McALLEN, RGV – U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar spent Election Day in New York City, getting ready for what he and many other people expected to be a Hillary Clinton victory in the presidential election.
In the morning, the Laredo Democrat accompanied Clinton and members of the Democratic congressional delegation from the Big Apple when the former secretary of state cast her ballot to be the first woman president in U.S. history.
In the afternoon Cuellar, full confidence given the eve-of-poll opinion polls, gave a telephone interview with the Rio Grande Guardian. The headline was set to be: Texas would have fared worst had Trump won. Needless to say – the story never ran.
In an interview with Rio Grande Guardian reporter Melva Lavín-Castillo three days after Donald Trump’s victory, Cuellar pointed out that his prediction on how Texas would fare was based upon the Republican presidential candidate carrying out his campaign pledges, viz a viz international trade and NAFTA.
“What I said in the interview on Election Day was, if Trump wins and he cuts off NAFTA, Texas will fare worst. We depend so much on trade. But, I think he is going to be more bark than bite. I think people along the border, in the Rio Grande Valley, are going to tell him, including myself, hold on,” Cuellar said.
“We might make some changes, make it a NAFTA 2.0, like we have done under TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). I think that is where we are going to end up. I know Trump is against TPP but I think his people are going to look at the work we have done on TPP and say, here is the new NAFTA 2.0.”
Cuellar said he is confident Trump and his Cabinet will come to recognize how important trade with Mexico is.
“Look at the border and how much trade there is. Look at Laredo, the largest inland port. We would be devastated if, all of a sudden, we were to cut off trade with Mexico. I do not think Trump is going to do that based on some of the conversations I have had with some of the Republicans in Washington and who he is bringing in,” Cuellar said.
“He (Trump) says he will be an outsider but if you look at who he is bringing in, it is insiders. I say that in a nice way. People that know about politics. Without mentioning names, I have spoken to people who have been involved with him one way or another. I think it is going to be more bark than bite.”
Like so many in Washington, D.C., and indeed across the nation, Cuellar is anxiously waiting to see who the President-elect picks for his Cabinet. He sincerely hopes that some of the comments the Republican nominee made on the campaign trail were merely political rhetoric.
“I think it will be more bark than bite in the sense that President-Elect Trump is going to realize that he has got to work with Congress. There are some issues where he is going to find some resistance, especially when it comes to trade with Mexico,” Cuellar said. “Trade with Mexico, every day there is more than $1.5 billion of trade between the U.S. and Mexico. That means every minute there is over a million dollars of trade between the U.S. and Mexico. That means six million American jobs. There are over 30 states in the United States that have a large amount of interaction with Mexico. Of the Fortune 500 countries, at least 90 percent of them are doing business with Mexico. So, if he is a businessman like he is saying, I think he is going to listen to those companies. I think he is going to realize it is a little bit more complicated.”
Cuellar pointed out that under NAFTA tariffs are basically zero between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.
“What is better than that?” Cuellar asked. “Can we talk about NAFTA? Yes. We have been doing that already. It is called TPP. We are looking at doing a NAFTA 2.0. If he (Trump) wants to withdraw – I think he has mentioned Article 2050, where one of these countries can give six months’ notice to say they are going to withdraw – it is going to very complicated. There were laws that were passed by Congress to help implement NAFTA. He can’t just write out that language, Congress has to come in. I think with NAFTA, there may be conversations, at the end it might be a NAFTA 2.0 like we have done under TPP. A lot of work has been done already.”
Cuellar said he remains firmly against a physical border wall.
“It is 14th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. I think there are other ways we can secure the border. More technology, the right personnel. You cannot just keep adding personnel. Of the 21,500 Border Patrol agents, 18,500 are already on the southwestern border. We spend $18 billion on border security. We cannot just throw money at it. We have got to be smarter about how we secure the border. If you look at the aerostats we are going to get as surplus equipment from the military, I think we have got six already on the southwest border. We need about 98 of them to cover the whole border. They can cover up to 20 miles. So, there is technology we can use. It should be a m mixture of personnel and technology. Also, I think this is a time we can leverage Mexico to do a better job. I think we can ask Mexico to do a better job of securing their southern border with Guatemala. I have been there and people cross easily.”
Assisting Central America
Cuellar points out that Congress appropriated $750 million to help Central American countries suffering from gang violence and civil unrest. “We have not utilized the money, except for $23 million for some military assistance for those countries. If we are going to address the root problems, the Obama Administration should let go of those resources so we can help those countries.”
Cuellar pointed out that 40 percent of the people that are in the United States without proper documentation came here legally and overstayed their permit or visa.
“We have to focus on visa overstays. Keep in mind also that we have large numbers of people like the unaccompanied kids, Haitians, my belief is they are taking advantage of the asylum status, they are not hiding from Border Patrol, they are saying, here I am. They are turning themselves in. Since it takes three to five years to have a hearing, then some do not show up. That is a problem. That is why I supported the hiring of 55 new immigration judges. We have money for another 25 in this appropriations process.”
Give Him a Chance
In her final question to Cuellar, Rio Grande Guardian reporter Melva Lavín-Castillo pointed out that Hillary Clinton said, after her election loss, that Trump should be given a chance. She asked if Cuellar agreed with that.
“I agree. I supported Hillary. I thought Hillary was going to win. But, Trump has won. He is now the President-Elect. As our President-Elect, I will do everything to work with him. If there are items we can work with him on, things like tax reform, infrastructure, and other things, business-related, things we can do together, I will work with him. But if it is something like building a wall, attacking trade, attacking Mexico, then I will stand up and vote no. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and I will work him the best I can. I am not a partisan like some, who vote against him just because he is a Republican. I do not do that. I look at every issue. If it is something I can work with him on, I will.”
Editor’s Note: Reporter Melva Lavín-Castillo contributed to this story from Laredo, Texas.