Note: This article was originally published on 8 August 2013
The US-Mexican border remains one of the most important hubs in the Americas for trade, economic growth and partnerships, despite well publicized security and immigration concerns. Recently, the opportunities produced by the trade relationship between the two countries have been overshadowed by news of illegal migrations, long queuing times at points of entry and drug-trafficking. However, officials from the two nations are increasing their efforts to change this perception.
“Showing what’s positive and how important the border is rather than focusing on [security] issues is crucial,” U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) told Nearshore Americas. “A good relationship with Mexico is critical to the success of the United States.”
The numbers speak for themselves. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 6 million jobs in the United States that depend on trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Trade, in fact, totaled $500 billion in 2011, according to the latest data available from the Office of the United States Trade Representative, with trade in services alone totaling $39 billion: $25 billion in exports and $14 billion in imports.
“El Paso is the second busiest port of entry in the nation, accounting for $92 billion in annual cross border trade with Mexico and $1.45 billion in retail shopping”
The Importance of Border Trade
One of O’Rourke’s current goals is to stress to the public and lawmakers how important and fundamental the border is to the United States. To do this, he recently co-hosted with the University of Texas and the Council of the Americas a conference on the US-Mexico Competitiveness Agenda, which took place on August 7 in El Paso, Texas.
The conference included a panel of U.S. and Mexican officials – politicians, diplomats and business executives – who discussed trade, infrastructure investments and immigration reform issues surrounding the border. Political speakers included Eduardo Medina Mora, ambassador of Mexico to the United States; E. Anthony Wayne, U.S. ambassador to Mexico; and John Steen, Texas Secretary of State; among others.
“There are many exciting opportunities in the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” said John Negroponte, chairman of the Council of the Americas, as he presented an overview of border trade efforts over the past 20 years. “More than a billion dollars in trade crosses this border daily. It is the windpipe of our economy and when managed intelligently, it can be a massive asset to competitiveness to both our countries.”
O’Rourke also shares this view. Job creation in the United States increasingly depends on border trade, he said, adding that few people know that about 40% of the value of all imports from Mexico is actually generated in the U.S. through parts manufacturing or labor. “By simply militarizing [the border], we are missing the opportunities to capitalize on trade.”
The congressman was referring to a plan included in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill recently passed by the Senate, which recommends spending a whopping $46 billion on border security, namely doubling the size of the Border Patrol to about 38,500 agents on the southern border and building about 700 miles of border fence. Meanwhile, infrastructure in the ports of entry is lacking and wait times are long, O’Rourke said.
To that end, O’Rourke has made huge progress. Earlier this year he helped introduce the Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act, which gives the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the authority to enter into public-private partnerships to finance systemic improvements surrounding the border. As a result of this effort, El Paso was recently selected in a pilot program to reduce bridge wait times, which should, in turn, increase trade and create more jobs.
“El Paso is the second busiest port of entry in the nation, accounting for $92 billion in annual cross border trade with Mexico and $1.45 billion in retail shopping that supports nearly 100,000 jobs in our area. Today’s news was possible thanks to the strong leadership of current and former El Paso city councils. I look forward to continuing to work with CBP, Mayor Oscar Leeser and city leaders to execute the pilot program and deliver real and measureable results for the people of El Paso,” O’Rourke said in a statement.
‘Border Insecurity is a Myth’
The idea that border communities are unsafe, violent places is a common misconception, O’Rourke said. El Paso, for instance, currently has the lowest crime ranking in the U.S., according to a report by CQ Press.
“Border communities are much safer than they were years ago,” O’Rourke said. “The fact that El Paso is the safest city in the U.S. disproves this myth that the border is insecure.”
Of course, drug trafficking is “a real problem,” he added. But a better way to deal with this issue, according to the congressman, is to look at alternative solutions rather than keep doing what has been done for 40 years with little to no results. “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is, to me, the definition of insanity.”