WESLACO, RGV – State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, vice chair of the House Committee on Transportation, will host two Texas House committees next week for a joint hearing in Weslaco.

Members of the two committees, the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs, will also tour a number of ports of entry during their visit to the Rio Grande Valley.

State Rep. Armando Martinez

House Speaker Joe Straus gave the two committees a joint charge to consider during the interim. It is to:

“Review the current state of infrastructure at Texas’ international shipping ports and border ports of entry in Texas. Identify transportation-related impediments to international trade and estimate the impact of those challenges, including border wait times, on the state’s economy. Make recommendations for improvements to facilitate international trade and economic growth.”

Invited testimony only will be taken at the hearing, which will be held Tuesday, March 20, at the Knapp  Conference Center in Weslaco from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. On the same afternoon legislators from the two committees will have a bus tour of various ports of entry, including the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge.

The chair of the Committee on Transportation is state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria. The chair of the Committee on International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs is state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.

“This hearing is something we have been looking forward to in the Rio Grande Valley. It is going to be a great joint hearing,” Rep. Martinez told the Rio Grande Guardian. “We are going to discuss trade and infrastructure in the Rio Grande Valley and along the border. Over 60 percent of the fresh produce that comes into the United States from Mexico comes across our Pharr.”

Martinez pointed out that in addition to various international ports of entry that are important to Texas and the nation, the Valley also has the Port of Brownsville, whose foreign trade zone ranks No. 2 in the U.S. for exports.

“So much flows through the Rio Grande Valley and along the border for Texas for the U.S. to have the commerce and goods it enjoys. But in order for this to happen we have to have the appropriate infrastructure in place so that we can cross those goods,” Martinez said.

Asked what he expects to happen at the hearing, Martinez said: “We are going to have some great people come in and testify: bridge directors, the Texas Farm Bureau, DPS, the Texas Border Coalition. We will discuss the importance of our overweight corridors. The members are going to be open to what we have to say and what we have to offer here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Asked about the tour of the ports of entry, Martinez said: “We will be bused to the various ports of entry. The bridge directors will be on the bus to give a brief explanation about the ports of entry, what they have to offer and what commodities they cross. It is going to be a very important hearing and tour for our members. I am sure they will get a good sense of what the Valley is about.”

Martinez said credit must go to the chairs of the House panels for agreeing to visit the Valley.

“I appreciate the leadership of Chairpersons Morrison and Anchia in wanting to have a hearing on the border, here in South Texas. They are to be commended on holding a joint hearing that will hear in-depth the issues of international trade, infrastructure and transportation in South Texas,” Martinez said.

“Both of the Chairs have been very good friends of the Rio Grande Valley. My chair, Geanie Morrison has always been open to my ideas about how the State of Texas can help the Valley with its infrastructure needs. And we cannot say anything less about Chairman Anchia. He has been a tremendous friend for our region.”

Texas Border Coalition

Monica Weisberg-Stewart

One group that will testify at the joint hearing will be the Texas Border Coalition, which represents cities and counties along the Texas-Mexico border. The group will host a private reception for the visiting legislators the evening before the joint hearing, and chairman, Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, will testify at the hearing. As soon as the hearing ends, TBC will hold its quarterly meeting at the offices of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership in Weslaco.

Monica Weisberg-Stewart, a McAllen business owner, chairs the TBC’s immigration and border security committee. She said next week’s joint hearing is of huge importance.

“Members of the two House committees will be able to see what we deal with on a day to day basis here on the border. We deal with a lot of perception made out to be reality. Here they will be able to visualize what the reality is for us,” Weisberg-Stewart said.

“This hearing is a great opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley. People need to tune in and watch it. These are the hearings where you can influence change. It can be one thing we say, one thing we submit, that can open up the eyes of key individuals that make public policy.”

Over the years, the TBC has been very critical of suggestions the federal government build a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Weisberg-Stewart said she did not like the optics she saw on TV this week when President Trump visited California to see prototypes for a border wall.

“When I watched the President with the prototype walls on TV I saw a lot of wasted revenue. We all want border security. But we know people will go over, under, around and through the wall. Remember, the hard narcotics comes over the bridges, not across the river. Our CBP officers at the ports of entry have been underfunded for a long time. For those of us that live on the border, raise our families on the border, and work on the border, it is quite frustrating. There is the perception the wall is going to give us protection but it is not. It is our laws that have to change. We have a broken immigration system,” Weisberg-Stewart said.

A few years ago, Weisberg-Stewart testified on Capital Hill on what crosses the international bridges illegally and what crosses the Rio Grande illegally. She said in her testimony she cited information from the Department of Homeland Security.

“The studies showed that marijuana comes across the river but the hard Methamphetamine and cocaine is coming straight through our ports of entry. The cartels, if they were a Fortune 500 business, they would be right up there and they know how to get the drugs through. We have an area that is underfunded and undermanned. The cartels know where our weakest point is,” Weisberg-Stewart said.

“Mid-America does not understand it. Mid-America does not understand we have a river that divides us. You put boats on the river. You remove the Carrizo cane, so Border Patrol has line of sight on the river banks. There is so much technology out there. A wall is not the best use of taxpayer money.”

Southbound Inspections

One area TBC can be accused of being soft on border security is its opposition to southbound inspections. According to studies, most of the cash and weapons that keep the Mexican drug cartels in operation come south through U.S. ports of entry.

Weisberg-Stewart defended her group’s position.

“We know arms and cash are getting across in this manner (through the ports of entry). But people do not understand that the roads that lead up to these bridges are antiquated and cannot hold that traffic. Southbound inspections would back up the traffic. You have to make individuals (in the government) realize how all of this works, how the truck traffic works. It is important for people to understand how logistics takes place. Before we have southbound checks we have to have the infrastructure in place. It could devastate a complete border community.”

Carlos Cascos

Weisberg-Stewart’s position on southbound inspections contrasts with former Cameron County Judge and Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos. In a livestream on Facebook, Cascos told the Rio Grande Guardian southbound inspections must be implemented to help Mexico.

Asked about the TBC meeting next Tuesday, Weisberg-Stewart said the group will elect a new chairman-elect, as well as discuss its likely stance on legislative issues such as healthcare, transportation and commerce.

TBC will also honor Blas Castañeda, the retired chief of external affairs and economic development at Laredo Community College, for his years of service to TBC and the border region.

Blas Castañeda

Presenters at the TBC meeting will include Sergio Contreras, president and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership; Michael E. Gonzalez, director of the Small Business Development Center at Texas A&M International University; and Wanda Garza, executive officer for external affairs at South Texas College.

Weisberg-Stewart said representatives from dozens of communities along the Texas-Mexico border are expected to attend the TBC meeting to engage in “frank discussions about the myriad economic development, education, health care, security, transportation and workforce challenges facing border communities.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, chair of the Texas House Committee on International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs, and state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, chair of the Texas House Committee on Transportation.