MCALLEN, RGV – A lot has been said about violence in Reynosa being a major factor in deterring Mexican shoppers from visiting McAllen and neighboring cities, but U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar cites another factor.
“It is not only the violence in Reynosa that is stopping Mexican nationals from coming here to stay and shop. I have talked to some of the chain restaurants, like Pancho Ochoa from Palenque Grill. I have talked to the Olive Garden and other folks. They have all said it is the anti-Mexican rhetoric,” Cuellar said.
“These restaurant owners say they have lost 50 percent of the Mexicanos. It is not only the violence, it is the harsh rhetoric coming from the President when he says, ‘Mexicans are rapists, murderers, we don’t want you here.’ If you are a Mexicano, are you going to spend money in the U.S.? Why am I going to spend money at a place that doesn’t want me?”
In addition, Cuellar said, some Mexican visitors are afraid customs officials will confiscate their visas. He said he has heard a lot more of this has been happening since President Trump took office.
“There is a fear that the authorities will pick up their visas. That has cut down on the number of visitors also. Look at Semana Santa, if you ask CBP they will tell you, we did not have as many Mexicanos this year. To me, in many ways, it is the harsh rhetoric coming out of the Administration.”
Congressman Cuellar made his comments in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian following a recent news conference at the Starr-Camargo International Bridge.
The subject of Mexican shoppers visiting the Rio Grande Valley was discussed at a Chamber Talks event at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. The guest was McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez. He was interviewed by Davis Rankin of KURV Radio.
In answer to a question from Rankin about a decline in Mexican shoppers visiting McAllen, Rodriguez acknowledged that sales tax revenues for the city are down five million dollars.
“We are down on sales tax because of what has been happening in Mexico. We really do have a lot of friends and family in Mexico. That is what they are. They are not our customer. They are our friends and family. They are scared right now. We probably only hear the periphery of what is going on over there,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez hastened to point out that he was not being critical of Mexican shoppers that are not coming to visit McAllen.
“A friend of mine said, you guys keep criticizing us. I said, what do you mean? He said, well every time you talk about what is going on, you talk about the problems Mexico is having. I realized we may be coming across that way. That it is a criticism, like, ‘hey get your stuff in order.’ Whether it is our friends in Reynosa or our friends in Monterrey, in Saltillo, Zacatecas, San Luis, wherever else, they are scared to travel on the interstate, for obvious reasons.”
Rodriguez said there is a reason McAllen is the highest per capita sales tax revenue city in Texas. “That is because of our friends and family on the other side of that line that we call the border.”
Rodriguez said McAllen must prepare for a situation where depressed sales tax revenues caused by a drop in Mexican shoppers becomes the norm.
“I keep saying we have got to be close to hitting bottom. I really believe we are really, really, close because we are down five million dollars in sales tax. We are either going to stabilize or we are going to come back up. We need to be looking at a parallel plan because this may not change. This may be normal from now on,” Rodriguez said.
“We have been saying it is going to get better for ten years and it hasn’t. So, we need to, at a minimum, have a parallel plan of what if it doesn’t. Then, our alternative revenues become much, much, more important and you are seeing a lot of focus of that at City Hall.”
In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Cuellar also spoke about the impact the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is having.
“Talk to a customs broker or a freight forwarder and they will tell you, ‘hey, I was going to buy some equipment, but I am holding off. I was going to buy a warehouse, I am going to hold off.’ Why? Because everybody is waiting to see about NAFTA. It is the uncertainty. That is what we are facing at the border.”
Asked how the renegotiations are going, Cuellar said he was not happy with the approach being taken by the Trump Administration. He also said he is concerned about any delay in finalizing an agreement.
“They have extended the negotiations from December to March. They may reach agreement but there are a series of notifications that have to go to Congress and reports that have to be done. You are getting very close to the Mexican presidential race, in July of 2018. For us, we have mid-term elections in November 2018. There will be some members who do not want to touch anything that is political, like a trade agreement. It isn’t, here is the agreement, vote on it. There are a series of steps.”
Cuellar said he was disappointed with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross saying the U.S. has nothing more to give in the NAFTA renegotiations.
“One of the Administration’s suggestions is, five-year sunsets. Do we really want to go through this every five years? No. The rules of origin for vehicles, they want that to go up from 62.5 to 75, 80 percent. In the case of arbitration, they want this resolved in court. Do you want to go through a Mexican court? Arbitration is working, keep it the way it is,” Cuellar said.
“At the end of the day, the president is saying, we have to win this one. So, what do we tell the Mexicans? Is the Mexican government going to say to their Congress, hey, we’ve got a worse agreement, approve it? Or the Canadian government, hey, it’s a worse deal but accept it because the Americans want it. No. It has got to be a win-win to where we can sell it to all three congresses. The president has to realize that it has to be a win-win for all three countries.”
It was pointed out to Cuellar that Enrique Castro Septién, president of INDEX Reynosa, the maquila trade association, had recently said Mexico will do better, comparatively than the U.S., if NAFTA is abandoned. Cuellar responded: “On energy, service, we have a surplus, under NAFTA. The Administration should realize this. (Tamaulipas Governor) Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca was in China recently with two members of Congress. They are looking at other countries. Mexico has a lot more trade agreements than we do. They are going to continue with these. They are looking at other trade agreements, just in case. They still prefer us to be No. 1 but they are not going to sit there and die.”
Cuellar said Luis Videgaray Caso, Mexico’s foreign secretary, was in his D.C. office recently. “He said to me, we are preparing, worst case scenario, we are looking at other countries. It would definitely be bad for us on the border if NAFTA was abandoned. They could invite China to be just across the border from us. We have to think seriously about this. Mexico is a great ally.”
Cuellar was also asked about Governor Garcia Cabeza de Vaca’s request that Texas and the United States do more about illegal weapons entering Mexico from the United States. Cuellar said Customs & Border Protection and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could and should do more. He suggested a tie-up between federal, state, and local law enforcement.
“A lot of the guns that are used over there are from America. I think the more we can have CBP, ATF, do inspections on the bridge, without creating long lines, the better. One of the things I would ask CBP to do is, they ought to do more joint partnerships. I think they were doing it in the city of Pharr. They were doing it in Laredo for a while. With the police departments, with the constables, with the sheriff’s office, some of the locals, if they get some money, beside guns, they can share on the forfeiture. CBP, ATF, are always saying, we don’t have enough money. My thing is, think outside the box, create some partnerships with the local law enforcement folks, give them a share on any monies they confiscate and get it done. That is the way you can bring more personnel that could be on the border checking for guns and cash going south.”
McAllen City Manager Rodriguez was also asked about illegal weapons going into Mexico.
“Because we own two international bridges we have very good relationship with CBP, Customs & Border Protection. So, we meet with them monthly, privately. We talk about stuff they are dealing with. The City of McAllen, we really have very little to do with what can be done with gun-running south. But, it is a big issue that the federal government is looking at.”
Rodriguez said he has very little information on what the federal law enforcement agencies are going to do about illegal guns going south. “All we can do, you and I as citizens, is insist that something can be done. Because the City of McAllen, as a local government, can do very little.”
Asked by KURV’s Rankin about spot checks at international bridges, Rodriguez said it has to be the federal government’s responsibility. Rankin said having more spot checks as southbound vehicles cross international bridges could be opposed by the merchant community. McAllen Chamber President Steve Ahlenius agreed. “It could put a chill on that,” he said.