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Border Legislative Academy (BLA) | Border Legislative Conference (BLC)

Border Legislative Conference Reconvened to Address Key Issues Facing the U.S. – Mexico Border Region

By Martha Castañeda

California Assemblymember Jose Medina, BLC Chair and Idaho Representative Clark Kauffman, CSG West Chair welcome members at reception

After a two-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Border Legislative Conference (BLC) reconvened April 28 – 30 in Riverside, California, under the leadership of California Assemblymember Jose Medina.

The 33rd BLC kicked off with a welcome reception at The Mission Inn Hotel’s Oriental Courtyard. Joining Assemblymember Medina were local officials and current CSG West Officers, Idaho Representative Clark Kauffman (Chair); California Assemblymember Mike Gipson (Chair-Elect); and Oregon Senator Bill Hansell (Vice Chair).

The meeting’s first order of business was to consider and vote for a Vice Chair. Diputado Cota Muñoz was designated by the Baja California Legislature to fill that role and the members voted to confirm their choice. CSG West would like to congratulate Diputado Cota Muñoz for his election as an officer of the BLC and looks forward to working with him, including hosting next year’s BLC in Baja California. Stay tuned for meeting details in an upcoming issue of the Regional Roundup!

Among the speakers invited were Consul General of Mexico in Los Angeles, Ambassador Marcela Celorio, who previously served as Consul General in San Diego in what is often referred to as the Cali Baja Region. She introduced her concept of cross border diplomacy shaped by the persistent flow of residents from the binational community in border regions, collaboration to solve cross-border challenges, and socioeconomic connections. This diplomacy, differing from traditional diplomacy, “refers to the relations carried out jointly by the stakeholders, from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, towards their countries’ capitals and the rest of the world, with the aim to promote, advocate and advance the interests of a profoundly intertwined binational community.”

33rd Border Legislative Conference
The Mission Inn
Riverside, CA

Jason Wells, Chief Executive of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, discussed the impacts the pandemic has had on the binational relationship. Wells shared his perspective from the world’s busiest land border crossing, where more than 106 million individual crossings and forty-eight million cars and trucks cross each year. The chamber serves as a unified voice for the businesses located at and around the San Ysidro border crossing, offering technical and marketing assistance, helping with city permits, regulations, business licensing, and economic stimulus resources.

Dr Calixto Mateos, Managing Director of the North American Development Bank (NADBank), provided an update on project eligibility adopted by their board of directors last year “to expand the Bank’s lending program to include investments in a wider variety of environmental infrastructure projects that will help tackle climate change and promote a green economy, while at the same time maintaining its dedication and attention to priority projects in the core sectors of water, wastewater and municipal solid waste.” As part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), NADBank was established as a binational financial institution by the governments of the U.S. and Mexico to support the development and implementation of infrastructure projects, as well as to provide technical and other assistance for projects and actions that preserve, protect, or enhance the environment to advance the well-being of the people of both countries. It is capitalized by both governments and serves the communities located within 100 km north of the four U.S. border states and within 300 km south of the six Mexican border states.

A focus on movement of people and goods in the age of COVID included three perspectives. First from Elva Muñeton, Acting Executive Director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Ms. Muñeton works in the Los Angeles Field Office and her areas of responsibility include Greater Los Angeles and Clark County, Nevada, the Los Angeles/Long Beach Seaport, the Los Angeles International Airport, other ports of entry in the region, and the Electronics-Center of Excellence and Expertise. To foster transparency and collaboration, she spends time on stakeholder engagement with the trade and airline industries, partnerships with law enforcement, and communication from the management office. She shared challenges and opportunities that the pandemic bore for CBP but also lessons learned such as the resiliency of CBP staff and systems.

Jon Barela, CEO of The Borderplex Alliance, focused on current supply chain challenges and the need for reliability. While geopolitics affect the production of and the ability to deliver goods on time to the U.S., there are opportunities to transition business and manufacturing to the border region. “Wage growth in our region was leading the nation up until the pandemic,” he said, citing unemployment rates below 2% in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and at 3% in El Paso, Texas. The Borderplex Alliance is an award-winning economic development and policy advocacy organization. They are non-partisan and private sector-led with a mission of attracting jobs, hope, and opportunity to the Borderplex region, which is comprised of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua; El Paso, Texas; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, also known as the Paso del Norte region.

