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Congressmen Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela announced $374,580 in federal funds for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Cuellar and Gonzalez, along with several leaders from UTRGV, held a press conference to announce the grant funding, as well as give an update on humanitarian reimbursements coming to the Valley, the recent designation of Mexican drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and the pending United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
Expanding Economic Development
UTRGV received $374,580 in federal funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development grant program.
According to a press release from Congressman Cuellar, $174,856 of the grant funding (from the Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant) will be going toward providing technical assistance to groups throughout rural South Texas. Specifically, they want to use the funds to increase the capacity of small-scale Latina agricultural producers and improve the understanding of new marketing strategies and tech that will increase farm income.
$199,724 (from the Rural Cooperative Development Grant) will be used to support the work of the Texas Rural Cooperative Center, which assists with the startup, expansion and operational improvement of rural businesses.
George Bennack, the Executive Director for Rural Business Development, spoke on what kind of an impact this can make on the community.
“These two programs support the UTRGV Texas Rural Cooperative Center, and this center is part of a bigger-picture integrated research center called the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Advancement,” Bennack said. “This integration is an integration of research, with education and with outreach – the center itself is mostly grant-funded through programs like this. It uses outreach with the community to link back to research and educational opportunities with UTRGV.”
Dr. Parwinder Grewal, the UTRGV Executive Vice President of Research, Graduate Studies and New Program Development, was glad to see new funding acquired for rural development.
“We as a non-profit organization are in the business of creating future professionals who will help economic development,” Grewal said. “These kinds of grants help us take the research done by the university students and faculty to the real world, where things will happen, to complete the full circle.”
Colin Cain, the Director of the UTRGV Texas Rural Cooperative Center and the Principal Investigator, said the projects will benefit communities in 41 counties in South Texas.
“We deliver on-the-ground, tangible benefits for communities that really need it, because frankly, that’s what that money is really for,” Cain said. “It’s passing through the university to really benefit communities throughout these congressional districts.”
Cuellar noted that expanding economic opportunities in rural South Texas is critical to strengthening the local economy as a whole.
“We cannot forget about the rural areas,” Cuellar said. “[It’s important] to provide technical assistance to socially-disadvantaged groups through cooperatives or development centers, or whether we provide help to certain populations in the rural area to start up.”
Gonzalez said that small, locally-owned businesses are the future of the American economy.
“We’re always proud to bring money to small businesses,” Gonzalez said, adding that he was a business owner for 21 years. “I know how hard it is to keep employees employed, taxes paid, insurances covered and all the burdens that small businesses really have that many people don’t see. These grant moneys are for businesses with less than 50 employees, and it really helps our community.”
In July, Cuellar announced an aim to get $30 million in reimbursement funds for humanitarian efforts carried out by local governments and non-governmental organizations in the RGV. The funds for this endeavor were secured after the passing of the FY19 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill.
During Monday’s press conference, Cuellar also announced that the first round of reimbursements to be received in Hidalgo County will total at $712,528.45. Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley will be receiving $601,557.88, the Salvation Army Corps Center will be receiving $108,371.25 and the United Way of South Texas will be receiving $2,599.32.
The city of McAllen will also be receiving reimbursements of $109,312.51 for the first round. In a release from Cuellar’s office, they specified that “the first round did its best to reimburse cities but did not cover all expenses.” Cities and local entities needed to apply for reimbursements with the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) National Board, chaired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Reimbursements cover expenses accrued from Jan. 1, 2019 through Dec. 31, 2019.
The National Board predicts that about $21.6 million will remain to be awarded in the second round application period, which gives agencies more time to work on the application. They plan to meet today in order to discuss the timeline of the second round.
FTOs and Pending USMCA
Last Tues., President Donald Trump said his administration will be giving Mexican drug cartels the same designation as al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram and classify them as “foreign terrorist organizations,” or FTOs. The designation is reserved for non-U.S. based groups deemed by the U.S. Secretary of State to have been involved in terrorist activities or terrorism that “threatens the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States.”
Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both considered designating Mexican drug cartels as FTOs, but decided against it because of the economic and trade implications it could stir with Mexico. Currently, they are classified as “drug trafficking organizations,” (DTOs).
Cuellar and Gonzalez noted that while the U.S. and Mexico should not be treating cartels with “hugs and kisses,” and that they are involved with a “broader assortment of criminal activity far beyond the realm of the illegal drug trade,” this classification could complicate U.S.-Mexico security cooperation and trade.
Cuellar recently visited Mexico and met with high-ranking officials to discuss the pending trade agreement, and said they were receptive to USMCA, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).