The Rio Grande Valley and South Texas are showing tremendous growth, and with that growth comes challenges, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) heard Thursday during its first-ever visit to the region.
CHCI members learned about South Texas' makeup, growth and issues during a luncheon and symposium at The University of Texas-Pan American. Panelists included Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Mercedes), Rep. and CHCI Chair Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso), Rep. Anibal Acevedo-Vila (D-PR), Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA), Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Corpus Christi) and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA).
"We want to help ourselves, but we want to make you (members of Congress) aware of the additional funding and support we need to have the infrastructure and technical assistance available to create better flow and drive the unemployment rate down," Hinojosa said. "We know your heart is in the right place and you'll listen to our needs."
UTPA President Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez welcomed the members of Congress and CHCI staff for visiting South Texas and the University.
"To have this many members of Congress down here and on our campus is beyond our imagination, and it's a great honor," Nevárez said. "We're privileged to be hosting the Institute's retreat and appreciate your support of HSIs (Hispanic-Serving Institutions).
Afterward, Roland S. Arriola, UTPA vice president for External Affairs, provided an overview of the border region. More than 7 million people live within 150 miles of the University, and the Edinburg-McAllen-Mission metropolitan statistical area is the third fastest growing in the country behind Las Vegas and Laredo, respectively.
But that growth also presents challenges. For example, border bottlenecks are forcing business costs up 20-30 percent, primarily due to transportation gridlock and inadequate infrastructure.
"This area is not static but growing, evolving and becoming a major crossroads," Arriola said. "This has created a lot of opportunities for us, and much of it started after NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) was approved in 1994."
One solution is the proposed Interstate 69 corridor. Designed to alleviate the increased traffic from the NAFTA, the interstate extension is planned to go from Detroit to the Texas-Mexico border.
"The only thing it lacks right now is funding," said Michael Blum, president of the Michael Blum Company, noting this is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country without an interstate. "It is the single most important capital improvement project in the Rio Grande Valley."
Wanda Garza, South Texas Community College assistant to the president, explained the region's need for workforce development.
A fourth of all Texas counties, including several along the Rio Grande, qualify as "distressed," exceeding the state unemployment rate of 4.6 percent by 2 percent or more. And of those counties, 38 percent of people age 18 and younger have less than a high school diploma.
Consequently, Garza said federal funds are needed for education and job training, as well as equipment for job training and development. An effort also must be made toward a national Hispanic Curriculum Institute to address these and future concerns.
The CHCI is comprised of Hispanic members of Congress and corporate leaders dedicated to providing educational programs for Hispanic college and postgraduate students.
Thursday's luncheon and symposium were sponsored by International Bank of Commerce, Chase Bank, Laredo National Bank and Cantu Construction and Development Company. Anheuser-Bush Companies is sponsoring the retreat.