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State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., and state Representatives Oscar Longoria and Eddie Lucio, III, were full of praise for Dan Patrick when they introduced the lieutenant governor at a luncheon hosted by the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce.

HARLINGEN, RGV – Giving the keynote address at a recent Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce Public Affairs Luncheon, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spoke for just over 15 minutes, with five minutes devoted to border security and zero to border trade.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio said he feels sure it was just an oversight. However, others in attendance wished there had been greater balance.

“I think the state government has done a good job on border security but it has not done a very good job on stressing the importance of international trade and improving commerce, legal trade across our bridges,” said Raudel Garza, executive director of Harlingen Economic Development Corporation.

“In his speech, Lt. Gov. Patrick did a very good job explaining the layers of law enforcement that are here. At the same time, we do not want to live in a militarized zone. We are in a safe spot. People from outside the Rio Grande do not realize that. You can still travel around the Valley without having to worry about your personal safety. I would like to see us as a state and as a region focus on speeding up commerce, on improving relations with Mexico.”

Raudel Garza, executive director of Harlingen EDC.
Raudel Garza, executive director of Harlingen EDC.

Reinforcing a Stereotype

The day before he gave his speech in Harlingen, Patrick joined Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw on a tour of some of the hot spots for drug and human smuggling in the Rio Grande Valley. They walked for about a mile through the brush beside the Rio Grande, flew in a helicopter above the Rio Grande and raced along the river in a high-speed boat. All the while, an entourage of reporters from the Austin and Houston media markets were in tow, sending video and pictures back to the rest of Texas that will likely reinforce the stereotypical image that the Valley is not a safe place to be.

“I think it was just an oversight on the lieutenant governor’s part that he did not talk about border trade. He did talk about our new university and medical school,” said Sen. Lucio. “Lt. Gov. Patrick understands the importance of trade with Mexico. He knows it has been a blessing to the State of Texas as a whole. Figures do not lie. They show it has been a blessing. NAFTA has really helped Texas. Maybe it has hurt other parts of the country and I feel for those people. I agree our businesses should not be going to China. But Mexico is right next door, it is our neighbor. They are more than neighbors. They are family. Building a wall, building barriers is not the way to do it. Trade with Mexico will continue to grow.”

Interviews with reporters

Although he did not speak about border trade in his speech, Patrick did, prior to the speech, take a question on the subject from TV presenter Ron Whitlock of Ron Whitlock Reports.

“My focus is on Texas, not the economy of Mexico. I want them to do well. The better they do, the better it is for us,” Patrick told Whitlock. “I was talking to some folks yesterday, they were telling me how many Mexican restaurants and businesses have moved over to McAllen and other cities along the border. And, I spoke with someone this morning who works back and forth, asking him about the economy of Reynosa. The answer was, it is down more than 50 percent. I said that is troubling. I want to see the Mexico economy strong so its people do not feel they have a need to come to America looking for a job. That would be in our best interest. But my focus is on the Texas economy. Mexico is going to have to take care of Mexico.”

Joaquin Peña, a reporter with Televisa Canal 7 in the Valley, asked Patrick about the relationship the State of Texas enjoys with with the State of Tamaulipas. Patrick responded: “I really don’t know. I don’t work with the other side that much. I do know that I have always received letters of congratulations and welcome from them but I have not traveled there. We have just had correspondence through the mail and through meetings but I have not had a lot of work in that area.”

Patrick, a native of Houston, told Peña that his first official visit to the Texas-Mexico border region was in 2007, soon after he was elected to the state Senate. Patrick visited Nuevo Progreso for dinner while participating on a ‘Valley Legislators Tour’ hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.

“Back then we did not have any communication between local law enforcement, state police and the Border Patrol. Today we have great communication, great teamwork. It is really making a difference. Last year we recovered $1.2 billion in drugs. We captured 14,000 people crossing the border that had a criminal background, or that we saw as a criminal threat. It is really making a difference,” Patrick said.

“Texas is doing the best it can to secure the border. But, we are going to need federal help. We are going to have a new president next year. I do not know who that is going to be but I hope it is someone who will give Border Patrol the assets they need. Frankly, the men and women of Border Patrol are doing a great job but they do not have the same technology, the aircraft, the water craft that we have. Just in the last year we have put 2,000 more cameras on the border. We now have 4,000 cameras buried in the brush. We did not have that three or four years ago.”

