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The silver lining in the dark cloud over the border is that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other Department of Homeland Security agencies infuse millions of dollars into the local economy. Besides enjoying the relative peace resulting from CBP’s protective presence, Valley businesses are increasingly the beneficiaries of spending by the federal agencies as well as by their off-duty employees.
In the late 1980sthe Rio Grande sector covered by CBP’s predecessor had between 300 and 500 agents. By 1998, the number had risen to 1,000. Today, the same sector, which covers 17,000 square miles, has 2,400 border patrol agents who are based at the new headquarters in Edinburg or at the nine regional stations: Brownsville, Fort Brown, Harlingen, Weslaco, McAllen and Rio Grande City plus Kingsville, Corpus Christi and Falfurrias. That surge in numbers reflects the federal response to both increased threats to homeland security and to the flood of illegal immigrants and smugglers probing the border for weak points. Amid the grimmer statistics are reassuring economic data: federal border spending has tripled in the last ten years. One estimate has put the spending on border security at $90 billion for the past decade.
The General Services Administration (GSA) is the central procurement division for federal agencies. It awards contracts for the installation of high tech watch towers and contracts for technology companies to maintain multi-million dollar rail and cargo screening equipment. It lines up food service for alien detention centers and contracts with veterinarians to care for drug-sniffing dogs and the animals of the horse patrol. The list of services and products seems endless; stabling, office supplies, equipment upgrades, vehicle tires and copy machine repairs. “Many of the products CBP uses are purchased from local vendors,” said Daniel Milian, supervisory border patrol agent, office of public affairs in Edinburg. “Often times, CBP tries to make purchases from small businesses but CBP also uses nationwide retailers in the RGV as well.
GSA offers businesses the opportunity to sell products and services to those agencies. When making a purchase, we use GSA when required and will verify if the purchase can be made through GSA. If not, then an outside vendor can be used.” Eric Ybarra of Weslaco-based Dos Logistics, Inc., in April signed a five-year contract to provide engineering and architectural professional services for various agencies of the Department of Homeland Security. “It is a great revenue generator for a small business like ours,” Ybarra said. “The SBA has provided me with the resources and tools to obtain federal contracts.” Dos Logistics became a certified 8(a) minority-owned small business, which enabled it to compete for contracts on the same level as much larger firms.
Since 1999 Dos Logistics has also worked with municipalities and counties and helped them develop infrastructure by pulling all the components together from design to funding and project management. Routine vehicle maintenance on CBP’s huge fleet of vehicles is generally handled by CBP employees. “However, local vendors are contracted for towing services and when there is a backlog of vehicles that require maintenance, vehicles are sent to local dealers,” Milian said. The Rio Grande Valley sector is the home of about 13 percent of CBP’s deployed forces on the border. Nevertheless, the number of border patrol agents per mile of border in California, Arizona and New Mexico is about double that found in Texas. Like other residents, border patrol agents and their families eat out in restaurants, shop for clothes, computers and groceries. Their kids take piano and karate lessons and participate in Little League and scouting. In fact, your neighbor with CBP could easily have been a history teacher or a news anchor or a graphic designer before moving into a better paying job.
The beginning of the border patrol dates back to 1904 and the mounted inspectors who tracked border smugglers. Interestingly, the RGV sector this past summer acquired its own horses instead of leasing them for its Horse Patrol. The reversion to horses gives greater accessibility in achieving the border patrol’s mission. It also opens yet another avenue where local small businesses can provide services and increase their incomes. CBP is the federal government’s largest law enforcement work force. In the Valley, that translates into over 2,000 firmly middle class households. Border patrol agents and other homeland security employees who live in the Valley spend their salaries in their communities, which have a positive impact on businesses and sales tax revenue. Border patrol agents’ starting salaries range between $38,000 and $49,000. Their average salary is $75,000, in part because overtime and 60-hour weeks are not uncommon, according to the CBP website.