AudioWood: Border communities need to be better organized if they want more say in DC

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez asks the vice president of the Wilson Center for ways to improve economic development.

MCALLEN, Texas – The vice president for strategy and new initiatives at the Wilson Center says border communities need to be better organized in order to have more of a say in Washington, DC.

Duncan Wood, who also serves as a senior advisor to the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, spoke recently at an event hosted by the CEO Club and held at the McAllen Country Club. 

After his speech Wood took questions from the audience. One came from Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez. He asked Wood what, from an economic development standpoint, is the Rio Grande Valley not doing that it could be. Wood responded that the companies he talks to often say they have a problem recruiting talent.

Wood said the companies tell him: “We have a problem in recruiting the right skill-set. We don’t necessarily want the finished product because we can train workers ourselves. We can work with local communities, but we need to have a engineering-literate or business-literate or more energy-literate workforce that we can work with, that we can educate. And then we need to have partner institutions locally, with whom we have always been willing to invest in.”

Wood said more studies are needed on what skill-sets are lacking in the Valley. South Texas College President Ricardo Solis was in the audience. He told the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service later that, as far as higher education and workforce training is concerned, STC was carrying out all the recommendations Wood was making.

“I believe it’s so important that we begin to actually do proper surveys of what the needs are in local communities, so that we know where the shortages are,” Wood said. 

Because, right now, I think there’s a lot of speculation that goes on. But we need to talk to businesses on this side of the border, talk to businesses on the other side. Because, as we all know, they go hand-in-hand. You can’t really do one without the other. 

“So let’s actually take the time and invest the resources to actually understand what the needs are in a forward-looking strategic manner. That’s where I think we can actually make real progress, if we actually have the data on what skills are needed.”

Wood then turned to an issue he said he faces often in Washington. He said too many people in Congress see the border as a problem and not an opportunity. “We need to change the mindset on that,” he said.

“You know, I always find myself in this weird situation in Washington as an Englishman from Kent, who lived in Mexico and Canada, talking about the US-Mexico border and being the one in the room when, there’s maybe a representative from Michigan who says that the border is a disaster. And then I say, have you gone down and seen what the opportunities are?”

Wood said there are opportunities for border cities like McAllen to raise their profile nationally.

“We’ve got the 30th anniversary of NAFTA coming up. We’ve got the near-shoring phenomenon. One of the things that frustrates me enormously, Judge (Cortez), in Washington, is I have conversations all the time about supply chains, about de-risking from China, etc., and people say, we need to do near-shoring and I say, that’s why I want to talk to you about Mexico, because Mexico is an incredible place. I want to talk to you about the border. These people lose interest immediately. It’s an incredible thing. Their eyes glaze over because when they hear Mexico and in particular when they hear the border they have a predetermined image of what it is. And that’s the thing they don’t understand, the incredible economic dynamism that exists.”

Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar, a board trustee for South Texas College, asked Wood if he had ever had any success in changing someone’s mind in Washington about the border. Wood said, yes, temporarily so.

“We did a study a few years ago where we looked at how many jobs in the United States depend upon the economic relationship with Mexico. And we did the breakdown not just by state, but actually by congressional district so we could go into the representatives’ offices, sit down with their staff, and talk about the impact of Mexico. And they will say, you know, I’m from Vermont or something. And I would say, oh, this is how many jobs in your district that are impacted by trade with Mexico. And they would say, I had no idea of that.”

Wood also said the Mexico lobby in DC needs to be stronger.

“So I think about this a lot. Why is it that the Cuban lobby or the Israel lobby, even, now, the Venezuelan lobby is so powerful in the United States? Because they’re so well organized. Why is the Mexican lobby powerless, toothless? Because it’s not organized,” Wood said.

“What do we need to do on the border to raise the profile of border communities? We need to be better organized. And think about it. Think about how many Cuban Americans there are in the United States and how much influence they have on policy. And then think about the combined wealth of border communities, the population, why it matters and what we could do with that (power) if we were just better organized. The only way it (the border) is going to make a difference is actually by getting involved in national politics and making sure there are consequences.”

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