Congressman On The Border Tackles Local Issues With International Reach

Thursday, October 16, 2014 - 11:00

The Editor interviews Rep. Henry Cuellar, who has been the U.S. Representative for Texas's 28th congressional district since 2005. His district extends from the Rio Grande to the suburbs of San Antonio.

Editor: Please open with a brief description of your background. When did you decide to run for Congress?

Cuellar: I was raised as one of eight children to migrant farm workers in Laredo, Texas. My parents raised me with a strong family values and a focus on achieving an advanced education. I worked hard and completed my associate’s degree at Laredo Community College and my bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University, and I later obtained a law degree and PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree in International Trade from Texas A&M International University in Laredo.  I started my career as a small business owner in the 1980s, opening my own law firm and becoming a licensed customs broker. 

After deciding to dedicate my life and career to public service, I ran for Texas State Representative and served my district from 1987 to 2001, when I was appointed as the Texas Secretary of State. In 2004, I was elected to the United States Congress and have served the 28th District since then. Currently, I serve on the House Appropriations Committee, where I work to direct funding to the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. 

Editor: What does the increase in shale gas production mean for your district?

Cuellar: The recent increase in shale gas production has been a game changer for my congressional district and the State of Texas. Texas energy companies are at the forefront of a shale energy revolution and are developing cutting-edge technical expertise in this new field that will make them leaders nationally and globally. Texas is the leading crude oil-producing state in the nation, exceeding production levels even from the federal offshore areas, and the Eagle Ford Shale is a large part of that.

It is hard to understate the impact of the Eagle Ford Shale on my congressional district. Towns that were small and quiet less than ten years ago are booming with new jobs, new construction, and new businesses. Driving on Interstate-35 from Laredo to San Antonio, the transformation is dramatic in counties I represent like Webb, La Salle, and Atascosa. 

According to the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development, the 15-county Eagle Ford Shale region supported over 114,000 full-time jobs in 2013, producing $4.1 billion dollars in salaries and benefits paid to workers, $2 billion dollars in state revenue, and $2 billion dollars in local government revenue. In fact, it is estimated that Eagle Ford produced $71.8 billion dollars in total economic output in 2013 alone.

There is a great deal more to be done in the development of the Eagle Ford Shale region, including ensuring that infrastructure remains up to par throughout our local communities, and I will continue to support those initiatives through my role in Congress.

Editor: Energy independence for North America is something you have been working on. Tell our readers about the progress we’ve made towards achieving that goal. What are the next steps we (the U.S.) have to take to achieve North American energy independence? Are we involved in cooperative efforts with Mexico and Canada to create an energy independent block? Please describe any new developments.

Cuellar: North American energy independence is within our grasp. The energy production of the United States, Mexico, and Canada is already deeply interconnected. In 2012, the United States imported 35 percent of its crude oil from Canada and Mexico. Inversely, the United States’ two largest export markets for refined petroleum products are also Canada and Mexico, totaling 0.9 millions of barrels per day.

I believe that North America has the potential to become the new Middle East of the world for oil and energy production. To further that goal, it is essential that the United States continue investing in the shale revolution. One of the main reasons for our strength in the energy sector has been our willingness to explore and expand. My home state of Texas is a major part of that growth. In 2013, Texas was home to 832 drilling rigs, about 25 percent of all the rigs in the world.

We must encourage U.S. companies to create new methods of oil and gas extraction, similar to the innovations that led to the shale boom in the first place. By improving efficiency, we can guarantee that we are getting the most out of our efforts, furthering our continent along the path of energy independence.

Editor: What progress has Mexico made in modernizing and privatizing its oil and gas industries since President Nieto has been in office? Has U.S. expertise been needed in this process? If Mexico steps up its oil production, what will the implications be for the United States?

Cuellar: Mexico is moving forward quickly with a series of impressive energy reforms introduced by the Peña Nieto administration. On August 11, President Peña Nieto signed into law new rules governing a historic opening of Mexico's state-run oil, gas and electricity industries to foreign and private companies. The establishment of regulatory and oversight agencies is expected to be announced soon.

Mexico’s energy resources are vast and largely untapped. Mexico is currently the ninth-largest producer of oil in the world, holding approximately 11.4 billion barrels of oil reserves. It is estimated that Mexico may have the eighth-largest collection of shale oil resources on the planet, totaling 13 billion barrels. J.P. Morgan has estimated that, due to Mexican energy reform alone, Mexico’s potential GDP growth could increase by up to 0.8 percent, while foreign investment could increase by $20 billion dollars, per year, by 2016 or 2017.

