U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was brought up to speed on local government, industry and higher education affairs during a roundtable with Cameron County business and civic leaders held at the Port of Brownsville on Thursday.
He also got an earful from a handful of Rio Grande Valley elected officials about frustration with the U.S. government’s continuing policy limiting “non-essential travel” from Mexico as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a primary topic of conversation, as was the challenge of cultivating a local skilled workforce able to handle the rising number of high-skilled jobs in the Valley.
Filling in Cornyn on progress, challenges and opportunities within their respective communities, businesses and higher education institutions were Janna Arney, provost and executive vice president for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell; Cris Brown, regional manager for West Plains LLC; Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez; Ramiro Gonzalez, city of Brownsville director of government and community affairs; Chris Green, president of International Shipbreaking/EMR; South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty; Ron Macinnes, president of Keppel Offshore & Marine USA; Michael Mott, senior vice president of strategy for NextDecade; Jesus Roberto Rodriguez, president of Texas Southmost College; South Texas College President Ricardo Solis; and Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr..
“It is amazing the kinds of things that are happening here in the Valley,” Cornyn said. “The excitement I see here in the Valley is really palpable.”
That includes SpaceX, which the senator toured with Trevino earlier in the day. Cornyn said a dominant theme he heard expressed during the roundtable was that the high-skilled jobs being created at SpaceX and other companies require an educated workforce.
“One of the things I continue to hear about is workforce,” he said. “And while certainly many new great jobs are being created in places like SpaceX and other places here in the Valley, that continues to be a huge challenge, so we have to do everything we can, to maybe double down, to try to figure out how do we provide people with the education, with the training and the tools they need.
“The educational institutions here in the Valley continue to do tremendous work, even under difficult circumstances with the virus present, both virtually and now increasingly in person, providing the skills necessary for these world-class jobs.”
Cornyn said he hoped the rocket company’s achievements would inspire children to pursue education in science, technology, engineering and math fields, just as he was inspired by NASA’s moon program when he was growing up.
“The good news is about 75 percent of the workforce SpaceX is hiring are local,” Cornyn said.
Keppel AmFELs is another company employees hundreds of workers since it pivoted to shipbuilding after its traditional offshore rig construction and maintenance businesses fell off with the drop in oil prices that predated the pandemic.
Noting that 40 percent of Hidalgo County residents live in poverty, 32 percent have no health insurance and that 37 percent of young people are food-insecure, Cortez told Cornyn that the way to solve the poverty problem is not to give people money but give them opportunity instead.
“We need to create that human capital,” Cortez said. “On behalf of Hidalgo County, we want to join you on solving these problems tomorrow so we all benefit.”
On the subject of border restrictions, Trevino told Cornyn that “international trade is our lifeblood” and expressed frustration with the continuing federal policy regarding “non-essential travel.”
“It’s not non-essential for the border communities from here all the way to San Diego,” Trevino said. “If the rationale is … we’re trying to prevent COVID, I hate to tell everybody but it’s here. … From our perspective, we’re the only part of the country, from a business standpoint, from a trade standpoint, that has not been allowed to reopen.”
He asked Cornyn for help on the issue, adding that “our ports of entry are suffering … on both sides of the river.” Among the non-U.S. citizens barred access as non-essential are people who come across to shop, see relatives, dine out, pursue recreational opportunities and so forth.
Cornyn said it’s logical for local leaders to question why border policy remains in place, and that vaccinating more people on both sides of the border is a potential solution.
“I think (non-essential) is an arbitrary designation,” Cornyn said. “I think what we need to do is encourage more people to what I hope everybody listening will do, and that is take advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated. This virus has not gone away. We need to live our lives but we need to do it smartly.”