BLC members

Jacqueline Reynoso, Director of Programs and Policy for the Cordova Corporation, addressed collaborative planning and national agreements between the United States and Mexico. She emphasized the need for more efficient pre-clearance processes at border crossings, noting there are thirty-two available lanes at the San Ysidro port of entry but only a limited number are operating on any given day. She also engaged with members about policy solutions to incentivize broader participation in cross border trade. In discussing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Reynoso proposed a list of professions which should be updated to reflect current industry needs. She emphasized that “we’re all here to build North American competitiveness.”

Chair of the Select Committee on California-Mexico Cooperation and representing the 40th senate district, California Senator Ben Hueso participated in the meeting. His district encompasses the cities of Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, National City and portions of the City of San Diego and Imperial County. He shared his intimate understanding of the environmental challenges and solutions along the shared border region. This included his journey advocating and passing legislation to protect state parks, the Salton Sea, the Tijuana River and beaches against contamination and pollution. Senator Hueso also provided information about lithium mining under the Salton Sea and potential economic opportunities stemming from its use. Reinforcing one of the meeting’s main themes, Senator Hueso emphasized binational cooperation as an essential component to address environmental concerns while growing the economy.

Participating members also evaluated post pandemic economic recovery and growth. As is usually the case, one cannot discuss economic growth singularly as it is intertwined with other considerations. This is the point Diputado Roman Cota Muñoz made as he advocated for a resolution to expedite border crossings, describing “miles and miles of vehicles that are basically parked.”  He emphasized health and environmental impacts related to urban traffic and vehicles idling at border crossings. Addressing recent border policies implemented in Texas, Diputado Cota Muñoz reported cargo delays of up to eight hours during which truckers were unable to exit their vehicles. Reiterating a point made by Jacqueline Reynoso, he also addressed the limited lane availability at border crossings, citing an estimate of $3.4 million in lost wages and production due to border wait times. Diputado Cota Muñoz closed the presentation with an optimistic goal of a 20-minute wait time at border locations.

Jaime Hurtado, who serves as the manager of the international business office at Riverside County Economic Development, shared his insight into what sets this region apart from others with foreign trade zones, with an above national average export growth expanding 11%, $90.3 Billion GDP, $80 Billion in exports (international and domestic), and a workforce of over one+ million persons. Riverside County consists of 7,200 square miles that stretch from its western border adjacent to Orange County and the Colorado River at the eastern border, adjacent to the Arizona border. It is the fourth most populated county in the state of California, approximately the size of New Jersey.

One of its fastest growing industries is logistics, with transportation corridors being a regional advantage. Riverside County has five major freeways connecting businesses to Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, and Arizona, as well as seventeen airports serving the county. Hurtado mentioned the need for building a plan for inclusive, sustainable growth across the region, stating one way to do this is through employing migrants’ existing skill sets, which he argues are underutilized in addressing urgent workforce needs. Mr. Hurtado appealed to policymakers to help promote more efficient immigration policies, outlining the social, political, and financial implications for both the U.S. and Mexico.

L to R: Oregon Senator Bill Hansell, CSG West Vice Chair; California Assemblymember Mike Gipson, CSG West Chair Elect; Idaho Representative Clark Kauffman, CSG West Chair; and California Assemblymember Jose Medina, BLC Chair.

L to R: Oregon Senator Bill Hansell, CSG West Vice Chair; California Assemblymember Mike Gipson, CSG West Chair Elect; Idaho Representative Clark Kauffman, CSG West Chair; and California Assemblymember Jose Medina, BLC Chair.

