During the past few months, the people of Texas and the rest of the country have been hearing about the Rio Grande Valley. Unfortunately, the type of publicity we received was unwanted. A surge of child refugees from Central America created a humanitarian crisis that again stirred the debate about immigration. Our communities largely ignored the political rhetoric. We had children in our midst, and they needed our help.
But the Valley still got kicked around by the news. And some larger facts went ignored.
First, our elected and business leaders and civic organizations were almost universally against the deployment of the National Guard. In fact, the conservative Republican president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce wrote a personal letter to Gov. Rick Perry asking him not to send the troops. Customs, Border Patrol, and law enforcement was able to manage in the influx of children. And our generous citizens volunteered time and donated food and clothing during this humanitarian crisis.
The governor, however, sent the troops. And research indicates their presence is harmful. Economist Ray Perryman’s analysis shows the valley will lose $541 million in yearly economic benefits, including 7,830 jobs, while the impact for the entire state reaches $650 million in gross annual product and 8,680 jobs.
None of that, however, stopped the political insults. We heard again how we lived in a “war zone” and a “third world.” Those negative claims are ignorant and uninformed. The forty communities of the Rio Grande Valley, which have been historically marginalized by our geography and lack of political influence, are turning into an economic and cultural force that will have impact far beyond our palm-lined roads and sun-swept beaches.
Finally, our geography is an advantage.
The 120-mile Valley sits, strategically, between two of the largest oil shale plays in North America. The Eagle Ford Shale, which has led the U.S. recovery from the Great Recession, and the Burgos Basin just across the Rio Grande in Mexico, is transforming the region. The Burgos is estimated to have eight times the energy deposits as Eagle Ford, and Mexico is opening up exploration and development to American companies. The Port of Brownsville, already the number one Foreign Trade Zone exporter in the country, will become even busier with the import of rigs and other equipment for Burgos production.
Real estate values will also increase, and not just because of the energy boom. Mexico has recently completed its first coast-to-coast highway and it dramatically reduces shipping routes to U.S. markets in the Midwest and Northeast. Produce and manufactured items will cross one of the twelve international bridges in our valley, instead of entering through Arizona and California. Shipping transfer houses have already begun relocation to our border from western sites. And the Interstate 69 project, which has $714 million in construction underway in Texas, will further expedite delivery to customers.
Mexico has signed free trade agreements with 48 countries, and that has led to the relocation of major international manufacturing operations, including global automotive brands. In a concept called Third Coast Manufacturing, raw materials and parts for all types of products are shipped to Brownsville and Mexico’s east and west coasts for assembly or refinement before delivery through the Valley to U.S. markets.
Multi-national companies are discovering the strategic importance of the Rio Grande Valley. In fact, on the day Gov. Perry was on network television riding the river with a bulletproof vest and boat armed with 50-caliber machine guns, 200 executives from Japan and South Korea were visiting to consider relocation to the Valley. Imagine their reaction when they turned on the news later that night in their hotel rooms.
Our region also has extensive infrastructure for higher education. The University of Texas has committed $700 million over the next ten years for the launch and growth of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, including a medical school. UTRGV will be one of the largest universities in the nation when its first class enrolls August 2015. But South Texas College, Texas Southmost, and Texas State Technical College already educate tens of thousands of our students, and recent agreements with Mexico will ensure that both nations’ work forces for the energy and technology industries will be prepared for future opportunities.
The Valley may be overwhelmingly Hispanic but investors and entrepreneurs from around the world are making their way to our border region. And as America’s demographics shift, we might all discover in the Rio Grande Valley the formula for cooperation and future prosperity.
The time has arrived for our leaders in Texas and Washington to abandon tactics of fear and acknowledge that the Rio Grande Valley has become America’s gateway to tomorrow.
Ramiro Garza is the city manager of Edinburg, Texas, and a lifelong resident of the Rio Grande Valley