More money to outfit ports of entry to mitigate COVID-19 expected in Fiscal 2021

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — A record $3.8 billion in additional federal funds could be added to the 2021 fiscal budget to upgrade several land ports of entry to better protect against the coronavirus, and to build new federal courthouses, including one in the border city of McAllen.

A House Appropriations subcommittee this week gave preliminary approval to the 2021 Financial Services and General Government funding draft bill, which still must pass the House Appropriations Committee, the full House, Senate and be signed by the president as part of the 2021 fiscal budgeting process.

But U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, of Texas, who is the only Democrat from the Southwest border sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said this is a crucial first step and a record amount of money for these needed projects, many of which will benefit border communities and help law enforcement agents who are working on the border.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee speaks at a news conference on Feb. 19, 2020, held in Mission, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Cuellar said that borderland ports that stand to receive funds include those in the Arizona towns of San Luis and Douglas; Calexico West, California; the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas; and the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas.

“This is one of the largest increases we’ve had for courthouses and ports of entry and I do want to say this is one of the first steps,” Cuellar said in a call with media on Wednesday.

Part of the money could help to upgrade these port of entries to make them safer for federal agents during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic by allowing more space for social distancing between agents and border crossers, as well as separate bathroom facilities for staff and visitors, Cuellar said.

During the past couple of years, he added, land ports have morphed into stomping grounds for asylum-seeking migrants, and precautions now need to be taken to ensure the migrants are not bringing COVID-19 to agents or others in the United States.

“In the old days, we looked at ports of entry to handle tourism and trade but now we have a third dimension,” Cuellar said. “Now you have people claiming asylum or credible fear so the ports of entry have to be able to handle that.”

Since March 20, the Trump administration has closed the Southwest border to anyone not deemed an “essential worker” or a U.S. citizen. And most migrants who are encountered trying to illegally enter the United States are almost immediately being sent back, officials said. But when the border does reopen, border leaders say precautions must be in place to prevent the virus from coming across the land ports.

Currently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are returning up to 89% of those they encounter who are trying to claim asylum in the United States, “minimizing human contact and the risk of spreading COVID-19 and any other infectious diseases,” CBP officials said in a statement Thursday.

“We continue to battle the invisible enemy: COVID-19. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to build the border wall system and enforce CDC policies aimed at protecting the health of Americans. At the end of the day, CBP will continue to prevent and deter illegal crossings that endanger the life of the American public,” CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said Thursday.

McAllen federal courthouse leased from Mexican company

In South Texas, the majority of migrants who are criminally charged with illegal entry end up at the federal courthouse, which community leaders have long said needs a new facility. The City of McAllen years ago offered to give free land downtown if the General Services Administration would make building a new courthouse a priority for this border community.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling is seen in his office in August 2019. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said this week that the offer still stands. But under the current spending bill, McAllen only stands to receive $98 million of the $198.4 million that is needed to construct a new federal courthouse, Cuellar said. And the city is currently sixth in a list of other cities that also want a new federal courthouse.

“We made the offer to donate the land in 2015 so we’ve been waiting,” Darling said. “Not only is it inconvenient but (the current building is) inefficient and costs a lot of money.”

The high-rise Bentsen Tower in downtown McAllen, which houses the U.S. District and Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, is owned by a company in Mexico from which the GSA leases 10,000 square feet.

In 2019, the federal courts handled 2,282 felony and Class A misdemeanor cases, Cuellar said. In contrast, the federal courthouse in Hartford, Conn., only processed 160 cases in 2019. But Hartford currently is listed by the GSA as No. 1 on the list for new courthouses. The Hartford courthouse is slated to cost $271 million.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the Financial Service and General Government Appropriations bill on Wednesday.

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