The last day of the meeting focused on higher education and Title 42. Mariana Barberena, Program Manager, Office of Global Initiatives at the Bi-National Center at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU), outlined her institution’s extensive partnerships. TAMIU has signed thirty-six agreements with Mexican universities and organizations to partner through research, education, leadership, and public service. Shared projects include dual degrees through the A.R. Sanchez Jr. School of Business where students who complete this program receive a degree with the seals of TAMIU and the Universidad Regionmontaña, or Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in the Mexican state of Nuevo León. A similar effort is underway with the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas (UAT), with follow-up meetings planned to develop these dual degrees by the Spring of 2023. Among the benefits and goals of these partnerships is to contribute to the successful development of international relationships between practitioners and government, create communication streams between U.S. and Mexican universities, and to highlight public service through specific programs geared to train or enhance the management of local and international non-profit organizations. The partnerships also aim to train, develop, and educate the next generation of leaders through diverse campus resources.

Professor Armando Vazquez-Ramos, President & CEO of the California-Mexico Studies Center, Inc., called attention to what he considers a dire need for a California and a broader U.S.-Mexico binational higher education agenda. He stated that there have been previous efforts towards this objective, such as the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund which was a hemispheric-wide initiative supported by the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassies, and Partners of the Americas with visionary companies, foundations, and education institutions working to strengthen collaboration among governments, business, and academia- all of which are critical to economies of the Americas.

Professor Vazquez-Ramos believes there is an urgent need to develop and propose new ideas in the post-pandemic era that promote a better understanding between the two countries through collaboration by scholars to strengthen and develop research, exchange programs, and teaching. For example, he has been leading Dreamers (students who qualify for the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program) on a study abroad program to Mexico for the last several years. This program allows many to see members of their family still living in Mexico, while also being immersed in a comprehensive cultural and educational experience. It operates in collaboration with the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) and is hosted by the Centro Internacional de Lenguas, Arte, y Cultura Paulo Freire (CILAC Freire) in Cuernavaca, Morelos. His ideas to advance a binational higher education agenda include establishing collaboration with the Summit of the Americas when it convenes in Los Angeles next week, promoting Mexican diaspora studies in Mexico, and developing joint policies and resources with Mexico and other Western Hemisphere nations.

The 33rd BLC could not have closed with a more salient topic than Title 42. Title 42 is a clause of the 1944 Public Health Services Law that “allows the government to prevent the introduction of individuals during certain public health emergencies.” It was implemented in March 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), restricting mobility and asylum access along the Southwest border of the U.S. On April 1, the CDC announced the policy would end May 23.

Ariel Ruiz Soto, Policy Analyst of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program as well as the Latin America and Caribbean Initiative at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), shared updates and important considerations for states and border communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Mr. Ruiz Soto explained that in practice Title 42 allows CBP to expel migrants it encounters without an opportunity to seek asylum within U.S. and without consequences. The unintended consequences of that policy, he argues, include rising recidivism rates since its implementation.

At the time the BLC met, a federal district judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to stop “early implementation of the Title 42 Termination Order.” The exception being the use of expedited removal for single adult repeat crossers for which there is a pending hearing requested by several states. Mr. Ruiz Soto shared that an asylum rule pilot will become effective May 31, at which time DHS can refer cases to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers for significantly more expeditions adjudication – either removal or granting asylum. This pilot will be gradually implemented. Mr. Ruiz Soto stated that success will depend on staffing and migrant volumes, as well as expanding access to legal assistance and representation to ensure efficiency and fairness. As of March 2021, USCIS employed 785 asylum officers and will therefore need to hire between 794 and 4,647 new officers and staff to process 75,000 – 300,000 cases annually.

Before closing the meeting, participating legislators had the opportunity to offer issues of interest to be addressed at next year’s meeting, or in the interim through virtual legislative exchanges. Diputado Cota Muñoz expressed interest in hosting the 34th gathering in Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, which is located two hours south of San Diego and is often compared to California’s Sonoma County for its relaxed but also sophisticated atmosphere that produces 90% of all wine that comes from Mexico.

If you were able to join us in Riverside this year, we appreciate your engagement! If you did not, please consider joining us in Baja California next year. Details will be forthcoming. To our sponsors, we truly appreciate your support and participation!