BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Discussions are underway to have a large delegation of elected officials, business and economic development leaders from San Diego to Brownsville and Tijuana to Matamoros visit Washington, D.C., and Mexico City on an annual basis.
Supporters of the initiative believe such a delegation would present a unified voice with a strong message about the issues that really matter along the U.S.-Mexico border region. They say U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rouke of El Paso put it best when he recently said: “When we fail to define the border to the rest of the world, to the folks in Washington, D.C., or Mexico City, we allow them to define the border for us.”
Informal discussions about a united border delegation making annual trips to the capitols of the U.S. and Mexico took place early last month when a handful of Rio Grande Valley leaders visited San Diego. On the trip were U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, Keith Patridge, president and CEO of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, Carlos Margo, executive officer of the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative, and Mike Gonzalez, executive director of United Brownsville.
Gonzalez participated in further discussions in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, after he spoke on a panel discussion at the Wilson Center. The panel focused on a new report titled ‘Competitive Border Communities: Mapping and Developing U.S.-Mexico Transborder Industries.’ It was authored jointly by the Mexico Institute and North American Research Partnership.
Support from San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce
“We have been doing this for ten years. We brought 150 of our members and government leaders to D.C. to advocate for us, for a wide range of issues, from healthcare, military and defense, workforce development, energy and water, housing, transportation, and cross-border trade. It is really impressive. Each year when we come to D.C. and Mexico City our delegation keeps growing. One hundred and fifty this year. That is 20 more than we had last year,” Avila said, during the panel discussion.
The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Avila pointed out, has 2,500 members and includes 40 smaller local chambers. It represents companies of all sizes, from those with just two employees all the way up to Fortune 500 entities. Among its members are companies based in Mexico.
“We have very strong partnerships and this strengthens our advocacy,” Avila said. “Every year we obtain high level meetings because of the strength in our numbers and the representation. (Federal officials see) that we have come united as one voice… business organizations in Baja (California) and San Diego together to advocate for the same things, the same message. It is really powerful and impactful and it is effective.”
Avila said that power, impact and effectiveness could be even greater if it was border-wide.
“Imagine what we can do then with a 500-person delegation that represents economic development and organizations across the entire border. I am really looking forward to doing that, in partnership here with Mike, among others,” Avila said.
“It is time to bring all our coalitions, from Brownsville to San Diego, together. We are going to create a comprehensive list of policy initiatives that we share. We share a lot. We have many mutually beneficial goals. Let’s have one comprehensive list of policy initiatives that we want to prioritize and advocate together, as one voice. We are going to be organizing joint delegation trips to Mexico City and Washington, D.C. We need an annual delegation trip to Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.”
Avila heads the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s international affairs division. She said she learns about new issues from the group’s wide array of members all the time. By way of an example she said she took the mayors of San Diego and Tijuana to hear the concerns of a cluster of companies in Tijuana that specialize in medical devices. “Every time, I am surprised, there are new issues, issues that are new to me that we learn about, that help us better define the issues on our advocacy platform. With continued communication I think we can be more effective,” Avila said.
Avila then turned to the national debate about the border region.
“The national conversation is about limiting immigration, limiting trade, building walls. In our region we are building bridges, very literally. We are going to inaugurate in a couple of months the cross-border terminal, which is a bridge linking the Tijuana Airport to San Diego. Projects like those, cross-border rail, which we are now finally advancing, a new port of entry. It is going to be a model on how you finance, build and design and run a port of entry. It is very exciting. There are a lot of exciting projects that are happening through a high level of collaboration that we see in our region. On a national platform you hear quite the opposite.”
Avila’s final remarks focused on her optimism for the future of the border region.
“I see so much pessimism and negativity and negative comment around me. I feel like it is really important to voice all the opportunities that we have and the good things that are already happening that we can simply build on and take advantage of. I think there is a lot of great synergy happening between our two countries and we see examples of that every day. A high level of collaboration and coordination between the private sector and the public sector. It is exciting, it is energizing and I know other regions have this. I think our border region can serve as a model to the rest of the country and share a voice of optimism.”
Mexico Institute offers its support
After the panel discussion ended, Chris Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute, gave the Rio Grande Guardian a phone interview. He said he fully supports an initiative for border communities to send a united delegation to Washington, D.C., and Mexico City each year.
“The question is, how can EDCs and chambers better connect, strengthen their advocacy and voice in Washington and Mexico City and to share best practices and learn from the experiences of one another? There is this incredible energy in the border right now to move forward with binational economic development and to really engage in partnerships across the border. It does not make sense for each sub-region of the border to be doing that alone when there is so much that can be learned from one another,” Wilson said.
Wilson said it is time to ditch the mentality that border communities have to always be fighting each other for federal funding.
“You have to leave behind the zero sum game of an investment in your community means one less investment in my community. Instead, take a positive picture, understand that investments in the region are good for all of us because they strengthen the competitiveness of the region. That can be projected out on a bigger level when you look at the entire U.S.-Mexico border. For too long there has been a lack of connection among border communities. There has also been, to a certain extent, some competition, especially for federal resources. I think there are a lot of folks that are realizing that they have too many interests in common to only compete and not to cooperate. So, there is a lot of energy right now to move in a more cooperative direction.”
Asked if taking large delegations to Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, as San Diego does, is effective, Wilson said: “It is vital. We have a great quote from a previous report by Congressman Beto O’Rourke from El Paso: if we don’t define the border we are allowing others to define it for us. Not all the bureaucrats and the elected officials here in Washington are ignorant on the subject of the U.S.-Mexico border. But, they always need insights from the people who live it day-to-day. The best ideas about how to strengthen the border come from people living on the border. If you don’t come here to Washington and have conversations with them you are leaving that on the table. You are simply not going to have them understand your needs. Your congressmen, such as Rep. Filemon Vela, are doing a great deal to try to educate and tune people in to the opportunities and challenges that the region faces but it takes a bigger effort than just that. No one person can represent the full needs and issues that a community faces.”
Wilson then spoke about the discussions to have a united border delegation visit Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.
“What we are talking about now is taking it a step further and instead of only having a San Diego delegation that comes once a year and having a Laredo delegation that comes once a year and an El Paso delegation that comes once a year, let’s also have a border-wide delegation that comes once a year. If San Diego is here with United Brownsville and McAllen EDC and the city officials from the Valley and Matamoros and Reynosa, along with El Paso-Juárez, and Nogales-Nogales, and Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, then you would really have a strong voice in the political process. The more the representation, the stronger the voice, the stronger the message.”