BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Congressman Filemon Vela says national and state media outlets that recently started to focus on South Texas should move beyond border security and start covering international trade.

The Brownsville Democrat spoke recently at groundbreaking ceremonies at Veterans International Bridge in Brownsville and the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge. 

“Around this nation often people think of South Texas in terms of immigration and border security but the reality is that legitimate trade and travel make up a whole lot more of our local dialogue,” Vela told the Rio Grande Guardian in an exclusive interview.

“And, thanks to leadership at CBP at our federal, state and local levels we’ve been able to break ground on two projects that will help facilitate trade and travel across the Rio Grande Valley, with the groundbreaking here at the Donna Bridge and the one earlier today in Brownsville.”

Vela was asked how difficult it is to explain to his colleagues in Congress the importance of trade with Mexico when so much media attention is on immigration and border security.

“It’s extremely frustrating when people in other parts of the country look at South Texas and think only in terms of immigration and border security when the fact is that we have so much other stuff going on,” Vela said.

“In the context of commercial truck traffic and rail traffic at our ports of entry here in South Texas, the fact of the matter is that there are places all around the country that benefit from our ability to facilitate trade and travel at our ports of entry.”

Vela said the efforts of South Texas communities to tell their own story has been a challenge for many years.

“It is an ongoing challenge. The president has made it even more difficult but those of us who are public officials come and go and I’m hopeful that in the long run the nation as a whole will find out what we are really all about.”

The two groundbreaking projects Vela spoke at will boost legitimate international trade. 

At Brownsville, Customs and Border Protection is introducing new x-ray equipment that will allow trucks to be scanned much more quickly. If the pilot project works well it will be introduced at other land ports of entry.

At Donna, new facilities are being introduced to allow southbound empty trucks to cross the bridge for the first time. Soon afterwards, northbound empty trucks will be allowed to cross and a little bit later fully loaded trucks will be able to use the bridge.

Frank Parker, chairman of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, wants to see more trucks using Veterans International Bridge.

“Right now we’re getting about 14,000 trucks in-bound a month. Pharr International Bridge is getting close to 35,000 a month and Laredo 122,000 a month. The compounds are all the same in all three places. And the designs are all the same. But, we have a lot more room to grow,” Parker said.

Francisco Galvan

Francisco Galvan is international trade director for the State of Tamaulipas. Like Parker, he was at the groundbreaking ceremony in Brownsville.

“The State of Tamaulipas is always happy when it comes to opening up more opportunities for trade,” Galvan said. “Whatever we can do to enhance this in the future, for better trade partnerships between these our two countries, we want to help.”

Galvan said things are working well in Tamaulipas’ trade office in Weslaco.

“We’re get things accomplished every day. Of course, there was a little transition space that we had to have because of the Mexican presidential election, but now that everything is settling down we’re going back to the same routine–working and making those relations between Texas and Tamaulipas stronger everyday.”

Asked how Andres Manuel Lopez Abrader’s presidential election victory would impact Tamaulipas, Galvan said: 

“In every country when there are elections there is a certain battle for all the political parties to become elected. But once the storm passes, I think we have to row in the same line. Like I have always said, when you get on a plane the last thing you want to wish for is that the captain has a heart attack. If he does, we are all going to crash. Now that the new president is elected we all wish him well and we’re all going to work with respect and collaboration for his new government, for the good of Mexico and the Mexican people.”

Josue Garcia’s Viewpoint

Josue Garcia has experience of the Brownsville and Donna bridges. He was previously bridge director for the City of Donna. Now, he has the same post for Cameron County.

“There is a piece of a pie for everybody. The pie keeps growing each and every year. The fact that Donna is opening their southbound empties here shortly, it will not take away from anybody else. That’s what I believe. We’ve seen that play out over and over.”

Asked if there is enough security on the Mexican side of the Donna and Brownsville international bridges to facilitate more trade, Garcia said: “The security has been really stepped up by the governor of Tamaulipas, all the way from Reynosa to Matamoros. That’s one of the things that we have received word on, that he’s really emphasizing that. So, we do not think that that’s really going to be an issue.”

Asked about the significance of the new investment at Veterans International Bridge, Garcia said:

“It really is a big deal. Cameron County is investing $800,000 but the government is investing $7 million in a couple of pieces of x-ray equipment, The significance of that is that traffic northbound commercial traffic northbound is really going to be facilitated. It is going to cut down the traffic from 50 to 60 percent of what it is now, in terms of wait times. But, at the same time, everything is going to be x-rayed so everything going through there is going to be expedited and it is going to be safer for everyone.”

Garcia confirmed that the new facilities being developed at Veterans International Bridge are a prototype for CBP.

“The idea is hat the same prototype will be used here at the model port, which is the Donna Bridge. This bridge is being called the Bridge of the Future, the model port. And once that (x-ray equipment) gets installed here, that’s what they’re looking at up and down the border. I think that’s a great idea.”

Asked why Donna is being called the Bridge of the Future, Garcia said:

“It’s because the way northbound and southbound installations are set up here are not like your normal types. There won’t be a need to do a lot of secondary inspections, the way you normally see in a port of entry. It is going to change and that’s a good thing because it’s going to make it safer, it’s really going to expedite things.

“It’s a good thing for the maquilas. It is going to expedite traffic and it will save them money. Instead of them doing one or two crossings, they might do three or four crossings.”

Asked to elaborate on his point that there is enough business to go around for all the bridges, Garcia said:

“Produce has increased 40 percent at one of the bridges in Hidalgo County, yet in Nogales (Arizona) they have not lost any traffic going northbound. So, the demand for more produce coming to America is there. And, just like produce is growing, everything else is growing. I think the manufacturing is growing. They’re investing in equipment. It’s a win-win situation. Mexico wins because they get to put a lot of their people to work, and the U.S. wins because the products are less expensive than if they were built elsewhere in the world.”

Asked about the comments of Parker, the CCRMA chairman, that compared to Laredo and Pharr, Veterans International Bridge is under-utilized, Garcia said:

“We have been doing our marketing and advertising for about six months and we have seen a significant increase in traffic. I think that’s one of the areas that we haven’t been good at. We’re starting to see some dividends being paid off on that.:

Garcia predicted there would be another groundbreaking ceremony at Veterans International Bridge in six to eight months time.  “We’re going to basically double the size of northbound traffic on Veterans Bridge. All of that points to one thing, and that is more users using it.”

Asked where the new business at Veterans would come from, Garcia said Cameron County is targeting the maquiladoras in the interior of Mexico.

“Those are the companies we are targeting to use our bridge in Cameron County. We want to make sure they know we are here and how they can get to the border area. Remember, once you are at Veterans Bridge, you are right on the expressway, you are on your way to wherever you are going. It saves time.”

Editor’s Note: Reporter Steve Taylor assisted on this story from Donna, Texas.