BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Former border czar Alan Bersin gave a thought-provoking speech about the future of North America at UT-Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville but not all students shared the his optimism about Mexico.
In the Question & Answer section after the speech, Jesus Lopez, a student at the university, challenged Bersin’s claim that 50 percent of Mexicans are now middle-class. Lopez said Mexico has a huge problem with income inequality. So does the United States, Bersin responded.
Another student, Sadie Hernandez, said the problem in Mexico is not just income inequality but also oppression by its government. Bersin disputed this, saying the country now has a robust democracy and that demonstrations against the government are healthy signs of that.
About 200 students listened intently to Bersin’s absorbing speech. Some had heard it before because he paid a visit to the campus, then part of UT-Brownsville, almost a year ago. UTRGV Professor Guadalupe Correa Cabrera moderated the discussion. “I think it was important to hear from Commissioner Bersin because he is from the border and because of his vast experience in government dealing with border issues. Remember he has been border czar twice,” Correa Cabrera told the Rio Grande Guardian. “We do not always have the opportunity to bring in a guest speaker with Alan Bersin’s quality. He gave an excellent presentation on the dynamics of the border region and his perspective on vertical flows is not something one hears every day.”
Bersin serves as assistant secretary for international affairs and chief diplomatic officer in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Policy. In those capacities, Bersin oversees DHS’s international engagement, serves as the principal advisor to the Secretary in all matters pertaining to international affairs, and is responsible for leading the Department’s strategic planning and policy formulation functions. Additionally, Bersin serves as vice president of INTERPOL for the Americas Region and is a member of the INTERPOL executive committee, having been elected to those positions at INTERPOL’s 81st General Assembly in November 2012.
La Linea and Vertical Flows
In his speech, Bersin said that the U.S.-Mexico border today is much more about vertical flows than it is about the horizontal line of the border, or La Linea. He said border students and their families would understand this and could benefit greatly from it in the coming years. “It is you and the people who live in the Valley that will be the ones who mediate the relationships between the United States and Mexico,” Bersin predicted.
Bersin said La Linea symbolized U.S.-Mexico relations from the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 right up until the 1970s. He said this period witnessed “collision, conflict and little collaboration” between the two countries. “Violence, migration, drug smuggling, outlaws. Neither Mexico City nor Washington paid a lot of attention to the border region. For the most part we have had peaceful and proper relations but at an arm’s length,” Bersin said. “But, that was the past.”
The “new border” is much more about north-south flows of goods, people and data than it is about the east-west La Linea, Bersin said. As a result, the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has changed.
The north-south flows “knits us together economically and demographically,” Bersin said, pointing out that one in ten residents in the U.S. has family ties in Mexico while the same percentage in Mexico has close ties to the United States. “We are, without regard to La Linea, family because of demographics. But, even more so by the economy that we share,” Bersin said.
Bersin pointed out that since NAFTA, trade between Mexico and the United States has increased six times in the past 21 years. “As a result of that trade, every day, back and forth across the border, we do $1.3 billion in trade. More and more we share an integrated economy. Things that are manufactured in Mexico depend on parts manufactured in the United States and vice versa. The flows of goods back and forth that make up the shared production platform is key to the future and, I submit to you, key to the jobs we will have going forward. You will work in connection with this shared production platform. So you need to understand how it works,” Bersin told the students in the audience.
The United States and Mexico are now part of an increasingly integrated economy, with a shared production platform, Bersin said. As a result, he said, an entirely new dynamic is at play between the two countries. The future, when also factoring in Canada, Bersin argued, would be about continental security, not border security.
Bersin said the land mass of North America is seven or eight times larger than Europe and it consists of only three countries, not the 30-plus there are in Europe. In ten or 15 years, he said, North America would be energy-independent. “We will not be importing from Saudi Arabia but exporting natural gas from the Port of Brownsville. A big change is coming,” Bersin predicted.
