LAREDO, Texas – It’s an issue former Laredo Mayor Betty Flores has complained about before – the lack of respect some Customs officers show to visitors crossing land ports of entry on the Texas-Mexico border.

Now, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar has passed legislation that requires Customs and Border Protection to review the training it gives staff on how to handle border crossers.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar speaks at a news conference to launch the PRIDE initiative in Laredo. Next Tuesday he will launch it in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Each day, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processes over one million passengers who make their way across the United States’ borders to visit our cities, to spend their hard-earned money eating at our restaurants, purchasing goods in our stores and boosting our businesses,” Cuellar told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We depend on the traffic from our border crossings to keep our economies strong, and to allow people to visit with their loved ones. Whether someone is from McAllen or Mexico or anywhere else, when they cross our border they deserve to be treated with respect.”

Cuellar was successful in getting language from his proposed legislation included in a Homeland Security funding bill that was passed by the Senate and the House last week. The Laredo Democrat said his amendment is “extremely important to Texans along the border and folks who travel along it every day” because it requires CBP to review training manuals and coursework as well as incident reporting practices within the agency.

“My amendment addition requires that the CBP review training manuals, coursework and incident reporting practices within the agency and then report the findings of that review to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations within 60 days. This will ensure that CBP officers are trained to interact respectfully with those crossing the border,” Cuellar said.

“There is no doubt our CBP officers work hard to protect our communities and I greatly respect them and the work they do, but like a business owner who works hard to ensure each of his customers are treated with dignity and respect, we, too, should be ensuring that each person crossing the border is treated the same.”

Like former Laredo Mayor Flores, Cuellar has long been concerned about how citizens, visitors and businesses are being treated when they cross the border. He has voiced that concern to the leadership of Homeland Security and to reporters over the years. “I brought my concerns to the attention of former CBP Commissioner Thomas Winkowski and current Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske,” Cuellar pointed out.

Last month in Laredo, Cuellar rolled out the PRIDE initiative with the Director of Field Operations for CBP, David Higgerson, and the Laredo Port Director, Joseph Misenhelter. Cuellar said the goal of PRIDE is to “re-invigorate professionalism, respect, integrity, diversity and excellence (PRIDE) throughout the CBP workforce at South Texas ports of entry.”

Higgerson spoke at the PRIDE news conference in Laredo, along with U.S. Consul General-Nuevo Laredo David Zimov, Mexican Consul in Charge Juan Jose Martinez de la Rosa and Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz.

“CBP is the premiere border-based federal law enforcement agency in the U.S. and in order to better embody that ideal, we realized the critical importance of re-instilling and strengthening a culture of professionalism throughout our ranks,” Higgerson said. “Today’s rollout of the PRIDE Initiative and naming of professionalism service managers together with our stakeholders reflects the Laredo Field Office’s ongoing commitment not only to better serve the communities in which we live and work but also for CBP to foster a greater sense of pride both for and from the community.”

Higgerson, Misenhelter, and Joe Ramos, of the CBP Laredo Field Office, outlined the chief aims of the PRIDE Initiative. They said it includes a “re-dedication from the top down to the ideals of professionalism, respect, integrity, diversity and excellence in our frontline CBP officers’ interaction with the traveling public.”

They said initiative includes the creation of a fully-staffed integrity and professionalism standards division within the Laredo Field Office, recurring professionalism training for the CBP workforce and the deployment of professionalism service managers (PSMs) at Laredo Port of Entry and all South Texas ports. “The PSMs, identifiable by their red lanyards, will oversee professionalism training for frontline CBP officers and will be available to receive and address comments, concerns and compliments from the traveling public. PSMs also will meet with, listen to and address comments, concerns and compliments from our travel and trade stakeholders as well,” Higgerson added.

Cuellar said he will announce the PRIDE initiative in the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday, when he pays a visit to the Anzalduas International Bridge. “The PRIDE initiative will ensure professionalism and customer service along our borders is a priority, and that our CBP officers have exemplary conduct in providing services to travelers in all areas of CBP processing,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar added that the United States has to find a balance between security and legitimate trade and tourism at its international bridges.

“There are some who cross our borders illegally or with criminal intent and we should be firm in keeping our communities safe. But, the reality is that the majority of people who cross our international bridges on a daily basis are crossing to go to work and spend money in our local businesses. I want them to feel welcomed and to continue crossing our borders so that communities, like McAllen and throughout the Valley continue to grow and prosper,” Cuellar said.

“We are fortunate to live in a bi-national area and my hope is that we can all work together to embrace that benefit to our border communities. We must make sure we continue to support our CBP officers doing their job, and we must also make it a priority to ensure that all persons crossing the border are treated fairly and with the respect and dignity each person deserves. It’s the right thing to do for our businesses; it’s the right way to treat our residents and it’s the right message to send to our visitors.”

Editor’s Note: The main picture with this story shows Director of Field Operations for CBP, David Higgerson speaking at the launch of the PRIDE initiative in Laredo.