WESLACO, Texas – U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez has apologized for the behavior of some of his congressional colleagues during a recent congressional field hearing in the Rio Grande Valley. 

The U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth was supposed to be in the region to gather facts on economic disparity and fairness in growth. But, Republican members on the committee spent much of their time attacking President Biden over border security. 

“Obviously, we had a group of members that went rogue and totally got off subject. They were here for totally political reasons and political purposes. They were here to get re-elected or elected. They were not here to learn of our problems or solve our problems. It is unfortunate. I apologize to our community for the members that went rogue on us today,” Gonzalez told the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service.

Asked by a reporter if half the allotted time of the next congressional field hearing on border security could instead be spent on economic disparity, Gonzalez said: “Right. I was appalled that my Republican colleagues used this unique opportunity to paint South Texas as a lawless and unsafe community. With all of their statistics, they failed to mention that the Rio Grande Valley is home to some of the safest communities in the entire country.”

Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said he worked hard to get the select committee to visit the Valley. 

“As we are now investing trillions of dollars in infrastructure funding, I thought it imperative that the committee came down here in person and saw the challenges we face every single day,” Gonzalez said.

“We are still the largest urban community in the United States that is not connected to an interstate highway. We still have drainage issues. We have major drainage issues. We have a digital divide that is like no other in the country.”

In a media advisory sent out before the hearing, Gonzalez set out the parameters for the visit.

“The field visit will help underscore practical approaches – from the federal to local level – to enhance roadways, improve drainage infrastructure, and expand access to broadband, as well as include a tour of a local colonia to illustrate unique infrastructure challenges impacting South Texas communities and highlight obstacles in escaping generational poverty.

After the event, Gonzalez acknowledged the visit did not go exactly to plan.

“It was ignorant and highly disrespectful of my Republican colleagues to continue to use the Rio Grande Valley as a political backdrop and use my constituents as political pawns. It is time my Republican colleagues take some time to sit down and learn a thing or two about what South Texans are all about.” 

The attendance for the select committee’s field hearing in Weslaco – held at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council – resembled a Who’s Who of Valley leaders. The chairman of the committee, Democrat Jim Hines of Connecticut said the number of people attending was the best the committee had ever had.

“This is actually the biggest attendance we have had for a field hearing. It is important to hold the hearings outside of Washington so we can actually see the problems we are trying to address,” Hines said. 

“We are here primarily to listen. This committee has a very simple charge. The speaker of the House asked us to look at the disparity, the economic disparity that exists in this country and all over this country.”

Hines added: “We believe as Americans that every American regardless of the zip code, the color of their skin, where they were born, what language they speak, they should have the opportunity to partake in the American Dream.”

Hines won applause for this last remark.

Because there were more GOP members of the committee members present, there was no continuity in the discussion. Local leaders focused on issues such as drainage and flooding, the need to expand broadband, connecting I-69 East and I-69 Central to the rest of the nation’s interstate system, and building a second causeway to South Padre Island. But when the Republicans on the panel spoke, the focus turned sharply to undocumented immigration and beefing up border security.

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, a Republican from Wisconsin, is the ranking member on the select committee. He said he liked to get out of the Washington “swamp” in order to hear from ordinary folks.

In his opening remarks Steil claimed the Valley would have more local funds to address drainage issues if it did not have to spend as much on border security. He pivoted from flooding to border security in just a few sentences.

“Flooding has had a significant impact on the Rio Grande Valley. This committee had an opportunity to see some of that firsthand today with the committee’s visit to the colonias. I think we should really explore how the federal government can partner with local areas to meet this need. Flood infrastructure costs millions of dollars. But what is so frustrating when I hear from folks here is that the federal government and local resources are being used to address a different crisis. And that is the porous border crossing the state of Texas and cities across the Rio Grande Valley millions of dollars each year,” Steil said.

Steil said a video to be aired at the hearing would show that a local school had to barricade its grounds with large boulders to stop car chases. However, the school was in Brackettville, Kinney County, not the Valley. The video featured Brent Smith, the county attorney for Kinney County. 

U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, a Republican from Florida, said she would take the Valley’s concerns about flooding back to Washington, D.C.. But, like the other GOP members, she spent much of her time talking about immigration. Cammack asked the five witnesses who testified at the hearing if there was a crisis at the border. Four of them refused to say yes. They were Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes, Cameron County Commissioner David Garza, and digital inclusion specialist Jordana Barton.

Only one of the witnesses said there was a crisis at the border – Susan Kibbe, executive director of the South Texans Property Rights Association. After the hearing, Kibbe, a resident of Brooks County, said: ““Washington has turned its back on the property owners and citizens of South Texas. I wish I could say that the administration considers us second class citizens, but to them, we don’t even exist.”

Kibbe said South Texas rural landowners are adversely affected by an un-secure border. “Local Emergency services are being diverted from local public safety needs of their communities to deal with smuggling pursuits, bailouts, and the lost, injured, and dehydrated or dead immigrants. The normal daily emergency needs don’t just put themselves on hold until illegal immigration slows down. They just become needs that are unmet.”

After the hearing, Rep. Gonzalez said he kept trying to steer the conversation back to infrastructure. 

“We already know this but we were trying to enlighten the folks that have not been down here that we have drainage issues that need to be attended to. We are also the largest urban area in the country that is not connected to an interstate highway. Two of the three cities least connected to broadband are in the Rio Grande Valley and we need to make those substantial investments. The only way to do it is through federal funding, funding that was passed largely by Democrats. If we had not gotten those funds people would still be drinking yellow water,” Gonzalez said. 

 “I would like to thank all of the local leaders and experts for sharing their time, experiences, and recommendations with us. “

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