McALLEN, RGV – Rio Grande Valley business and economic development leaders have started to push back against U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul’s plans to add more border walls and mount Afghanistan-type operation command centers in the region.

Among the first to speak out against the Border Security First Act, which is authored by the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, are Keith Patridge, president of McAllen EDC, and Mike Gonzalez, executive director of United Brownsville.

McAllen EDC President Keith Patridge and INDEX Reynosa President Alex Avila spoke at the McAllen Convention Center on Monday, Jan. 26.
McAllen EDC President Keith Patridge and INDEX Reynosa President Alex Avila spoke at the McAllen Convention Center on Monday, Jan. 26.

At a news conference held Monday to discuss international trade, McAllen EDC President Keith Patridge said Valley leaders will soon be issuing a press release outlining their strong opposition to McCaul’s proposals. He said he had spoken to U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela via phone on Sunday to see how McCaul’s legislation could be thwarted. Vela, D-Brownsville, the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, is leading the Valley’s efforts to at least water down the legislation, which is otherwise known as H.R. 399.

Patridge said McCaul’s bill sends “all the wrong messages” to Mexico, Texas’ No. 1 trading partner, when it includes provisions such as more border walls and the deployment along the border of military equipment left over from the war in Afghanistan.

“We are very opposed to Rep. McCauls’s proposals because, number one, it sends the wrong message that we are a militarized area, that we are an Afghanistan or that we are an Iraq. We are not. We have people that get up every day, that go to work, they come home. They go out to dinner with their families. They go to a ball game and nothing happens. This is not a war zone,” Patridge said, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and KVEO News Channel 23, after the news conference had ended.

In addition to ten more miles of border fencing in the Valley, possibly double-layered, McCaul’s bill calls for operational command centers similar to those used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Interviewed by FOX News, McCaul said: “We’re gonna take the discretion away from the Department [of Homeland Security] and we’re gonna mandate how they get this thing done through the deployment of assets, uh, through the deployment of military assets from Afghanistan and other places to the Southwest border and maritime as well.”

McCaul held a news conference to outline his proposals at Anzalduas Dam in Mission on Sunday. Rather than staging photo-ops, Patridge said he would like McCaul to come to the Valley to meet with the region’s business and economic development leaders for a serious discussion about border security, trade and immigration.

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and KVEO News Channel 23, Patridge pointed out that the last time he checked the terrorists that have attacked the U.S. on U.S. soil have come in either through Canada or via international airports, not through Mexico.

“We all respond to media, we all respond to the 24/7 news cycles online and on TV and when people start saturating us with the idea that we need to have encampments down here using military weaponry from a war to protect us, that sends the wrong message,” Patridge said.

The news conference Patridge spoke at was co-hosted by McAllen EDC and INDEX Reynosa, the maquiladora industry trade association. It was called to inform Valley media outlets about the growth of the maquila industry in Reynosa and how more businesses are coming back to the border region from China.

Asked if Afghanistan-type operational command centers and additional border fencing would hurt his efforts to attract more business to the Valley and Reynosa, Patridge said: “It is going to make our job much harder. Our perceptions are formed by what we see and hear or read. When we are constantly hearing that there are military encampments with military equipment coming from Afghanistan on the Texas-Mexico border, that gives people pause to say, well, they would not put them there if there was not a need. So, people think if they are putting them there, it must be a war zone, and that is not the reality and it is certainly doing a disservice to our community.”

Patridge said politics has a lot to do with what gets put in congressional bills. “Elections have consequences,” he told reporters. “Unfortunately, the Valley, the border region, does not have many votes. So, it is our job to point out the reality of the situation. We have to say, do we have crime? Absolutely. Does every community in the world have crime? Absolutely. But, the FBI stats just released last week showed that Rep. McCaul’s district in Austin has a higher crime rate than we do in McAllen, Texas. I wish we could go back to the time when we said, what is in the best interests of the country instead of putting a band aid on the situation and saying, oh, we have fixed the problem.”

Patridge said the “real solution” to undocumented immigration lies in comprehensive immigration reform.