“Half a billion people, $1 trillion in trade, energy independence and a shared production platform. The future is very bright indeed and it is a future you will help to build,” Bersin told the UTRGV students.
Mexico is no longer a “sending migration” country, Bersin said, and that is because of its economic power. In fact, there is a larger number of Mexicans leaving the United States than entering it. “It is the new normal. Mexico is entirely different over the last generation in a way most Americans who do not live near Mexico, don’t understand. First of all, Mexico has the 13th largest economy in the world; $1.18 trillion a year in gross domestic product. Its economy will be larger than Germany’s within one generation. By 2045 it is projected Mexico will have the fourth or fifth largest economy in the world,” Bersin said.
“Half of Mexicans today are middle class, by any measure – healthcare, housing, education, fertility rates, death rates. By any metric 50 percent of Mexicans are middle class and the projections with economic growth is more and more will enter the middle class.”
Mexico is also a “robust democracy,” Bersin said, pointing out that the PRI’s 70-year dominance ended in 2000. “Elections that are more reliable than those that take place in the United States. So, Mexico is an economic powerhouse, a democracy and increasingly a middle class country. That is not to say, like everywhere else, it does not have problems to overcome.”
The story of the next 50 years, Bersin also said, will be the integration of Central American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, into the North American economy, pulled in by the success of Mexico.
Bersin ended his remarks by discussing what a 21st Century Border looks like. “What goes back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border is neither Mexican nor U.S. It is North American. This is the essence of the shared future that we have. I hope you embrace this,” he told students.
The Q&A followed and two students posed questions which challenged Bersin’s upbeat remarks about Mexico. Jesus Lopez said: “Yes, we are becoming more globalized but at the same time we are the beneficiaries of the cheap labor in Mexico and yet the majority of the population of Mexico does not see those benefits. We do. What can we do to help?”
Bersin replied: “Good question but income inequality is growing in the United States. It does take time but if you look at the growth in Mexico you will see that the poverty level is far reduced and it is a function of the growth of the economy – more jobs, more ability for people to get jobs and to work in Mexico. You have seen an increase in the middle class and with continued economic growth that I think comes out of the North American transformation, I think you will see more and more people growing (in wealth). The trend lines are in the right direction. This is an historic issue and one we share now in both countries. It is one we will need to address going forward, no question about it. In Mexico, the trend (distribution of wealth) is in the right direction. Frankly, in the U.S., it is in the wrong direction.”
Sadie Hernandez expressed her skepticism about Mexico this way: “The Mexican government is not to be trusted. In it is not just inequality it is oppression. When people come to the United States seeking refugee status they are denied. Then they go back and get murdered. How can we make a partnership when right now we are deporting people as if there is no tomorrow?”
Bersin responded: “As Mark Twain said, first get the facts right then you can distort them as much as you like. The fact is deportations are at the lowest level they have been for many years now. You have to show me where people who are seeking asylum are being deported. It is simply not the case.” With regard to not trusting the Mexican government, Bersin said: “This is not a time in history when many governments at all are trusted. I don’t think if you took polls in the United States you would see people trust the U.S. government. Because it (Mexico) is a democracy, it is starting to register the discontent. This is not just a Mexican issue or a North American issue. It is an issue for governments across the world. They have to earn the trust of their people.”
Hernandez, who lives in Brownsville but has family in Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria, persisted with her more pessimistic view of Mexico. She referenced the slaughter of 43 students in Guerrero. Bersin responded: “The slaughter of the students in Guerrero, no question that was a point of real conflict and still is in Mexico. But from the other perspective Mexico is a democracy. In the past you would not have seen these demonstrations, you would not have seen this reaction that the government has been forced to face. This is all part of the new conditions in Mexico and nature of the partnership between the United States and Mexico.”
Bersin added: “As far as the economic relationship is concerned, that train, as they say, has left the station. We are bound together in a shared production platform and people in the Rio Grande Valley are going to be some of the principal beneficiaries of this – if you can keep some of the wealth here, so that you are not just a pass through.”