Officials praise, propose tweaks to new NAFTA deal

Days away from the one-year anniversary of the Canada, United States and Mexico leaders signing a revamped North American Free Trade Agreement, Congress has still not authorized the new trade deal.

Facing some pressure to call a U.S. House vote on a new agreement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not set a date for a vote on the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement, the name of the new deal.

Recently, officials from the Rio Grande Valley and other officials visiting the region recently have made pitches supporting the deal, as well as proposing tweaks. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a panel in Pharr this fall both supported the deal.

And in an unusual move, the new Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has been vocal on trade and the USMCA. Last week, his first on the job, Wolf toured new border wall construction in Donna, a public display with news cameras.

That same day, in a closed-door meeting, Wolf met with bank executives, elected officials and business leaders from the Valley, which included McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, McAllen Chamber of Commerce President Steve Ahlenius, Texas International Produce Association President Dante Galeazzi, and a contingent of IBC Bank executives, including Chairman and CEO Dennis Nixon, who has hosted large fundraisers for President Trump.

“Trade, the economy, and business has never had a bigger friend than in President Trump,” Wolf wrote in a Tweet after his visit, with a photo of the officials he met with in South Texas. “Thanks to RGV business leaders for meeting with me today to talk about the importance of #USMCA and improving efficiencies for commercial traffic.”

Nixon underscored the atypical meeting.

“Historically, the secretary has visited with border and customs personnel,” Nixon said in a statement. “This meeting was unprecedented in that Secretary Wolf made it a priority to meet with private sector leaders who are intimately familiar with the challenges faced at our ports of entry. We are grateful that he has made it clear that trade and port of entry issues are priorities.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, was not part of the meeting with Wolf but reinforced his desire for a security component to be added to the new trade pact.

“Congress is expected to ratify this trade pact whose primary intent is to break down barriers to trade while at the same time we are witnessing repeated incidents of violence along the border which threatens commerce, and we have no plan to address this insecurity,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said in a statement late last week. “Security needs to be a guarantee for all countries and parties and we must take action to ensure the safe passage of goods or risk standing in the way of our own economic interests.”

The scores of international bridges on the Texas-Mexico border impact millions of jobs, but the ports of entry have serious infrastructure and staffing deficiencies, which then-Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified at an April 2018 House Homeland Security Committee hearing. McAleenan added that “we have about a $4 billion deficit at ports of entry.”

Nixon noted this following the meeting with Wolf.

“Our ports of entry are in desperate need of infrastructure improvements, additional agricultural inspectors, increased Customs and Border Protection staffing, and more,” Nixon said. “Secretary Wolf’s willingness to sit down with members of the private sector to gain first-hand knowledge of issues affecting us speaks volumes about the importance of Texas and the border to our nation’s economy.”

mferman@themonitor.com