Depending on a person’s individual point of view, the 21st Century North American agenda might begin either with security, trade, education, transportation, or healthcare. They are all part of the fabric that helps make the North American continent a great economic power.

Perhaps because the Texas Border Coalition represents communities on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, trade is a key focus of our vision. We suggest that if Americans can buy a good or service from outside the U.S. more cheaply than an equivalent good made in the U.S., our economy grows more rapidly. The reason is that all Americans are consumers. If we favor consumers by implementing policies that allow them access to less expensive goods, there is more net income, which can be invested in businesses here at home, and more Americans will be employed.

As we buy and invest on our continent and the continent prospers, there will be more customers for U.S. goods and services. The alternative is unrealistic: to try to live behind tariff walls in a free trade world is to invite disaster. A high wage island in a world of low wage jobs suggests that we import cheap raw materials, add a lot of well-paid value by education and innovation, and then export the value-added final products. Low tariffs and a well-educated, innovative labor force lead to growth.

Our success requires efficient borders; more, better education for more people, especially technical and scientific education; well organized transnational transportation systems; health care that improves the well-being and productivity of our people.

Our agenda is aimed at improving prosperity and well-being in the Western Hemisphere. It also intends to address the unique challenges we face on the Texas border related to poverty, geography and investment.

The Border Region

People of Mexican origin make up 31.6 percent of the population in Texas. The concentration of people of Mexican origin is higher in border counties, with Hispanics making up 88 percent of the population, according to the most recent U.S. Census.

People living in the border region face an array of factors that make their quality of life different than the rest of the people in either Mexico or the U.S. Scholars at the Wilson Center suggest measuring the border region’s quality of life in four dimensions: economic opportunity; education and culture; health; and community life.

The Laredo economy is indicative of metropolitan areas along the Texas–Mexico border. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve Board, Laredo’s unemployment rate reached near-record low levels in 2015 even though payroll employment growth in the area was weak.  The jobless rate in Laredo ended 2015 at 5 percent, while payrolls grew just 1.1 percent. However, signs for the future are uncertain. Growth of the Laredo labor force has stalled, expanding only 0.1 percent in 2015, well below the annual average labor force growth rate of 2.8 percent since 1990. Regional economic factors such as falling oil prices and associated layoffs likely account for some of the slow labor growth in recent years.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) suggests that investment in public higher education in the border region has improved since 1993. The border’s share of Texas higher education state revenues has improved from 11 percent to 18 percent during that time, available doctoral programs grew from three to 65 and local school districts saw their revenues rise from 70 percent to 95 percent of the state’s average revenue per student.

Compared to a generation ago, the border has 70 percent more university students and these students are attending higher quality and more comprehensive universities, leading to greater opportunities, more focus on community issues and a very rapid increase in the economic and development effects of our universities on border communities and the state.

At the same time, K-12 public schools in the border region lack both social and financial capital due to uneven distribution of funding under the Texas public school finance system, high levels of poverty and the challenges of educating bilingual and bicultural residents. A recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court to allow the Texas public education funding mechanism to stand will make it more difficult to improve the capital allocation to border schools.

The health challenge on the border begins with the region’s lack of health insurance coverage and grows more daunting from there. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the nation, with 19.1 percent lacking health insurance. The uninsured rate on the border is more than double the statewide rate, contributing to any number of health problems.

Amid this mixed picture of increasing college attainment, an inadequate public K-12 education system, regional economic struggles and the challenge of keeping a largely uninsured workforce healthy, border communities view the future with hope, founded in hard work and strong families.  It is what gives our people the will to take on long-term fights that face long odds, and inspires the Texas Border Coalition to press Texas and U.S. leaders to implement policies that will help our region grow and prosper.

Editor’s Note: The above essay is the second in a four-part series focusing on a new 20-page policy paper issued by the Texas Border Coalition. It is titled, “Policies and Proposals by the Texas Border Coalition to Advance a North American Century.” The Rio Grande Guardian has been granted exclusive rights to first publish the policy paper. Click here to read Part One, titled “Texas Border Coalition: How North America can command the 21st Century.” We will publish TBC’s Border Security and Transportation essays in our Sunday AM edition. We will publish TBC’s Health, Workforce Training & Public Education, and Economic Development essays in our Sunday PM edition.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above op-ed shows members of the Texas Border Coaliton’s executive committee.