Senate Committee Examines Border Issues
The Texas Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade visited San Antonio today, July 7, 2004, to examine what effect recent federal legislation such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has had on the border economy. In opening remarks, Chairman Eddie Lucio criticized federal government agencies that make regulations that affect people, but refuse to explain those regulations to state legislative committees such as his.
San Antonio City Councilman Enrique Barrera welcomed the committee to San Antonio, describing how the City of San Antonio has actively pursued the tourism market in Mexico, and adding that San Antonio is a strong supporter of bi-lateral trade as encouraged by NAFTA. He expressed concern about recent court decisions allowing Mexican trucks to drive deep into the U.S., but said that increased trade would always benefit the border. He criticized predicted federal government moves that will require screening of all visitors from Mexico, saying neither the technology nor the personnel are available to implement such a program.
San Antonio Senator Leticia Van de Putte said that San Antonio had been successful in doing business with Mexico because "you have to be friends first, and business partners second".
Mayor pro tem Julian Castro told the committee that the local economy is dependent upon linking divisions between people, cultures and countries and that coming federal regulations will hurt the border economy by throttling trade. County Judge Nelson Wolff noted that those regulations, called the VISIT Program, were not capable of stopping terrorists, so "I just don't understand how the VISIT Program will cut down on terrorism in this country...We'll wind up choking down our borders and not making us any safer." He also said that it was time to give Mexican citizens the same visitation rights in the U.S. that Canadian citizens now enjoy.
The committee had invited a number of state and local officials to testify. The first of those was Amadeo Saenz, from the Texas Department of Transportation. He told the committee that "Texas faces many challenges in regard to NAFTA," not the least of which is how to regulate Mexican trucks that may soon be on Texas highways. He said that they will not be allowed to operate here until they have received certification from both the federal and state governments.
Mike Allen from the McAllen Economic Development Corporation explained that unlike Mexicans, Canadians are exempt from immigration controls due to extensive lobbying by their government long before terrorism became an issue. He said this means people from thousands of miles away can easily enter the U.S., but friends and family from just a few miles away across the river are prohibited from visits longer than 72 hours without a visa. He said the 72 hour rule should be extended to six months with no limit on how far visitors could travel.
Mayor Richard Garcia of Edinburg told the committee that the border does not have the highway infrastructure to accommodate the increasing truck traffic due to NAFTA and that toll roads are not economically feasible in the area.
Commissioner R. B. "Ralph" Marquez of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said his agency was working to determine the impact of Mexican trucks on air quality. He said that newer diesel engines will be cleaner than those now being used but that Mexican diesel fuel will not be cleaned up as will be U.S. diesel in coming years when new regulations take effect. While no conclusions have been reached, the agency predicts an increase in air pollution, but can not yet say how much. Chairman Lucio said he was concerned that pollution from Mexican trucks would cause the air quality to drop so far that Texas would be out of compliance with federal standards and would lose federal funds tied to those standards. In response to a question from Senator Craig Estes, he said the agency had no authority to ban Mexican trucks should the air quality fall.
Major Mark Rogers testified about commercial vehicle operations, saying that Mexican carriers would be monitored to ensure that they met safety standards and they would have to comply with all safety regulations before getting a license to operate. Tom "Smitty" Smith, the Director of Public Citizen in Texas, said that no one has examined the impact of air pollution from Mexican trucks on areas that already have dirty air and that other environmental and safety issues are still unresolved. Smith says this is an issue because eighty percent of all NAFTA related truck traffic comes through Texas, with a third of all traffic through Laredo alone. On top of that, the amount of truck traffic is expected to increase by 400 percent between 1999 and 2020.
Blake Hastings, Executive Director of the Free Trade Alliance of San Antonio, told the committee that the state should continue to support the NAFTA provisions, while ensuring that Mexican trucks meet U.S. standards. He also recommended support for the proposed Central America free trade agreement. Jay Johnson from the Tourism Advisory Council testified that Mexico is the number two source of revenue for Texas and our number one source of tourism, so we should remember that if Mexico fails, so does our side of the border.
Brenda Lee Huerta from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of McAllen criticized the Department of Homeland Security for not properly training Border Patrol agents. She also called for "a just and fair treatment of Mexican visitors" saying that it is essential if tourism is to flourish. She also said that today regulations vary from one U.S. Embassy to another and that the visa program is unfairly administered.
Jay Kimbrough, with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security, said that "treating people right" needs to be a part of border protection. He also agreed that the same rules need to apply to Mexican and Canadian visitors alike.
Carlos Marin, from the International Boundary and Water Commission, updated the committee on the amount of water Mexico owes the United States under the treaty of 1944. This year, Mexico has delivered more than twice its obligation due to the unusually heavy rainfalls. Mexico has actually cut its total deficit to half of what it was two years ago.
Rene Gonzales from the City of Laredo, said that Mexican trucks are inspected fairly, but that not every truck gets inspected. Helena Colyandro from the Secretary of State's Office, said that as the state office that is the official liaison between Texas and Mexico, they are in constant touch with border officials to determine what challenges they face.
The Texas Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade is chaired by Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. Members include Senators Eliot Shapleigh as vice-chair, John Carona, Kevin Eltife, Craig Estes, Kel Seliger and Judith Zaffirini who also represents parts of Bexar County.
Also joining the committee today were Senators Jeff Wentworth and Leticia Van de Putte, both representing parts of San Antonio. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.