“What we really have to do is have a look at comprehensive immigration reform, we have to look at how we create a visa program, how do we create a temporary guest worker program that is similar to the old bracero program where agriculture workers could come in and work for a period of time and then go home. That is where we really need to look at,” Patridge said.

“It is not so much about stopping people from crossing because, as we know, living on the border, we are moving thousands of people across our bridges every single day in our commerce and that is what we do not want to disrupt. It creates jobs on both sides of the border. What we have to focus on is how do we not restrict people from crossing but we need to know who is coming across and for what purpose and when are they going to go back.”

Gonzalez, of United Brownsville, had similar comments to make about McCaul’s legislation. Gonzalez said his group supports securing the border but believes the actions called for in H.R. 399 are “an ineffective approach for controlling our border as well as a waste of taxpayer money.” He said that “doubling down on more fragmented walls and militarization approaches yields only diminishing returns.”

Gonzalez said United Brownsville is calling for “greater inclusion of border communities” in any discussion about border security and that it wants to see “a more bi-national integrated border control approach with economic development alternatives.” Gonzalez said United Brownsville has “reached out to fellow border communities within the Rio Grande Valley to support opposition of HR 399.”

Gonzalez on Monday issued a news release about McCaul’s legislation. Here are some of the excerpts:

•    Although traditional and innovative command and control measures are a first step in controlling our borders, and we should maintain them at current baseline efforts, they have reached the point of diminishing returns in their implementation. At this juncture, adding more troops and fences to our border is an ineffective stopgap measure; and its cost far outweighs the minimal reduction in illegal immigration and insecurity risk that they would yield.”

•    An effective approach to reducing illegal immigration and insecurity on our southern border requires understanding and addressing the root causes of the problem: Poverty; a lack of legitimate economic opportunities; and its binational and international political and economic nature.

•    Adding to the stockpile of fences and boots on the ground, beyond what we already have on the border, only address racial prejudices and irrational fears such as crossover violence.

Mike Gonzalez, executive director of United Brownsville. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Mike Gonzalez, executive director of United Brownsville. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

“The realities are that, as reported by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, border communities have among the lowest incidences of violent crime.” Gonzalez said, in the news release. “Fences and troops on the ground do little or nothing to reduce or control the forces that create illegal immigration and insecurity south of our border.”

Gonzalez said a more “cost effective, productive and sustainable approach for controlling illegal immigration and reducing insecurity on our borders” would be a “binational, coordinated strategy that creates legitimate economic development opportunities and jobs for the U.S.-Mexico border region and in Central America.”

Gonzalez said the U.S. needs to “develop and implement” a binational border economic development (BiNED) strategy that “does not alienate Mexico but recognizes its importance as the US’s third largest trading partner and our strategic, economic and political ally.”

Gonzalez said that instead of adopting strategies that have been found to be ineffective and unsustainable throughout millennia, the U.S. should instead invest in creating “competitive and prosperous” border communities. He said this could be done by diverting monies spent on militarization and border fences to create “communities that are innovative, integrated and collaborative binational border mega regions specializing in advanced, rapid response manufacturing clusters that create jobs in both countries would be a much better use of these resources.” Gonzalez said this would “decrease unemployment and crime rates while simultaneously increasing education levels, earning capacity, and security.”

Gonzalez then reiterated one of United Brownsville’s top agenda items – creating special economic zones on the southern border.

“A prosperous border region reduces the pressures on illegal immigration and provides legitimate opportunities for those that otherwise would engage in illegal activities in a much more effective and sustainable way than troops and barbed wire fences,” Gonzalez said.

“It is time we expand our conventional command and control border strategy to incorporate economic development opportunities along the border. Mexican president Peña Nieto recently proposed the establishment of special economic zones along the southern border of Mexico to control illegal immigration and insecurity. As an integral part of our border policy, the U.S. needs to work jointly with Mexico to implement special economic zones along the U.S.-Mexico border ultimately enhancing economic opportunities and security along both sides of the border.”