I represent more than 350 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, which includes six international ports of entry.
This includes a new crossing at the Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry, which has yet to open but already has had a significant economic impact on the rural communities located just outside the city of El Paso, which anchors the western tip of Senate District 29.
In the southeast portion of SD 29, the expansion of an auto and pedestrian bridge and the construction of a railroad bridge have the potential to spur new economic activity in the city of Presidio and southern Presidio County.
The development and improvement of these and other ports of entry benefit not only our state – almost a half million Texas jobs rely on trade with Mexico – but the entire country, as trade between the U.S. and Mexico totaled more than $500 billion in 2014. That level of trade is part of what makes the border, about 2,000 miles in all, with 1,241 miles stretching southeast from El Paso to Brownsville, such a valuable and varied region.
Our human capital is the other piece of the equation, with a young population that is positioned for global success in an increasingly interconnected world. They are used to dealing with multiple languages and cultures, and from Los Angeles to San Diego to El Paso to Houston, San Antonio, Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville, they represent the cutting edge of our country in the 21st century.
But too many people in Texas and the U.S. don’t know about this reality of our communities, which have been misrepresented – or even outright lied about – to stir fears that are exploited for political gain. Unfortunately, some Texas politicians have led the charge in this regard, even when they should know better. This past session, the Legislature dedicated more than $800 million to build a state police presence on the border, diverting funds from our true needs, especially in education and health care.
Despite this, we are making some headway; El Paso, in particular, has business, grassroots and elected leaders who get it. In fact, just this week, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and the University of Texas at El Paso hosted the Council of the Americas Border Conference, which brought national, state, and local leaders in politics, commerce, academia, and community together to discuss these very issues.
We must continue to work hard to educate leaders and change the discussion so people understand the border is an opportunity, not a threat, and that our policies flow from well-informed optimism, not fear.
As one example, during the 84th Legislature, I introduced a bill that would direct state funding to strengthen the infrastructure leading to and from ports of entry. While the bill itself did not pass, the concept was added to the budget as a rider, or directive, that the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) shall “fund improvements designed to facilitate traffic related to motor vehicles, cargo, and rail, and improve the efficiency of border inspection and security processes at land ports of entry located within 50 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.”
In Presidio, which the TxDOT director and I visited last week, city officials are hoping that they, along with their counterparts in Ojinaga, can connect through the state of Chihuahua to the deep water port of Topolobampo. This would create a new pathway for trade and expand economic opportunity in Texas.
In 2014, 3.7 million trucks crossed our border; this was more than two-thirds of total southern border truck traffic from Mexico. Rail is even more Texas-oriented, with almost 90 percent of the total crossings. Passenger, rail, and truck trade generates millions of jobs nationally and in Texas, which, with over 1.1 million jobs, ranked first nationally for export-related jobs in 2013.
Border communities are creators of great wealth for both countries, and we continue to take steps to build our economic capacity. Imagine how much more Texas could reap from a smartly targeted $800 million investment.
It’s time for the conversation to focus on what makes the border great, and replace the “boots on the ground” mentality with the investments in infrastructure, education, and health care that can make it greater still.