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Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos and Bret Erickson, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association, are pictured in front of the Pharr International Bridge.

PHARR, RGV – Secretary of State Carlos Cascos says Texas will continue to foster strong economic relations with Mexico no matter who the next U.S. president is.

After visiting the Pharr International Bridge on Friday and witnessing close up the large volume of fresh produce Texas imports from Mexico, Cascos gave a short speech about the importance of international trade and held a news conference with Pharr city officials.

At the news conference, Cascos was asked by a reporter what he made of the numerous attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement by U.S. presidential candidates, most notably by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Cascos said he visited 37 cities last year and in almost every speech that he gave he touched on border trade and the importance of trade with Mexico, not only for the Texas economy but to the U.S. economy as whole.

“I am not going to get into a battle back and forth with political rhetoric. People need to understand how many jobs are created in Texas because of direct trade with Mexico – half a million. And in the United States, six million jobs are created because of trade with Mexico. That is nothing to frown on, that is a big, big, job creator,” Cascos said.

“So, that is all we can say. If people want to talk about NAFTA and they want to talk about the loss of jobs, they want to talk about building up barriers, all we can do is state the facts. This is what we do. Mexico is Texas’ largest trading partner. Everybody knows that. Thirty-eight percent of Texas’ trade is with Mexico.”

Cascos said Mexico is not only a neighbor with whom Texas shares “family, customs and culture” but it is also an important business partner.

“If something happens that is going to interfere with that trade we are going to have a job loss in this country, not to mention what is going to happen in this state,” Cascos said. “So, I do not get involved in the political rhetoric. They can talk all they want. I will tell you what the facts are, regardless of who is in the White House, it does not matter if it is a he or she or it, what is important is we are going to continue that relationship with Mexico as best we can and we are going to stand by that.”

Cascos is one the highest profile Hispanics in the Texas Republican Party. He was appointed Secretary of State by Governor Greg Abbott last year. Before that he was county judge in Cameron County.

Interconnection of U.S. and Mexican economies

Earlier in the day, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar had spoken about trade with Mexico while appearing on News Talk 710 KURV. Cuellar was asked about a recent meeting he and other members of Congress had with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City.

“We talked about how the economies of the United States and Mexico are getting connected in so many ways,” Cuellar told KURV. “If a product comes in from China it will have about four percent of American parts in it. If a product comes in from Canada it will have about 25 percent of parts from America. But, if something comes in from Mexico, it will have about 40 percent of American parts in it. It shows how connected the countries have become.”

Cuellar said that it one looks at some of the projections from Customs and Border Protection, trade between the United States and Mexico could grow about five to eight percent a year. “This means good news for trade in the (Rio Grande) Valley and the rest of the State of Texas,” Cuellar told KURV.

Asked about Cuellar’s comment that 40 percent of the components in imported manufactured goods from Mexico are made in the U.S., Cascos said: “I have heard that said. It has got to be accurate.”

Cascos said border residents know how important international trade is. The key thing, he said, is to convey that message to everyone else.

“Coming down for a photo op is not getting to know the border. You really have to get to know the border by living the border, by talking to traders, merchants, people that live on the border every single day. We have a very fluid population that travels from the Mexican side to the Texan side every single day. Talk to those folks. This is something we can talk about because we live it every single day. The challenge is talking to those non-believers, those non-knowers, by continuing to expand on the dialogue. I find that when politics gets involved, nothing good happens. But if you talk to the entrepreneurs, the business men and women, the true job creators, you will have a lot more positive input than we do from people running for public office at times.”

Asked by a reporter if there is any reluctance on the part of state leaders to provide the necessary infrastructure the border region needs, Cascos said there is not. He encouraged border leaders to visit the state Capitol and tell their story.

“I was telling this to some Laredo leaders. You have to get out of your comfort zone of only talking to your state Reps and state Senators. You have got to reach out and visit those state Reps and state senators from other parts of the state. Go to Houston, Odessa, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Dallas. Go visit them and introduce them to your port of entry. Take them a basket (of fruit), before the session starts. We have a good message to give but no one person can do it alone. Let’s do it truly as a region. I believe that whatever is good for Hidalgo is good Cameron, is good for Willacy, is good for Starr. We have to promote ourselves as a South Texas region at all times, not just when it is convenient. At all times.”

