At a time when the southwest border has polarized the leaders of federal government, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, introduced bipartisan legislation earlier this month focusing on deficiencies at ports of entry, which include the international bridges where most narcotics cross from Mexico into the United States.
Cornyn has previously authored and passed bills aimed at improving ports of entry, and the senator has, at times, anchored that legislation in the Rio Grande Valley.
Called the United States Ports of Entry Threat and Operational Review Act, Cornyn and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-MI, seek to analyze “strengths, opportunities and vulnerabilities of land, sea and air ports of entry so that we can promote more efficient trade and travel across our borders while targeting vulnerabilities to decrease illegal activity.”
The bill calls for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to submit an analysis of potential threats, improvements needed and loopholes in the port systems. Most drug smuggling attempts are thwarted at international bridges on the southwest border; the most common drug federal agents often encounter — not at bridges but in between them — is marijuana. CBP has acknowledged a need for better staffing at international bridges in South Texas.
Kevin McAleenan, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, acknowledged a deficiency at land ports of entry at an April congressional hearing.
“There’s a deficit in investment in ports of entry that is decades-long that we need to continue to work with Congress to fund,” McAleenan told the House Homeland Security Committee’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee. McAleenan added: “We have about a $4 billion deficit at ports of entry.”
McAleenan did not dive into specifics, but he also mentioned a pilot program that Cornyn helped turn into law in 2016 alongside U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. CBP had tested so-called public-private partnerships to boost staffing and infrastructure improvements at ports of entry. That program sought to allow different levels of government, as well as private entities, to pay for staffing or infrastructure improvements at ports of entry.
International bridges in South Texas experimented with the program to success, so Cornyn and Cuellar introduced the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act, which passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama in December 2016.
Cornyn and Cuellar celebrated the bill’s passage with an event featuring fajita tacos at the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission.
The ability to work with the private sector through this legislation has also been referred to as the donation acceptance program, which McAleenan also referenced in that April hearing in response to a question from U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who mentioned Valley bridges.
“The donation acceptance program, which allows us to work with private sector entities, with cities and state and local governments like you referenced in South Texas, meets some of the need and flexibility where there’s a return on investment,” McAleenan said.
Cornyn hopes his new bill introduced this month can build off of McAleenan’s acknowledgement of a need at ports of entry.
“Texas has long thrived on international trade and travel through our many ports, but we need to take a hard look at the vulnerabilities and inefficiencies in our system,” Cornyn said in a statement. “We can find targeted solutions to enhance legitimate trade and travel across our borders while ensuring bad actors have fewer opportunities to thwart our system.”