McAllen Monitor: COMMENTARY: DHS funding perk — Amendment to bill will improve border crossing experience

Posted: Sunday, March 8, 2015 5:00 am

Last week, after much politicking and debating within the Republican party, 75 of the 245 Republicans in the United States Congress joined the 182 united Democrats to keep the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from shutting down.

The passage of this funding bill, which Democrats had been pushing for weeks, ensures the department that keeps our nation safe from the threats we face from around the world is fully funded throughout this budget year.

In this time of extreme threats and unrest around the world, it was unthinkable that we would not fully fund the department that protects us from those threats, and it was frustrating that some Republicans were willing to shut down the department to make a statement about President Barack Obama’s immigration policies.

Thankfully, at the end of the day, enough Republicans decided to put our security first and met Democrats at the table to pass the bill. Working together, we avoided a crisis that would have caused 30,000 people to be furloughed from work; asked men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation’s security to work without pay, and put FEMA grant money at risk for states like Texas, which alone could have lost $65,000,000 in grant funding.

The Department of Homeland Security can now continue its work protecting our nation and the hard working men and women who work for the department can continue their work without fear of going without pay.

Part of the Department of Homeland Security funding bill that passed through Congress included an amendment that I added to the bill — an amendment that is extremely important to Texans along the border and folks who travel along it every day.

Each day, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processes over 1 million passengers who make their way across the United States’ borders to visit our cities, to spend their hard-earned money eating at our restaurants, purchasing goods in our stores and boosting our businesses.

We depend on the traffic from our border crossings to keep our economies strong, and to allow people to visit with their loved ones.

Whether someone is from McAllen or Mexico or anywhere else, when they cross our border they deserve to be treated with respect.

My amendment addition requires that the CBP review training manuals, coursework and incident reporting practices within the agency and then report the findings of that review to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations within 60 days.

This will ensure that CBP officers are trained to interact respectfully with those crossing the border.

There is no doubt our CBP officers work hard to protect our communities and I greatly respect them and the work they do, but like a business owner who works hard to ensure each of his customers are treated with dignity and respect, we, too, should be ensuring that each person crossing the border is treated the same.

I have long been concerned about how our citizens, visitors and businesses are being treated when they cross the border.

I brought my concerns to the attention of former CBP Commissioner Thomas Winkowski and current Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske and have since worked with them on initiatives like the PRIDE initiative, which we announced last month in Laredo and plan to announce in McAllen on Tuesday at the Anzalduas International Bridge. The PRIDE initiative will ensure professionalism and customer service along our borders is a priority, and that our CBP officers have exemplary conduct in providing services to travelers in all areas of CBP processing.

We have to find a balance between security and legitimate trade and tourism at our bridges. There are some who cross our borders illegally or with criminal intent and we should be firm in keeping our communities safe. But, the reality is that the majority of people who cross our international bridges on a daily basis are crossing to go to work and spend money in our local businesses. I want them to feel welcomed and to continue crossing our borders so that communities, like McAllen and throughout the Valley continue to grow and prosper.

We are fortunate to live in a bi-national area and my hope is that we can all work together to embrace that benefit to our border communities. We must make sure we continue to support our CBP officers doing their job, and we must also make it a priority to ensure that all persons crossing the border are treated fairly and with the respect and dignity each person deserves. It’s the right thing to do for our businesses; it’s the right way to treat our residents and it’s the right message to send to our visitors.

Congressman Henry Cuellar is a Democrat from Laredo.

This column was specially written for The Monitor.