Cotton exporter, NAFTA’s future in South Texas among senator’s focus

WESLACO — Fielding requests for assistance from international trade officials in the Rio Grande Valley last week, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn toured a large cotton exporter in Weslaco Oct. 14 and hoped for an upcoming Congressional vote on the revised North American Free Trade Agreement.

“Here in the Valley, as much as you’re growing, as much as you’re creating new jobs, USMCA is absolutely critical to get done,” Cornyn told a room full of trade stakeholders from across Hidalgo County at Commodities Integrated Logistics of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, as the new NAFTA deal has been called.

“And in a strange way, the hyper-partisanship may incentivize the speaker to take this up and pass it just to demonstrate that she can get that done,” Cornyn added.

Monday was Cornyn’s second South Texas trip in the last six weeks and both trips hit on the future of North American trade, punctuated by his prediction that echoed U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s when the two lawmakers appeared together recently on a panel in Pharr. Cuellar said then that he “believes it will be taken up for a vote this fall.”

After more than a year of negotiations, the leaders from the U.S., Mexico and Canada in late 2018 signed the new USMCA trade agreement during a global summit in Argentina, but the Congressional bodies in the U.S. and Canada have yet to authorize the USMCA.

But Cuellar’s prediction came before U.S. House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry in September, which has shifted Congressional priorities. The prospect of the USMCA vote in the U.S. House was already fraught with time constraints. Officials in Congress and in South Texas have warned that if a vote is not taken up before year’s end, the agreement’s passage is unlikely with 2020 being an election year and all Congressional moves could have political consequences.

“Of course, that would be a win-win not only for her but also for the president and his team, and I would say for Texas and the rest of the country,” Cornyn said of Pelosi putting USMCA to a vote in the U.S. House. If the agreement passes through that chamber, Cornyn said it would swiftly sail through the U.S. Senate.

Cornyn touted the U.S. International Trade Commission’s USMCA projections, which included an addition of 76,000 U.S. jobs and a boost to the U.S. economy by $68 billion, Cornyn said.

“We hope that Joaquin and other folks in the business of international trade can even do better than those numbers might reflect,” Cornyn said, turning to Joaquin Spamer, who heads Commodities Integrated Logistics.

Spamer guided Cornyn for a brief tour of his large, new facility in Weslaco where large bales of cotton — 500 pounds each — are stacked throughout the warehouse. Before, Spamer and officials from the international bridges in Hidalgo, Mission, Pharr and Progreso, as well as multiple Hidalgo County municipalities asked Cornyn for federal support on a range of issues.

“The expansion of Anzalduas Bridge,” said Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña of the bridge in Mission that is run in cooperation between the cities of Mission and McAllen, with Superintendent of Bridges Rigo Villarreal running that bridge and the Hidalgo–Reynosa International Bridge. O’Caña added: “I think that’s a must-go, must be done, quick and fast. The need for trucks going north and south — loaded — from Anzalduas is there.”

Passenger vehicles are allowed to cross the Anzalduas International Bridge as well as empty trucks driving southbound into Mexico, which began in August 2016. Those truck numbers have declined in 2019 compared to 2018, and officials in McAllen and Mission have expressed frustration at the lack of federal financial assistance.

“I think the federal department of transportation is not paying attention to us the way they should,” Villarreal said. “I don’t know if they don’t know the area or — we’ve gotten a lot of support letters, and so has Pharr and other people here, but we still don’t get anything. I don’t know why, but it’s very disappointing that we spend a lot of money putting these applications together.”

He added: “I think they need to pay a little bit more attention to us, especially on the border. I don’t think they are. I don’t think they understand it. Maybe they think we’re going to spend the money on illegal immigrants, I don’t know. But clearly they don’t know what’s going on down here.”

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, during a press conference alongside Cornyn and the other officials in attendance Monday, also illustrated the frustrations and challenges the city has faced.

“The question that always complicates matters is: the cities own the bridge and the federal government runs the bridge. And you throw GSA in that mix and it really gets complicated,” Darling said of General Services Administration, the federal agency that helps manage and support the basic functioning of other federal agencies. Cornyn and the other officials nodded in agreement that GSA poses additional challenges.

Also at last week’s meeting were representatives from Pharr, which owns the busiest and most profitable international bridge in the region.

“We just celebrated the start of the produce season,” said Pharr–Reynosa International Bridge Director Luis Bazan. “Come February, March and April, we’re going to see an uptick in those crossings and we’re going to be doing probably 20,000 trucks crossings and shipments coming in from Mexico.”

Bazan also asked Cornyn to look into the checkpoint barrier in the middle of the 3.2-mile bridge that U.S. Customs and Border Protection installed this summer during the heightened attention on immigration and the southern border. The barrier has reduced lanes in operation and led Pharr to change the hours of operation to be able to accommodate the bridge traffic.

It was one of several concerns raised by the stakeholders during the visit, which Cornyn said was valuable and that he would move to remedy them. Perhaps lingering above all else, however, remains the USMCA.

“Thank you for having us here, Joaquin, and wish us luck,” Cornyn said.