When I was invited to visit El Paso and Ciudad Juárez by the Aspen Institute, I was immediately intrigued. I have lived my life between the US and Mexico, yet knew relatively little about where the two nations meet - that controversial space so often described in the media and by Hollywood as a dangerous zone of conflict and hopelessness.
What I found was a pleasant surprise. The American and Mexican communities that live at the border are united by common geography, history, language, and aspirations, and have much to teach the rest of the country about how to build harmonious bicultural communities.
The border sprung up in our collective national consciousness in recent decades, but bicultural communities have lived in the area, floating back and forth across previously insignificant physical borders, for centuries. In particular, the Paso del Norte region- comprising West Texas, Southern New Mexico, and Chihuahua -served as a vital crossroad for continental trade well before national lines were drawn. In 2014 the total value of two-way trade at the El Paso-Juarez border region was $68 billion dollars, and many Mexican Americans in the US can trace their roots to this area.
Those who live in the area have family and social ties in both Mexico and the US. Leaders in El Paso and Juárez emphasize that in order to advance as communities, it is fundamental to conduct economic and urban planning across national, state and municipal jurisdictions. Not to do so would be to ignore the natural socioeconomic synergies and geographic realities.
The Borderplex Alliance spurs competitiveness in the region by promoting education, infrastructure improvements, and general quality of life. The University of Texas at El Paso, which offers in-state tuition to Mexican citizens, is dedicated to serving the broader regional community with a focus on engineering and research, which perfectly complements the important manufacturing base in Juárez. In contrast to the national hysteria whipped up by some presidential candidates, this is a pragmatic and peaceful community.
It would be Pollyannaish not to recognize the enormous challenges that border communities face - high rates of poverty, deficient infrastructure, desert topography - but not enough of us understand the importance of this region or the lessons if offers.
When Ciudad Juárez was plagued by a wave of violence several years ago, instead of giving up, the community bravely came together. The Fundación Comunitaria de la Frontera Norte and business owners like the De la Vega family devised a series of strategies that bore fruit. They began working with local law enforcement, identifying who could serve as reliable partners and encouraged victims of crime to speak out. Los Bravos de Juárez, a second division soccer team was brought to the city and a children´s museum, La Rodadora, was finally opened, providing hope and much-needed distractions to the population at large.
Juárez, which carries the connotation of danger - should also be known for its guts and grit. As Alejandra De la Vega said to me during a casual conversation on the subject, "I would rather die trying to improve my city than to just give up." The achievements of civil society in Juárez are an example for all of Mexico and beyond.
Regardless of how high and thick you build a fence, Mexican and American communities at the border do not lead separate lives, but ones that are intertwined. Politicians and policy makers who do not live at the border often seek to impose their will without fully understanding the complexities. Progress for these communities is not enhanced by what is already a prominent physical barrier at the border, but rather frustrated. For example, it can take up to 2 hours to cross back into the US after spending a day in Ciudad Juárez, a heavy cost for businesspeople, students and consumers alike.
Mexico is the US's third most important trading partner, only after Canada and China. Together Mexico, Canada, and the US make up the North American powerhouse that enjoys distinct competitive advantages in innovation, manufacturing, and energy. It makes sense to do everything possible to continue harmonizing regulations, investing in infrastructure and facilitating trade at the border. From an economic perspective, we should be doing everything to reduce physical and administrative barriers in order to spur economic growth.
One could argue that it is a matter of national security, but the militarization of the border is unnecessary and has done more harm than good. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the US. What makes Juárez less safe is the drug trade, which serves massive illicit drug habits in the US and overwhelms the capacity of law enforcement in northern Mexico. Complicating matters are lax US gun purchasing laws. Organized crime can buy high caliber weaponry in the US that is then smuggled into Mexico; one can only wonder how it continues to be so easy.
The US spends approximately $18 billion a year on border enforcement, when net immigration flows from Mexico have been below zero since 2009. What results could we achieve if these enormous sums of money were spent on improvements in infrastructure that would facilitate legal trade and on education designed to ensure our joint communities thrive?
Both the federal governments of the US and Mexico should listen more carefully to the communities at the border in order to learn from their experiences and allow them a greater say in their future. This local, bicultural knowledge is the key to a more prosperous region not only at the border, but throughout North America.