The Growing Economic and Cultural Impact of the U.S. – Mexico Border
Despite being painted as a dangerous, poverty-stricken Wild West, the numbers show that the U.S.-Mexico border is a huge economic and cultural benefit to the Rio Grande Valley and country as a whole, an image not often portrayed by the national media.
Locals who commute between both countries for work, shopping, services, family, or school do not worry about safety, but the frustrating long lines of cars, commercial trucks, and pedestrians going north through the checkpoint — evidence of the money flowing into the U.S. from Mexico.
“A lot of people around the country don’t realize how important this region is and how our area affects their economy — even in states far away from us,” said U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX15) at a Dec.15, 2016 news conference held at the Hidalgo/ Pharr Anzalduas International Bridge. This event gave leaders like Gonzalez, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX28), U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX34), and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) the chance to speak about the value of international commerce generated by our ports of entry.
“We’re working in a bipartisan, regional way to bring attention to our region and push it forward,” Gonzalez said. “Mexico is the most important trading partner for our state and a lot of the prosperity we enjoy here is because of that, and not in spite of it. We need to make trade easier, make products and services flow both ways across the border.”
Legislation, like the newly signed Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2016, will provide renovations to infrastructure and will ease the crossing time, generating further economic activity and helping the reputation of the Rio Grande Valley transition from dangerous to prosperous.
Balancing Safety and Convenience
“A safe border is not a closed border,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. “These bridges are very important, not only to the economic betterment of the state of Texas, but the whole United States.” However, checkpoints required for national safety means bridge travelers are faced with having to wait to be inspected. The difficult and vital task of balancing national security with legitimate trade and commerce falls to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. CBP is responsible for keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade. They are busy every day, with 29 official land, sea, air and rail ports of entry that employ 1.6 million people. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. spends over $10 billion annually to secure the 5,000+ miles of border with Canada, 1,900 miles of border with Mexico, and approximately 95,000 miles of shoreline.
“As long as the federal government is going to be spending money along the border, we need to make sure the money is spent productively,” Cornyn said. “We have bipartisan solutions to achieve operational control of the border that will go a long way to reassuring people that the federal government is doing its job.”
The U.S.-Mexico border is 9,000 square miles composed of 250 coastal miles, over 320 river miles, and 19 counties that the Rio Grande Valley Sector of CBP protects through a combination of personnel, technology, and infrastructure. The Border Patrol had its start in the Rio Grande Valley area in 1921 with only eight officers. Today, it has over 3,000 agents, nine stations, two checkpoints, air and marine operations, and an intelligence office.
Marlene Castro, who has been with Border Patrol for 19 years, says CBP is using more technology and tactical infrastructure than they did before. “The fence is an obvious addition,” said the supervisory Border Patrol agent. “I believe it’s been effective in combination with agents and boat patrols, sensors and cameras.” Aerostats, the “eyes in the sky,” are large helium-filled balloons that allow CBP to see for a radius of up to 200 miles and identify crimes in progress, so they can be stopped.
However, all the technology would be ineffective if not utilized correctly.
“It all comes down to the Border Patrol and the men and women in green who do such a terrific job under very difficult circumstances,” Cornyn said. Castro said that they are committed not only to the country in general, but to every community’s safety.
In recent years, safety has come to mean not just the neutralization of threats, but also the rendering of humanitarian aid. Castro has seen undocumented individuals who make the dangerous and illegal journey across the “frontera” now approach CBP, instead of running from them. “We see family units and unaccompanied minors,” she said. Darling remarked in an editorial for local newspaper, The Monitor, that the recent surge in immigrants are asylum seekers, and not individuals seeking work or evading the law. “They are here in our community and our responsibility is to welcome them, treat them humanely,” he wrote.
Darling petitioned the federal government for assistance and compensation for services provided to asylum seekers by the city and volunteer groups. “U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar helped pass legislation in Congress almost two years ago that would have provided reimbursement for these services through FEMA. But the money has, so far, never made its way to the Valley,” he wrote in the editorial. While Cornyn recognized Darling’s humanitarian impulses, he said that the mayor is dealing with the consequences of the federal government’s failure to deal with these issues.
