It is amazing how alluring the Rio Grande Valley seems to be lately. Once considered the end of the line of political sight, the Rio Grande Valley in recent weeks has become a hot spot.
Last week the Catholic bishops from the border communities of the United States and Mexico, along with the U.S. Papal Nuncio, met in the Valley. At the same time, there was a convocation of His Grace Bishop Alexander of the Diocese of the South of the Orthodox Church of America with members of his diocese clergy. This week, the Valley is attracting the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, both Texas Senators, local as well as members of Congress from other parts of the country, and a former member of the Obama cabinet. Like Speaker Ryan, this will be the first time in the Valley for some of the visitors.
While last week’s travelers came to the Valley on celestial matters, this week’s arrivals come to query, poke, and prod–some with pre-set agendas. Some may come to be heard rather than listen, and some may come seeking photo opportunities. The most effective engagements with the visitors are cross-pollinated gatherings of different types of stakeholders and viewpoints. In some cases, the general public may be welcome; in most cases, perhaps not. Minority and small town voices need to be heard along with powerful and large organization voices.
The Valley has been thrust on stage because it is facing conditions that political players and power brokers are finding uncomfortable–even dangerous. Many of these conditions have been evident for quite some time, but they are now perceived to be too unwieldy to control and handle locally and in low-key fashion.
Like a new type of Game of Thrones, these problems have served to divide people and countries into two main camps of controversy: Security and Trade, both of which are overlaid with fear, pride, and a sense of dignity. Lately, prime focus nationally has been on Security, which divides into technology, personnel, walls, and migration. Trade is both a crucial local issue as well as an international one—but, of course, border issues are almost always international as well as local. Trade, when successful, is a boost to security.
Conversations on these controversies are complicated; their dimensions intertwine and overlap. Human walls and physical walls have been built, limiting paths to possible solutions. Addressing the needs of the U.S.-Mexico Border Region requires multiple stakeholders to respectfully acknowledge each other and honestly work together.
People in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico have co-existed for many years. As neighbors and relatives and commercial compadres, the people of the two countries share communal bonds and create a “merged third.” Ironically, the ability to cooperate across international lines can sometimes be easier than the ability to get along between near-by towns and organizations. And, sometimes, not.
Each time people come to study the Valley or to survey its situation, issues can become divided. Such focusing can sometimes create new problems, and finds no solutions–just recitation of a litany of ills. Or, interest in the right photo opportunity for one stakeholder robs others by taking important elements out of valuable context.
There are some basic points to keep in mind in the current situation. Some provisions in NAFTA can certainly be improved, but NAFTA has already been valuable and productive in many ways for the United States, Canada and Mexico. Thousands of people have been immigrating into the United States—many through the border with Mexico. But, recently, the Mexican portion of the migration has lessened. The United States has many laws on the books that should be enforced. Respect for border boundaries and rules for immigration need strengthening.
The U.S.-Mexico Border Region has been building partnerships and bridges of many sorts. A symbol of such bridges is the very busy and productive Pharr International Bridge. NAFTA issues need to be addressed collegially. NAFTA in action and the impact of border security and immigration are on view in the Rio Grande Valley this week. There is wealth in the wisdom of mutual respect. As Governor Abbott said recently, “U.S. trade relationship with Mexico is just as important as border security.”
We would like to add a few suggestions of our own to the agenda. They focus on optics and image. Far too many of the federal and state elected officials hold their news conferences on the banks of the Rio Grande at Anzalduas Park, Mission, with the Border Patrol agents and their riverboats as the backdrop. The reason is obvious, they want to show they side with border enforcement. Nothing wrong with that but the image that is portrayed in the rest of the country is that the Rio Grande Valley is a militarized zone.
Who can forget the time Fox News TV and Radio personality Sean Hannity was on a Border Patrol boat on the Rio Grande with then-Gov. Rick Perry, claiming the region resembled a war zone. At the very same time, McAllen Economic Development Corporation President Keith Patridge was taking Korean business leaders on a tour of the Valley in the hopes they would open a manufacturing plant in the region. When they got back to their hotels that evening, our visitors turned on their TVs and saw Hannity and Perry patrolling the river. “We did not realize we had come to a war zone,” they told Patridge.
Our suggestion is that every time a news conference is held at Anzalduas Park, Valley leaders hire a Reynosa party boat to sail by, full of happy tourists. It would give the viewers in the rest of America a more balanced view of life on the border.
Alternatively, Valley leaders could ask the visiting VIPs to hold their news conferences at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, so the TV cameras capture the 18-wheelers taking fresh produce and electrical appliances north and cotton and grain south. That would tell the rest of America another important story about the Texas-Mexico border.
Another suggestion is that a group such as the Rio South Texas Economic Council, which focuses on marketing, produce a top-quality video about life in the Valley and send it to every member of Congress before those lawmakers enact President Trump’s border security and immigration policies. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn tries valiantly to bring House and Senate colleagues to come and see the real picture of life on the border. However, a majority have not been down here. They ought to see something other than Sean Hannity’s broadcasts.