Economic juggernaut

In his speech, Cascos said that during a nine-month period in 2015, he visited 37 cities in Texas and gave 94 speeches.

“I wanted to get to know what makes our state tick. There is no Texas miracle when it comes to job creation, economic development and entrepreneurship. It is no miracle. It is a deliberate act. It is things that have been done by our local community, or state community… to help make Texas the best place to do business,” Cascos said.

“When I speak to folks outside of the border I say the border is part of the economic juggernaut of this state. Texas is the economic juggernaut of this nation. We know all the challenges the border has. We live the border. We know what it is to work and live and raise a family on the border. We have to convince those folks outside of the border the opportunities that lay with us. You do not know how difficult that is. It is like talking to teenagers.”

Cascos said he would like to see a measure the Texas Department of Transportation did expanded to every land port of entry in Texas. He said TxDOT put GPS monitors on 1,000 trucks to check where they went.  “It was like a spider web. It touched almost every major area in this country. I think we need to do this with all of our ports of entry. Let’s monitor 500 or 1,00 trucks with GPS units (at each land port). We know they do not stay on the border. We know they do not stay in Texas. We have to show that to everyone else to demonstrate how important the border economy is not just to Texas but to the nation. We know it. Now we need to spread the word.”

On his tour of the Pharr bridge, Cascos saw agricultural inspectors checking fresh produce coming in on trucks from Mexico. “I got to see the agricultural side today. It gives me additional talking points when I visit these other Texas cities and I try to educate them and inform them about border life,” he said.

Importance of the Pharr International Bridge

In his remarks at the event, Pharr City Manager Juan Guerra said the Pharr International Bridge does $30 billion of trade every year and that it is sixth busiest land port in the United States and the fourth busiest on Mexican border. He said it is No. 1 for trade in fresh produce. “Our bridge is one of the hidden gems of the entire Rio Grande Valley. It feeds the Valley. It feeds the warehouses. It feeds the Valley’s transportation and trade needs. It has been an amazing feat what Pharr has achieved. It (the bridge) has been built and it is shining now,” Guerra said.

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez said the Pharr International Bridge is a gateway to the United States. He said more infrastructure is needed to make it even more efficient. “Our city is committed to working alongside our state legislators, and partnering agencies, and our neighboring communities to continue to foster regional partnerships so we can remain competitive on a state and national level,” Hernandez said.

The Texas International Produce Association

After the news conference ended, the Rio Grande Guardian spoke with Bret Erickson, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association. Erickson had been on the tour of the Pharr bridge with Cascos.

“There is a lot of negativity about the border region but on the business side we have such a large volume of product coming through here. There is such a huge volume of jobs generated out of the border crossings that come through here. On the produce side we cross about $4.5 billion worth of product through Texas ports of entry. Close to 5,000 jobs are tied to that. We are talking about 210,000 loads of fresh produce coming through Texas,” Erickson said.

“I can tell you that the Texas produce industry is the Mexican produce industry. We are completely intertwined and our producers here in Texas are some of the largest importers of fresh produce. This trade allows consumers to continue to receive broccoli and tomatoes and onions year round. When folks go to the grocery store on the east coast somewhere they want broccoli every day and a large percentage of that is coming through South Texas.”

Asked how the tour of the bridge went, Erickson said: “We toured the import lot. We saw some agricultural inspections going on. We have had such tremendous growth in trade over the last decade, but, we have not seen a commensurate growth in terms of staffing at our ports of entry. We have not seen a commensurate investment in infrastructure. We need all the help we can get to expedite these shipments and expedite trade.”

Asked if fresh produce literally rots on the bridges, because there are not enough agriculture inspectors, Erickson answered affirmatively. “We do have cases where produce literally rots on the bridges, waiting for a Food & Drug Administration analysis to come through. It can take six or seven days for that analysis. In that time that load of papayas can be worth nothing. That happens all the time. Unlike maquila products, we have the perishability factor. Fresh produce loses value every day it sits on the bridge.”

Erickson gave a shout out to the State of Texas for helping to fund agriculture inspectors at land ports of entry. These inspectors are supposed to be paid by the federal government. “Texas has set an example. Texas has said, we are going to step up and help pay for improvements at federal ports of entry to increase the hours of coverage by Customs and Border Protection so that we can help move trade. The state has shown a great understanding of how important international trade is and making an investment in Texas businesses.”