RIO GRANDE CITY, May 10 - Opinion is divided among elected officials and business leaders in Starr County over plans to build border walls in Roma and Rio Grande City.
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera says his opinion on border walls has changed. He used to be strongly opposed to them.
“As you know, I was very negative about the border wall at one time but I have seen how the walls have worked. Even though people find it hard to admit, I will admit I was wrong. I think walls are effective in certain areas,” Vera told the Guardian.
Asked if a border wall in Roma and Rio Grande City would give the wrong impression to potential Mexican tourists, Vera said he did not think so. “Those that are coming here legally are coming over our bridge. At one time I thought it would be a negative thing, that we were telling our neighbors that we were building a fence to keep them out. However, I think a lot of that has smoothed out and they realize we welcome them with open arms,” Vera said.
Vera said Border Patrol makes a good point when it says it is difficult to apprehend someone in a city because it is easy to hide. “I think they have a legitimate argument,” he said. For that reason, he said, border walls may make sense in Roma and Rio Grande City.
Vera made his comments after participating in a stakeholder meeting with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and other local leaders at the Starr-Camargo International Bridge last Monday. In all, Texas’ senior senator spent four hours in Rio Grande City, accompanied by his wife Sandy. He became the first sitting senator to visit the Starr-Camargo International Bridge.
Vera said Cornyn was asked what he thought about border walls for Roma and Rio Grande City and his answer was that he would leave that decision to the experts. “The Senator’s view was, if CBP feels it is good idea he will back it,” Vera said.
Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal said his view is that a border wall is a “stigma” that reduces the attractiveness of a community to potential tourists. However, he said he is resigned to Customs and Border Protection building them, no matter what local opinion says.
“I would say opinion varies (about what to do to stop a border wall being built). Nobody wants to see it happen. Do I think it will happen? Probably, yes. I wish I could stop it. A fence is not going to fix anything,” Villarreal told the Guardian and Action 4 News. “Without a doubt if you have a border fence all of a sudden you have to deal with an added stigma.”
Villarreal said what he wants most of all is good communication with the federal government over the construction of a border wall. “Whatever the government is planning to do… do not catch us off guard. We want to prepare our people. We want to prepare our communities to be able to deal with a border fence. Let us know, keep us in the loop,” Villarreal said.
South Texas leaders can be partners with the federal government, if they are given a chance, Villarreal said. “We understand that perhaps their (CBP) solutions will not be the ones we are happy with but if we inform our people at least you will have the benefit of saying we can work with you towards a solution and not leave us out of the mix,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal said an example of bad communication from a federal agency came last September when the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission called a public meeting on the border wall issue in Rio Grande City. “It was poorly organized. Information was scant, and the people making the presentation were ill-prepared. That is no way to do a meeting for the people. That was our first introduction to the border wall. It was a disappointment,” Villarreal said.
Like Judge Vera, Villarreal participated in the stakeholder meeting with Cornyn. “I was impressed with Senator Cornyn’s willingness to engage on the issues. He said no subject was off bounds. We have 26 million people in Texas. Senator Cornyn came to a region that is a little bit off the map for some but to us it is the entire world,” Villarreal said.
The mayor said that on the subject of immigration reform, Cornyn said nothing has been decided in Washington yet. “Senator Cornyn promised us he would pretty much let us know everything he could to make us as educated as he can. He said it is not about sealing the border it is about finding a solution that is multi-faceted. He is on the right track. It is not just one thing,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal added that Cornyn explained that he sometimes has a hard time conveying to other senators what a dynamic border is all about. “It is hard for one person. He is just one out of 100,” Villarreal said.
The owner of Starr-Camargo International Bridge is businessman Sam Vale, a former chairman of the Border Trade Alliance. The Guardian and Action 4 News asked Vale what he thought about border walls coming to Starr County.
“My view of the border wall is that it is a nice wrought iron fence. It is not as horrible as people said it was. I would not mind having it around my back yard,” Vale said. However, he questioned if it was the most cost effective way of securing the border. He speculated that it could be cheaper to have more Border Patrol agents.
“I do not think it is the horrible thing they say it is. On the other hand I think it is very inconvenient to get to property that is left on the south side of the wall. For those people who are left with significant property on the south side of the wall it is a big economic inconvenience,” Vale said.
Like Vera and Villarreal, Vale was at the stakeholder meeting with Cornyn. He said the point he wanted to get across to the Senator is that if more security personnel are to be deployed at border ports of entry they should be specialists that meet the demand. For example, Vale said, there is a need for more food inspectors because certain Asian vegetables are now being grown in Mexico and exported to the United States. “You have to have different types of inspection protocols. The imports must not be a threat to the U.S. food supply. We need more people trained in the agriculture identification process, more supervisors for cargo facilities, and more inspectors at the primary booths,” Vale said.