Opinion: Maintaining border relations with Mexico is in our best interest
The border shared between the U.S. and Mexico gives us an opportunity to strengthen both countries and inspire innovation — if we put in the effort
The United States-Mexico border runs through the heart of our nation’s commercial and social fabric. It deserves greater appreciation from our leaders as well as us as consumers. This should not only be a topic of discussion in a midterm election year where shrill voices of populist fearmongering or the silence of intentional policy neglect obscure one of the most underappreciated transit zones for legal business, the processing of legal migration (Ciudad Juarez has the largest U.S. consulate where visas are processed), and a window on the future of innovation.
During the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to intensively review paired border cities on six continents. While undocumented migration from all over the globe across the U.S.-Mexico border and brazen drug trafficking dominate news coverage of the longest running border between a highly developed and a developing nation, few are aware that of the nearly $700 billion of combined trade between the two countries in 2019; fully $250 billion passed through Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Leon, its twin on the Mexican side of the border. That’s equivalent to 1% of U.S. gross domestic product.
Add in multiple transit points between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, as well as the San Diego-Tijuana corridor (one of which connects the Tijuana International Airport directly to San Diego for easy access for Americans to travel in Latin America), and we see the most dynamic economic transit point between two countries anywhere on the planet.
These are ties that should be celebrated, cultivated and expertly managed by policymakers on both sides of the border. We should not forget that government employees in the border region go above and beyond, even in times of fiscal austerity, to serve their countries with the utmost integrity and creativity.
Second, as Americans we underappreciate the benefits that borders between free nations provide for its partners. Part of my investigation involved reviewing scholarly work on border cities, but similar trends are evident in recent travel writing, including Erika Fatland’s twin volumes, “Sovietistan” and “The Border.” What we see in all these studies is that borders between democratic nations contribute to higher levels of prosperity and long-lasting cooperation than those between traditionally autocratic societies.
Thus, while the European Union has pushed for greater integration between its partners, those ties have been less intensive where its nations border former Soviet territories.
Similar to the E.U., the U.S.-Mexico border exhibits vibrant interactions between family members living on both sides of the border (which required inhabitants to choose sides when the border was implemented in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848); joint public health and natural resource cooperation (through the International Boundary and Water Commission, one of the most impressive binational administrative bodies in the world; and, frequent intellectual exchange at universities across the border, particularly between prestigious universities such as the Colegio Frontera Norte in Tijuana and the University of California San Diego.
A final point should be made about the potential for U.S.-Mexican border development. When NAFTA was negotiated in the early 1990s, the crowning achievement was always articulated as that of promoting research and development across the border, something that has partially been achieved in the tech center of Guadalajara. China’s rise, frankly, blindsided policymakers and much of that emphasis flowed to Asia.
Utah, with its governor’s initiative for trade with Mexico, as well as the experience of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Perpetual Education Fund, could point the way to fulfilling that quest. U.S. policymakers could prioritize the seed funding of graduate educational opportunities at Mexican universities, in the same model as the Perpetual Education Fund, perhaps through the United States Agency for International Development. Spurring continued innovation on both sides of the border will ultimately ignite innovation, which will create well-paying jobs in both nations.
Ultimately, we need to better appreciate the ways in which the U.S.-Mexico border far outpaces any other binational nexus in the world. This includes bipartisan support for proactive, rather than reactive, border management. Humane, but ordered, immigration reform and creative collaboration on elevating border relations into the knowledge sector would fulfill the promise of binational aspirations enunciated in the 1990s. Utah can do its part too in envisioning ways for Silicon Slopes and biotechnology firms to strengthen ties to tech hubs like Guadalajara and manufacturing centers like Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.
Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. He is the author of two books on U.S.-Mexican relations.