Just as the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas does not stop at the Rio Grande, these opportunities in Mexico do not stop at the border. If Mexico is successful in tapping into its vast energy resources, it would be hard to overestimate the impact on the American economy. American companies with expertise in hydraulic fracturing can provide essential technology and expertise to help Mexico to maximize its exploitation of shale reserves while simultaneously creating lucrative business opportunities to U.S. companies.

Editor: President Obama decided this summer to put off immigration reform until after the November elections.  Are we too far into the 2016 presidential race to see reform enacted, or do you think the President will revisit the issue in 2015?

Cuellar: I have consistently said that it would be difficult to pass immigration reform in an election year. Immigration reform is an emotional issue close to the hearts of many Americans. As the son of migrant workers and a first-generation American, I am a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. I have seen first-hand the benefit immigrants from all over the world bring to our culture and our economy.

The time will never be perfect to pass immigration reform, but we in Congress need to take on the tough issues like immigration reform. We were not sent to Washington to take the easy votes. If we are going to get something meaningful done on immigration reform, both parties need to get together and focus on areas where we agree. I am an optimist and will continue fighting for the passage of this important reform. 

Editor: What are the basic pillars of immigration reform that you’d like to see enacted?

Cuellar: Comprehensive immigration reform must be centered around three key points: a viable border security plan that limits the influx of illegal immigrants and legal visa overstays; a guest worker plan that provides an avenue for farm workers and high-skilled employees to benefit our economy; and a pathway to citizenship for the 11 to 12 million immigrants currently living in the shadows of illegal status.

Editor: I have read that you are considered the “unofficial border issues expert in Congress.” What are this country’s most pressing border issues in your opinion, and what legislation will be needed to address them?

Cuellar: The most pressing issues we face at the border are addressing the continuing humanitarian crisis and the facilitation of trade and travel. 

With the humanitarian crisis that is ongoing on our southern border, it is imperative that we work together to find common-sense solutions to both care for the undocumented immigrants who have arrived in our country and deter others from making the same dangerous journey. Even though the number of apprehensions at the border has decreased in recent months, we have not made the necessary changes to address a potential increase in the future. Doing nothing is not an option in the face of this crisis.   

Mexico is one of our greatest allies and friends, and we ought to focus more on improving and strengthening our relationship with our southern neighbor. Mexico is our third-largest trading partner, and we exchange an estimated $536 billion in goods and services a year. My hometown of Laredo is the third-largest port in the country and handles 45 percent of all U.S. trade with Mexico. Every day, thousands of trucks and noncommercial vehicles cross the border and bring across vital trade and commerce. We should look forward to the ties that bind us and less to the issues that divide us.

Delays due to outdated infrastructure cause the United States to lose $116 million per minute at the five busiest ports along the southern border, according to a study commissioned by the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. To improve border infrastructure, I worked to pass legislation allowing for Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). 

I was successful in changing the law to allow local communities and private sector entities to enter into agreements with the federal government to fund infrastructure improvements and staffing at ports of entry. This change is significant because it will allow for ports of entry along our southern border to partner with private and federal entities to expand operations. I also supported a change in the law that allowed for five pilot projects between local partners and Customs and Border Protection to improve staffing levels. Two of those pilot programs, one by the city of El Paso and another by a consortium in South Texas, signed reimbursable fee agreements with CBP in December 2013.

Editor: In a recent panel discussion at The Center for U.S. and Mexican Law, you discussed the importance of the Plan Mérida, a U.S.-Mexico intelligence-sharing initiative that is designed to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico into the U.S. Is Plan Mérida working? Has the U.S. continued to fund this program in an amount you believe is adequate?

Cuellar: In October 2007, the United States and Mexico announced the Mérida Initiative, a package of U.S. assistance for Mexico and Central America. Since Fiscal Year 2008, Congress has appropriated over $1.9 billion in Mérida assistance for Mexico to break the power and impunity of criminal organizations; strengthen border, air, and maritime controls; improve the capacity of justice systems in the region; and curtail gang activity and diminish local drug demand.

We are now at a stage where U.S. assistance has increasingly focused on supporting efforts to strengthen institutions in Mexico through training and technical assistance. U.S. funds support training courses offered in new or refurbished training academies for customs personnel, corrections staff, canine teams, and police and are rendering results. 

The Mérida Initiative has greatly strengthened the relationship between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies. The mutual collaboration and sense of co-responsibility that both countries have forged is a major victory of the Mérida Initiative.