on the farms on the river that we owned and leased have been torn down. Nobody dares to live there now.

My irrigation district workers have been shot at twice, not to kill them but to scare them, to chase them off so the trans-national gangs can haul more drugs across.

We would have what the Border Patrol calls splash downs. The drug dealers would be chased back to our facility, drive off the embankment into the river, take the drugs out and haul them back to Mexico. The last time Border Patrol cleaned out the river in front of our channel they pulled five cars out. One of them still loaded with drugs. There would be several men on the Mexican side who would come of the brush to grab the drugs and take them back and try another day.

The county of Hidalgo has 1,582 square miles. Of the 22 cities in the county, the cities only represent 200 square miles. That leaves 1,382 square miles left to the Sheriff’s Department with 139 patrolling officers. This is equal to the same number of patrolling officers in the McAllen Police Department. McAllen has 47 square miles. The difficulty of securing the safety of life and property outside of the cities of Hidalgo County is a huge challenge to law enforcement and an incentive to the criminal element. If what Hidalgo County has was replicated in Washington, D.C., the capital would have just six officers patrolling the streets.

What has our water district done to help?

When I became manager of the water district, we were having illegal traffic every day. It was either human or drug trafficking. I said to my workers, “Why do you not call?” They said, “If we call they will know it is us.” I said to myself this is not the environment I want for these men. That is not what America is about.

I put up street lights, thinking that would scare them off. It didn’t. It allowed them to see better at night.

Border Patrol put up a portable manned tower with a $65,000 camera that had infra-red, thermal imaging, and night vision. It stopped them crossing there.

Next, I put in towers and cameras for the water district and then gave the Border Patrol access to those towers and cameras. This helped a lot.

To stop the splash downs, we put up Jersey barriers, across our embankment. That stopped the splash downs.

At the Border Patrol’s request we put up more floodlights. So, if you go to our water district at night it is lit up like a Christmas tree.

We put in a boat ramp and a helicopter pad for Border Patrol approximately four years ago. It is the only permanent one Border Patrol has on the river from McAllen to the Gulf of Mexico. It has allowed federal and state law enforcement to have 18 boats at our facility on a rotating 24/7 basis. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars were spent on the ramp.

What about the Border Wall?

Our pumping station is on what some would call the Mexican side of the border wall. They put the Border Wall right up the middle of our 45 acres. It split our property in two.

The Border Wall helps. It has deterred. Little children and women are not going over that wall. Young boys get over the wall with a ladder. The Border Wall has slowed the traffic down. Now, they have to try to get through a gate.

I have tried to make our district, which is below the wall and therefore vulnerable, as secure as possible to guarantee the safety of our workers and to assist law enforcement.

Here are my recommendations:

As a nation we are doing more than we have ever done before but we still have traffic. The aerostats and the drones are great but they are what I would call a fair-weather system. When it is overcast the drones are worthless. When the winds are high the aerostats have to be pulled down.

You are putting portable towers with cameras up. You need to do more of this. You need to continue putting more towers that are usable in all weather conditions.

I see four components to what Border Patrol does: boots on the ground, technology, air and marine. Where you are lacking – severely lacking – is marine. From Brownsville to Rio Grande City, over 250 miles of river, you have only two access points for boats – one above Anzaldaus Dam and one below it. I agree with Border Patrol, the most vulnerable place if you are an illegal crosser is when you are in or on the river. That is the easiest place to deter or intercept them.

What I am suggesting to you today is a one-time expense. It is not a reoccurring cost. It is build more boat ramps. Below Anzalduas Dam we have eight weirs. Border Patrol needs ramps between these weirs.

Without the ramps and the ability to put boats where Border Patrol needs them they cannot effectively patrol the river. If illegals see the boats they won’t get in the water.

Also, we have 19 water districts on the river. They need security. They are supplying 90 percent of the water to 1.5 million people in the Rio Grande Valley. They have no protection because they are all below the wall, except for one.

Next, when it comes to building more boat ramps I am told the problem for Border Patrol is the environmental studies and the length of time it takes to do them, which, I am told, takes years. Water districts do not have these issues. They have channels off of the river that do not touch the river or the embankment and are therefore not an environmental issue. Put the ramps on the channels. Give Border Patrol the money to build the ramps and, as an added benefit, secure the pumping stations.

We need higher water levels in the river in order for Border Patrol boats to operate. To do that the eight weirs we have between Brownsville and Mission/McAllen need be elevated. That is a one -time cost. In our district, it is going to cost us $150,000 to elevate our neighboring district’s weir approximately two feet. It is a one-time cost that will have a huge impact on the marine component of Border Patrol.

These suggested solutions will diminish all the other costs you have inland. If you stop the crossers from crossing you have increased your efficiency and maximized your funding.  

What has Texas done right?

Texas has proven that with more technology and manpower you can deter. When the National Guard came down, they sat on the river. The troops were parked on the embankment and they did not move. During that time, Mission Police Department will tell you, their crime dropped 18 percent and McAllen’s dropped nine percent.

Three final things:

1) I am not disputing those who say the Valley is safe. What they mean is the cities are safe. I am talking about those living in rural areas and those living on and by the river. People are moving off their farms and ranches because it is not safe. That is not how it was 60 years ago. We are much worse off today.

2) To those who say more border security, of the kind I am describing, including southbound checkpoints, will hurt our economy, I say, you protect my home, my family, and my community first and the economy will survive and take care of itself. The cartels are like ticks or leeches. They will bleed the animal (the economy) but they will not kill it. It is not in their best interest.

3) There are only two things that keep those who live on the river and in the rural areas safe from the foreign criminal element (cartels). One is to not get in the way of the cartels. And, two, to not mess with their business. You do either of those things and the cartels will do to yoy everything they are doing to citizens on the other side of the river. And everybody who lives on the river and rural areas knows it.

Again, thank you very much for the opportunity to share this information with you. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Yours sincerely,

Othal Brand, Jr.

McAllen, Texas.

Editor’s Note: The main picture accompanying this story was taken from the Roma Bluffs above the Rio Grande River in Roma, Texas. Photo by RGG/Steve Taylor)

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian has an undocumented immigrant research project underway with Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3.