“Some of them are just very huge and to some extent not immediately solvable problems,” Cornyn said. “The Central American immigration issue is very complex because these countries from which unaccompanied children and other adults are coming from are in pretty tough shape. The U.S. government has spent a lot of money trying to help those governments restore civil order so people don’t feel like they need to leave in order to come to someplace safe.”
This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon, but when the problems manifest on our border, Cornyn stresses the importance of reassuring the American people that their security is a priority. “I take some confidence in that fact that President-elect Trump has appointed Gen. John Kelly as the next director of Homeland Security,” he said. “He’s a retired four-star Marine general and an outstanding choice — he’s the type of person we can work with to really tackle these tough issues.”
Texas Tourism and Trade
David P. Higgerson, director of Field Operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Laredo Field Office, says the future looks bright with continued growth at ports of entry within the Rio Grande Valley, through a combination of increased membership in trusted traveler/ trusted trader programs, and increased overtime staffing coverage. “With infrastructure improvements through public-private partnerships Under Section 559 and the Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2016, the future looks even brighter,” Higgerson said. These initiatives all aim to reduce the travel time across the bridge for pedestrians and car passengers. The tourism industry is an influential economic driver in Texas, and an increase in travelers over the years has resulted in delays at the checkpoints. For example, In Hidalgo County, cross-border vehicular traffic increased from 10.92 million in the beginning of the 1990s to 14.9 million automobiles in 2006.
According to an article by M. Ray Perryman, CEO of The Perryman Group, a Texas-based economic research and analysis firm, this industry contributes $1.2 billion in local property tax revenue stemming from travel and tourism real estate assets in Texas, such as additional hotels, motels, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Travelers pay for goods and services that bring prosperity to our region by generating further economic activity in communities.
“As a result of the increased property tax base from travel-related real estate assets, independent school districts (ISDs) receive an estimated $675.8 million in tax revenue each year (based on 2016 levels of activity),” reports Perryman. “Of this amount, about $538.7 million supports maintenance and operations, with the remaining $137.1 million being applied to debt service and retirement. These latter funds are important in providing the resources needed to support school construction and growth.”
Julie Ramirez, bridge director of the Progreso International Bridge, says she has never really seen a slow time for pedestrian traffic, despite a dip last year. A corresponding increase in vehicles suggests more people are driving, and not walking, across the Progreso Bridge. In November 2015, 38,000 automobiles crossed the bridge, while 45,000 were recorded for the same month in 2016.
Sales taxes reflect that the retail sector benefits from our proximity to the border and international shoppers. According to mcallenmeansbusiness.com, international shoppers account for 37 percent of retail sales in McAllen. The travelers make an average of 10 shopping trips per year to the city and spend an average of $219 each trip. Researchers at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley examined eight Rio Grande Valley cities and found that their total retail sales increased $4.47 billion between 2002 and 2014. The study predicts that valley sales in these cities will increase by $13.68 billion between 2015 and 2030.
Because foreign retail shoppers account for such a large part of the local economy, Darling believes keeping travelers waiting too long to cross the border is a big deal and applauded the improvements the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act will provide. “It allows us to pay CBP employees overtime during Semana Santa, to make sure someone coming from Monterrey ready to spend money in our communities doesn’t have to spend four hours sitting on the bridge,” he said. “It means produce reaches our families’ tables crisp and fresh.”
The Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act allows cities and private companies to pay CBP for overtime and then receive reimbursement from the federal government. Cornyn and Cuellar had previously introduced legislation similar to the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2016. It took the form of a pilot program in 2013, in which South Texas Consortium Assets, which represents RGV international bridges, was selected as one of five public/private partnerships to be put into practice in ports of entry across the country. As a result of the additional staffing and lanes, wait times decreased by an average of almost 30 percent, while traveler volume increased about 7 percent over the year.
A CBP factsheet reveals that adding CBP officers to land ports of entry results in tangible economic benefits. A single additional CBP officer equates to annual benefits that include a $2 million increase in gross domestic product, $640,000 saved in opportunity costs, and 33 jobs added to the economy.
The Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act moved quickly through the Senate and House since its introduction in February 2015, and was auspiciously signed into law by President Barack Obama the day after local and national leaders spoke about it on our border. Now that the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act has been signed, creative partnerships between private industry and government agencies will boost the success of our ports of entry.
Wait times have already improved at some bridges with new technology and programs like SENTRI, which reduces traffic congestion by quickly moving pre-vetted travelers through designated dedicated vehicle traffic lanes.
Another collaborative project that includes the participation of the Texas Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute involves the installation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers at the five border crossings responsible for 90 percent of all truck traffic from Mexico into Texas. Two of the five were Brownsville’s Veteran’s Memorial Bridge and the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. RFID readers collect data about travel time through Mexican, U.S., and state customs inspections, making congestion data available online. Shippers are now able to schedule their drivers more efficiently, so produce spends less time waiting at the border.
“This isn’t going to just benefit our border between Mexico and the U.S.,” said Cornyn at the Anzalduas Bridge. “It’s going to benefit our ports like the seaports and airports and the northern border as well.” He explained that these ports similarly face limited funding from the federal government to maintain, develop, and expand the infrastructure and staff to keep the flow of legitimate trade, travel and commerce going.
Opening the Ports to Expansion
Ralph Cowen, port commissioner for the Port of Brownsville, says it has literally taken an act of Congress to get authorization to deepen the port’s channel from its current 42 feet to 52 feet deep. This will make it among the deepest ports in the United States; it’s currently as deep as the ports of Houston,
Corpus Christi and New Orleans. “Now, it’s been authorized by the government,” Cowen said, “but they haven’t appropriated the money yet.” Deepening the channel means the port will be able to handle ships it couldn’t before, allowing for new types of cargo and additional employees to manage it.
Cowen says ships have more capacity than they’re currently bringing in, limited only by the depth of the ports. The additional 10 feet allow for more freight to be put on the ship that’s coming in, which brings the latent cost of goods down. “It costs the same amount of money for the ship to come, but you’re now able to put a bigger load on it,” Cowen said, “because the more they load it down, the more it sinks down in the water. If it can sink down another 10 feet — my goodness, that’s a lot of cargo!”
Over the past decade, U.S. land ports have also experienced significant growth. Changes in Mexico’s infrastructure have directed more traffic to RGV bridges, such as the opening of the Mazatlan- Durango superhighway, a faster route for produce via the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. TxDOT released a map in December that illustrates the movement of produce from the U.S.-Mexico border to all corners of the U.S. within a week.
According to a press release from a fresh fruit and vegetable industry publication, The Packer, which is based on a study by economists at Texas A&M University’s Center for North American Studies, fresh fruit and vegetable exports from Mexico to the U.S. could increase by 32 percent in the next seven years to as many as 569,650 truckloads of Mexican fresh produce. By 2023, Texas is expected to see an increase of 41 percent of imported produce, or 298,542 truckloads, accounting for 52.4 percent of all U.S. produce imports from Mexico. The resulting increase in exports could produce 7,700 jobs in Texas (12,897 jobs nationwide) and contribute $815 million to the state’s economy and $1.54 billion to the country’s economy.
To keep up with demand and contribute to a prosperous RGV, ports must accommodate growth. The Progreso Bridge plans to develop its surrounding commercial land and build cold storage. A refrigerated truck full of produce needs to be held at a certain temperature, and cold inspection rooms that trucks drive into maintain the cold chain. “Time is money, so keeping the cold chain is a big deal,” Ramirez said. Recently, a cold storage project has gained traction at the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios, and the Pharr bridge will see 6,000 square feet of cold storage space added to its current 8,500 square feet of storage for fresh produce.
Through the collaboration of local, state, and national leaders and the application of initiatives, our border continues to gradually grow our region’s presence and economy, while maintaining a sense of security. “Anytime you have a good team, you have good results at the end,” Ramirez said, and the Rio Grande Valley has long cultivated a spirit of regional unity.
The passing of the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2016 will further benefit both countries. “It’s one of those times in history — a moment,” said Gonzalez. “The occurrence of today is a benefit to both sides. I consider both sides our family. I think the more we work together, stay together, we’re safer, more prosperous, and a better community on both sides of the border.”
Assistant Editor Allan Fisher contributed to this article.