HIDALGO, RGV – In an effort to weaken the power of drug cartels in Mexico, members of the U.S. House of Representatives are starting to talk about blocking weapons and cash from crossing the southern border of the United States.
The subject came up at a news conference held Sunday at the Hidalgo International Bridge by four members of Congress named to a conference committee looking at border security funding.
The four lawmakers were U.S. Reps. Kay Granger of Fort Worth Texas, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, Texas, Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi. All but Cuellar are Republicans.
Tamaulipas Gov. Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca has said previously that 80 percent of guns confiscated in his state come from the United States.
Asked if Congress is considering checking vehicles in a more systemic way at land ports of entry, to stop guns and cash being smuggled illegally into Mexico, Cuellar said: “I want to see that. Because of the consumption of drugs we have here, billions of dollars are sent back, guns are sent back. We need CBP and Border Patrol to work with the local communities, with local law enforcement allowed to share the forfeitures. That provides an incentive.”
Cuellar noted that a few years back, the Pharr Police Department had an arrangement with Customs & Border Protection to check vehicles going south at the Pharr International Bridge.
“CBP should give permission to local law enforcement that wants to do that. If they (local law enforcement) gets the cash, they get to keep it,” Cuellar said.
Asked if such a feature could be part of the border security funding package currently being fashioned by a conference committee of appropriators from the House and Senate, Cuellar said no. “We have a limited time to look at this for our 2019 appropriations. But, we will start on the 2020 budget as we get a deal on 2019. We can visit it then,” Cuellar said, in a subsequent interview at Cameron County Commissioners Court on Monday.
“Keep in mind what happens: the bad guys send drugs and people to the U.S. Then, because of the drug consumption, we send cash over there (to Mexico). One of the things we need to do is look at the seizure of funds, where they (CBP) can share with local law enforcement. I think CBP should work with the local law enforcement because then they can check northbound and southbound. The more money they take away, or weapons, the better it is.”
In his interview on Monday, Cuellar said it was “highly significant” that three Republican members of Congress visited Hidalgo International Bridge. They saw long lines of pedestrians and passenger vehicles.
“You notice that when Republicans come to the border, or President Trump, they only talk to Border Patrol. That is it. I wanted three things from this visit. One, to visit with Border Patrol to discuss things like a levee-wall. Two, to visit with CBP. And three, to visit with local leaders.”
Asked why it is important for Republican lawmakers from other parts of the country to to visit international bridges such as Hidalgo, Cuellar said: “Because if you want to stop drugs, where do they come in? They come in at our ports of entry. I wanted the visiting members of Congress to see our trade and tourism up close. I said look at the long lines. We need more CBP officers.”
Cuellar said Democrats in Congress have proposed an additional 1,000 CBP officers.
“The third part of the tour, meeting with community leaders listening to local mayors was so important. Those mayors were fantastic, Jim Darling (mayor of McAllen), Pete Saenz (mayor of Laredo). They all said the same thing, we all want border security, we are patriots. We just want to work with you, rather than the federal government trampling on private property rights. There is more to this than a border wall.”
Rep. Granger has visited Central America before with Cuellar to see the root cause of migration across the southern border into the United States.
“Even though I live in Texas and have been to the border many times, this is really staggering, the number of people that are coming across,” Granger said. “All of us who are here serve on the committee, the conference committee that is trying to find a solution to this. That is why we are here. To see what is happening. It is eye-opening. I think the Border Patrol is doing a wonderful job. It is just the numbers are staggering. The sad stories of families that are here, young children that are here. We have about ten days left (before the conference committee is due), but it was very important that we came down to see it.”
Congressman Fleischmann said he is confident a deal can be reached between Republicans and Democrats on the conference committee.
“I think it is time that we come to a compromise on this. In some places a border wall is needed. But there is so much more. We have got to deter the situation in these countries where these people are coming from,” Fleischmann said, pointing out that he had met with a lady on his visit who had just arrived from Venezuela.
“There is political unrest in Venezuela. There is poverty in a lot of these Central American countries. The men and women who serve us, Customs and Border Protection, are doing a tremendous job. They just don’t have the resources. As we engage in this border wall debate, I think the president is correct, we need the wall, plus so much more. As members of the Appropriations Committee, if we were allowed to work our will, I think we could come up with something that helps serve all of those needs, not just one thing.”
U.S. Rep. Palazzo said it was important for him to see the border region first-hand.
“What we heard today was refreshing. I just wish more of my colleagues would come down here. Henry (Rep. Cuellar) is such a wonderful host and he is so passionate about the issues. Coming down here and kicking the tires and feeling it and seeing it and smelling it and understanding exactly what we are trying to address is important.”
Like the other visiting lawmakers, Palazzo said he thinks an agreement can be reached on border security.
“We all agree on border security. We all want to protect Americans. We have very little that is separating us. Some of it may just be semantics on what we call the barrier. Some people do not want it to be called a wall. Some want it to be called a deterrent,” Palazzo said.
“What we do know is our CBP, or ICE professionals and our DHS professionals here, they are under resourced and overworked. We need to give them the help that they need. We have also got to secure our borders. We have got to address the humanitarian crisis. In addition, we as a country do not need to shut down our government again.”
Congressman Cuellar agreed with the three Republican members of Congress that border security is important.
“We have to sit down and compromise. I think appropriators by nature are deal makers. We are going to come up with something on border security. We do have a few differences. As you know, I think the wall is a false premise, a 14th Century solution to a 21st Century issue. But, we all want to see strong border security. And when we talk about border security, it is not only between ports. We also have to focus on the ports,” Cuellar said.
“The ports of the past would handle only tourism and trade. The new third dimension is immigration. They have to look at asylum seekers. They (CBP) do not have the space to handle asylum seekers. We need to look at the latest technology for our ports, we need to hire men and women in blue, which is CBP officers. We have got to add the dimension of immigration. They are doing a good job but they need help on that.”
In between the ports of entry, Cuellar said, more technology and cameras are needed. This plus the elimination of Carrizo cane from the riverbanks of the Rio Grande.
“I think we also have to engage with our neighbor to the south – Mexico. They are willing to work with us on biometrics, on cutting down the Carrizo cane on their side so we can have it clear on both sides of the river. Kay (Granger) and I had $750 million for Central America. It has been reduced to $595 million, with $800 million still in the pipeline, on hold. If we play defense on their 20 yard line, working with Mexico and Guatemala, and other Central American countries, less people will be coming over. We need a more comprehensive approach.”
Speaking of the conference committee, Cuellar added: “I think we will be able to come to a solution. I feel confident are going to come to a conclusion. I feel really confident.”