Demand for Drugs in U.S.

Patrick held a news conference at the McAllen Convention Center a few hours after his tour of the Rio Grande brush. He asked what message would he give to those who do not want Border Patrol, DPS and other law enforcement agencies to succeed in blocking the passage of illegal drugs into the United States, those people who consume the drugs.

“Obviously, that is a big part of the equation. I wish we had less demand for drugs in our country. That is a cultural change, that is a lifestyle change, that is a health change, that will hopefully be an evolution over time,” Patrick responded.

“We do not have time to wait for that to occur. We have to stop it at the border and we are doing a terrific job. I am just impressed with being in the water, being in the air, having boots on the ground, cameras catching you. As we walked through the woods today, by the river, we were on camera three or four times in our group. The other side is starting to figure this out, that we are serious. You put 4,000 cameras out, so we immediately see someone crossing that area, it trips a signal, we know to send men to that location or women to apprehend either the drugs or the people… we are miles ahead of where we were five years ago in the battle on the border.”

Meeting with Police Chiefs

In his remarks at the Harlingen luncheon, Patrick pointed out that he had met with local law enforcement leaders the day before.

“We met with all the police chiefs. To a person they all said the same thing, ‘keep it coming, don’t stop, crime is down in our cities.’ Here in the Valley you are soon becoming, if you are not already, one of the safest areas of the state. You have more law enforcement here than any other city. You have such a layer of law enforcement, from National Guard to Border Patrol to DPS to Game Wardens. You have the Texas Rangers here.”

Patrick said the McAllen police chief had reported having a record high 2,000 cars stolen in his city last year. This year it is down to 111.

“With all this enforcement we still have a border that is not secure. We had 63,000 apprehended from the Valley to El Paso, last year. Of these, 14,000 were what we call high-threat criminals. If we catch one out of five, we do not know how many we catch, but if we catch one out of five that means another 50,000 criminals got through. So, there is still more work to be done. We have to have more help from the federal government. But we are doing our best here.”

Los Indios International Bridge

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Harlingen EDC’s Garza focused on Los Indios International Bridge, which is co-owned by Cameron County and the cities of Harlingen and San Benito.

“We are working with our maquilas in Matamoros to get them to use an under-utilized bridge, Los Indios. We have a great asset there and for some reason or another the folks have not realized they can pass through that bridge and bring their goods through a lot faster than they can other bridges in the Valley,” Garza said.

“I think some of the resources the state has allocated to the Texas Department of Agriculture have not been sent out to the right locations. DPS is building a big facility at Los Indios, for example, which is supposed to encourage tighter border security but it does nothing to improve the speed of commerce. I would like to see us as a region focus on speeding up commerce, improving relations with Mexico.”

Garza echoed a common refrain from economic development leaders in the Valley. “One of the first questions I get from investors who are looking to invest in South Texas is, ‘is it safe down there.’ It is not, ‘how can I do business down there’ or ‘how can we get started.’ It is, ‘is it safe down there.’ That is because of the false impression that this is not a secure area. We have to work a lot harder to improve that image, and to improve trade. The more personnel you deploy for bridge crossings, the better you improve the flow of traffic.”

Population Growth

During his address in Harlingen Patrick also spoke about education and population growth. He started by saying: “I am not here to get votes, I am not here to get money. I am here because I care about this part of the state. as I do any part of the state.”

Patrick went on to say: “There is so much opportunity here in the Valley. I want to see every Texan succeed. If we have any one area in the state, or one group of people, who do not have the chance to live the American Dream or the Texas Dream, then we all lose. We are all in this together.”

On Texas’ population growth, Patrick said the state is projected to grow to 40 to 45 million people by 2040. In 2000 the population was 18 million and now it is 27 million, he said. Patrick pointed out that the Legislature meets every other year and for the five months each session that lawmakers do meet, there are only two months when they do meaningful business.

“So, we have only 24 months of real time to pass legislation for 15 million more people. We need serious leaders from both parties to get this right,” Patrick said. He noted the need for tens of thousands of new teachers, many specializing in the STEM fields. “We cannot kick the can down the road. If we do, we have effectively lost four years. We do not have time to waste.”

Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a two-part series about the Rio Grande Valley’s image. Click here to read Part One.