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Members of Congress Sean Patrick Maloney (left) and Joseph Crowley (center) visited the Rio Grande Valley at the request of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (right).

WESLACO, RGV – To bolster their advocacy work in Washington, D.C., U.S.-Mexico border region leaders should study the success of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, otherwise known as AIPAC, says Congressman Filemon Vela.

At a recent meeting of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, Mike Gonzalez, executive director of United Brownsville, asked Vela, who was the keynote speaker, about improving the border region’s advocacy work in Washington. “The U.S.-Mexico border region helps make North America more competitive. I guess the big question is, how do we mobilize one big lobby effort in Washington?” Gonzalez asked.

Mike Gonzalez
Mike Gonzalez

Vela responded: “The best example is probably AIPAC. Twenty or 30 years ago they started with 300 people. Now they have 18,000 in Washington. That is the kind of effort we need to start up.”

AIPAC is widely regarded as one of the most successful lobby groups in Washington, D.C. It garners support from Republicans and Democrats alike in order to promote pro-Israel public policy and legislation.

Vela, Gonzalez and other border leaders say the U.S.-Mexico region needs to have a stronger advocacy arm in Washington, D.C., in order to counter anti-border, anti-immigrant, and anti-Mexico voices.

At the RGVP board meeting, Gonzalez pointed out that U.S. trade with Mexico results in six million direct jobs. Vela said he has toured the U.S. with the Department of Commerce promoting this statistic.

“Too many people say bad things about Mexico and bad things about the border. With the Commerce Department we go state to state to start educating people (about the benefits of trade with Mexico),” Vela said.

“But, we cannot do it alone. We need some sort of cross border lobbying effort that will get members of Congress from across the country, on both sides of the aisle, to realize that while border security is important, there is a whole lot more to the border than border security.”

Vela and Gonzalez are hoping that the Bi-National Economic Development (BiNED) group, which comprises cities and counties in the Rio Grande Valley, along with the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa in Tamaulipas, will provide key data to bolster pro-border advocacy work in Washington, D.C.

“We need the folks in BiNED to find a way to tap into the corporate wealth that exists in Matamoros and Reynosa with the maquila firms,” Vela told the Rio Grande Guardian, after the RGVP meeting had ended.

Years ago, the late Bill Summers, then-president of the RGVP, and Angela Burton, then-president of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, tried to get Valley chambers of commerce to forge closer relations with their counterparts in Tamaulipas in order build a stronger advocacy alliance for the region but at that time there was little support on the U.S. side. This time, perhaps because of the rhetoric of Donald Trump in the Republican Party presidential primary, there seems to be more buy-in.

Gonzalez, Vela, and other border leaders have visited the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce in San Diego, California, to discuss greater collaboration. The San Diego Chamber takes more than 100 of its members to Washington, D.C., each year to lobby for their region. One idea being discussed is a U.S.-Mexico Border Day in Washington, D.C.

“If you study what happened in Ciudad Juarez and in Tijuana-San Diego, what we find is a combination of efforts made things better over there. We know of a well-orchestrated effort by business people on both sides of the border to really engage in the process,” Vela told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We have a lot of business people on both sides of the border in our region who want to engage and who, in their own small way, are engaging. But, we have got to figure out how we better mobilize the efforts of business people on both sides of the border, from Matamoros to Brownsville and Reynosa to McAllen, and I think the Rio Grande Valley Partnership and the Border Trade Alliance, and BiNED can all help provide us a framework to help deliver that consensus effort.”

Soon after the RGVP board meeting ended, Vela brought two members of Congress from New York, Democrats Joseph Crowley and Sean Patrick Maloney, to the Valley. During their tour, Crowley and Maloney joined Vela in a joint meeting with the Mexican Consulate’s Office in Brownsville and Bishop of Brownsville Daniel Flores.

“We know the Catholic Church is playing a large role in the fight against violence in Mexico. It is the largest religion on both sides of the border. I know that Bishop Flores, for several years now, has expressed concern about conditions in Matamoros and Reynosa and so I thought it was a good idea to start that dialogue going and to bring Congressmen Joe Crowley and Sean Patrick Maloney into the conversation. Joe is vice president of the Democratic Caucus and Sean Patrick is someone I work with a lot,” Vela said.

Vela spoke about the planned visit with the Mexican Consulate’s Office and Bishop Flores when giving the keynote address at the RGVP monthly board meeting.

“I have been really outspoken about life on the border since I got to Washington. It is something I strongly believe in. Over the last ten years (violence has grown). For many of us it seemed to happen overnight although it was probably more gradual than that. Over the last three years I have brought 50 to 60 members of Congress down here. I want to change the perception they have of what the border is really like. When they come down here and they see a port of entry and all the produce that is coming across, or they go to the Island, they say, ‘Wait a minute, this is totally different to the perception I had.’ They have been able to see what this region is all about,” Vela said.

“One of the real tragedies… I have two members coming in from New York tonight. We are meeting with the Bishop and the Mexican Consulate’s office tomorrow to go over these very issues. Not being able to take them across (the border) is very frustrating because that was a large part of what living here was all about. It is a slow process, a lot slower than I ever wanted it to be.”

Bishop Flores said the meeting with Vela, Crowley and Maloney was very productive.

“The members of Congress visiting the Valley wanted to learn more about the Valley. I applaud Congressman Vela. He is trying very hard to bring people down here in a calm way, without a lot of cameras. I think helps formulate national policy. I was happy to be able to talk to them. I always make the point that what happens in northern Mexico affects the Rio Grande Valley and what happens in the Rio Grande Valley affects northern Mexico. That is the way the situation is. I think anything we can do to help people understand the realities of how our families are living is a step forward,” Flores told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Flores pointed out that he meets frequently with bishops on the other side of the Rio Grande.

“We talk mostly about our families and the poor and their situation and the pressure they are under. Obviously, a lot of our families here in the Rio Grande Valley have very close family ties right across the river, in Matamoros and Reynosa. That is true all the way up the border. We also meet, the Texas and Mexican bishops, twice a year. This dialogue is important.”