PHARR, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas congressman has proposed a bill to increase the number of agricultural inspectors, technicians and canine units to better patrol U.S. ports of entry and to prohibit unwanted parasites from entering into the country.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela Jr., D-Texas, filed the Protecting America’s Food & Agricultural Act, which would authorize U.S. Customs and Border Protection to hire 240 additional agriculture specialists per year until it fills the nearly 700 inspector openings nationwide. The bill also would allow for the hiring of 200 agricultural technicians.

If approved by Congress, 20 CBP canine unit teams would also be added, Vela told Border Report.

Vela, who sits on the House Committee on Agriculture and whose district includes Brownsville, Texas, said these positions are vital for our nation’s security and to help safeguard against unwanted insects or contaminated produce from coming through U.S. ports. On an average day, agriculture specialists seize more than 4,000 pounds of drugs, 4,370 prohibited plant materials and/or animal products, and 319 agricultural pests and diseases, Vela said.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas.

“These hard-working men and women are on the front line of protecting our domestic agriculture industry and the health and safety of Americans from invasive pests and diseases such as Citrus Greening and African Swine Fever,” Vela said. “I cannot stress enough the importance that agriculture specialists play in our everyday lives, and we need our ports to be fully staffed.”

“This legislation is essential to guarding the nation’s farms and forests from invasive species. Customs and Border Protection is the last line of defense in finding and blocking harmful pests and plants from entering our country, and Congress should act quickly to address the critical staffing shortage,” National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said in a news release.

“This bill will go a long way and do a lot of good for our industry, and for the $12 billion (worth) of fresh fruits and vegetables that cross our borders, as well as protecting the hundreds of thousands of American farmers worried about invasive pests and diseases,” said Dante Galeazzi, CEO and president of the Texas International Produce Association.

At the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge in South Texas, the added inspectors could help to alleviate the long lines of 18-wheelers, which are full of produce waiting to come into the United States. Sometimes drivers wait for upwards of four hours, and that can cause shipments to rot in the hot sun.

Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez is mayor of Pharr, Texas, where the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge is located, which is No. 1 for importation of fruits and vegetables. (Courtesy Photo).

Over 70 percent of the nation’s produce imports are brought through the Pharr International Bridge, which is the No. 1 crossing point for fruits and vegetables, said Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, mayor of Pharr, Texas. This is because of Mexico opening its super-highway, the Supervia Mazatlan-Matamoros Highway, which has caused truck traffic to increase of upwards of 5 percent per year both directions.

“The need for additional agriculture inspectors, technicians, and K-9 units is vital to the movement of produce at the Pharr International Bridge,” Hernandez said. “This bill could not have come at a more opportune time, with the commencement of produce season underway. As our consumer population continues to grow along with our food consumption, this bill will assist with the decrease in wait times, efficiency in the movement of product, and most importantly, keep our nation’s food safe and healthy for all consumers.”

Visit the homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border