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EDINBURG, RGV – If there is one thing visiting lawmakers take away from the tour of the Rio Grande Valley it is that the region is not a war zone.

That is the hope of state Rep. Ryan Guillen, the Rio Grande City Democrat who is participating on the Valley Legislative Tour. The tour is organized by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the region’s regional chamber of commerce. It started Thursday and ends Sunday. Around 25 legislators are on the tour.

“I think the No. 1 thing we can educate folks who are not from here on is that this is not a war zone, as some characterize it,” Guillen told the Rio Grande Guardian, at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance on Thursday evening.

“I think that is the main message this whole thing is about. The Valley is far, far, from being a war zone. Folks have characterized this region as a war zone and it is funny to some of us but some legislators believe it and that is something we have got to work on to change.”

State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

This year, the tour is concentrating on the Upper Valley. After arriving at Valley International Airport in Harlingen on Thursday evening, the legislators visited United Lunch Alliance in Harlingen. From there they were taken by bus to the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance for a major check presentation. UnitedHealth presented UT Rio Grande Valley with $2.8 million to help improve access to healthcare in two “at-risk” communities. Gov. Greg Abbott attended the event.

Friday, the Valley Legislative Tour is slated to visit Paramount Produce and Royal Technologies in Mission, and the Pharr International Bridge. The City of Pharr’s No. 1 legislative agenda item is getting state funding to build a connector from Military Highway to I-2. While at Royal Technologies, legislators will receive a private briefing by SpaceX about its planned rocket launch facility at Boca Chica beach, RGV Partnership President Julian Alvarez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Friday afternoon, legislators will have the opportunity to participate in tequila tasting at Nuevo Santander Art Gallery in McAllen. A mixer at pool side is being sponsored by Independent Insurance Agents of the Rio Grande Valley and the day will conclude with dinner at The Patio in McAllen.

Rep. Guillen was asked by a reporter if he was disappointed the tour does not include a visit to Starr County, which he represents. Guillen said: “We have a lot going on. This whole thing cost money and the Rio Grande Valley Partnership has to take care of the donors and they are pulling them in different directions and not much sponsorship money comes out of Starr County and that is probably what happened.”

Guillen said Starr County “pretty much” has the same issues as Hidalgo County. “We have the unique situation of the border surge which kind of impacts Starr County more than any other county in the state. We are going to take tours of border security facilities here and that will give me an opportunity to talk about that a little bit,” Guillen said. Legislators are due to visit the Border Patrol station on Military Highway/Ware Road in McAllen on Saturday, with Border Patrol Chief Kevin Oaks slated to address them.

One legislator who participates on the tour every time is state Rep. Dan Flynn, a Republican from Van, Texas. Flynn lived and worked in Harlingen in the 1960s and has been visiting frequently ever since.

“I have such a long history with the Valley and every time I could down here I leave knowing what an incredible impact you have made for the whole state of Texas. It is unfortunate that a lot of people associate only one issue – border violence – with the Valley when really the Valley has such an incredible impact in the medical and education arenas and the region has become a centerpiece of Texas. It is a pleasure to see it and I am honored to come back down here,” Flynn told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Coming here from the airport, I was telling someone, when I first came to the Valley was 1965 and there was nothing here. Now, it is a major metropolitan area. The impact is extraordinary.”

In regular newsletters to his East Texas constituents, Flynn comments a lot on border security. Still active in the National Guard, Flynn has served in the Valley. In a recent newsletter Flynn spoke about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and warned of the danger posed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He said ISIS is an extremist group formed from al-Qaeda offshoots in Iraq and Syria.

“The terrorist threat to the United States increases and the Texas-Mexico border continues to be a battleground in that fight. Without any assistance from the current failed Washington Administration to adequately protect its citizens, it is incumbent for us to take responsibility for what is clearly a defense of our borders,” Flynn wrote, in his Jan. 13 dispatch. The newsletter then focused on OTMs (Other than Mexicans).

Asked how he could segue so effortlessly between ISIS and OTMs, Flynn told the Rio Grande Guardian: “The reason I can is because I live in East Texas. There is a real disconnect. It is important for them (my constituents) to know that 70 percent of the people that are coming across that border are not from Mexico. I want our people to know because they (OTMs) are not coming here looking for jobs. Some of them are coming here to harm us. That is why we want people to know the facts, so they do not relate the problems of them (OTMs) with the economic benefit of Mexicans coming here.”

State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

Asked if there was a greater threat of terrorism on the southern border, Flynn said: “When 70 percent of the people crossing that border are not from Mexico we need to be concerned. We need to be on the lookout. Governor Abbott is well aware of this. He is a friend of the Valley. He is going to look to the Valley for leadership in Texas.”

Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal attended the event at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance. Asked what his city’s legislative agenda contained, Villarreal said it focused a lot on border security. He said he is hoping Gov. Abbott makes it a top priority.

“I am hoping he (Abbott) becomes a lightning bolt that goes straight to Washington, cuts through the red tape, talks to the federal administration and Obama and brings us funding to the border because it is needed. The reality is we live in an area where there is trafficking of humans, trafficking of drugs. It is the duty of the federal government, they need to do their due diligence and it is not happening right now,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal said he has seen the state of Texas’ efforts to beef up border security close up by having DPS’s Operation Strong Safety headquartered in Starr County. “Boots on the ground sounds like a cliché but it works. Having badges in your community works on multiple levels.”

Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia told reporters how pleased his city is to have Gov. Abbott visit so soon after taking office. “I cannot tell you how happy we are to have him here and to have him as our governor. We are happy he is taking one of our own as part of his leadership up there,” Garcia said, in reference to the pending appointment of Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos as Texas Secretary of State.

Garcia said it is important for Valley leaders to work in a united fashion when proposing its projects to legislators. “We have got to walk the walk. We are talking regionalization. We are going to go to Austin as a group on Feb. 10, RGV Day at the state Capitol.”

In remarks from the podium, state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, said it is important visiting legislators understand the strategic importance of the Valley.

“We are the gateway. I do believe that the Rio Grande Valley’s future is the future of Texas, through economic growth. Help us get there and help us work with those projects but I pledge to you, like the rest of my representatives that I serve with here in the Rio Grande Valley, we are here to help you as well so let us learn about your issues so we can work hand in hand to make this a better state, a better Texas,” Guerra said.