McALLEN — Traffic has been backing up at the international bridges on the border for months; border towns and non-governmental agencies have racked up immigration costs for years, with hardly any reimbursement from the federal governments; and thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the United States have recently been sent back to Mexico.
These are but three of the major issues discussed Friday by dozens of officials from Mexico and Texas inside a McAllen hotel ballroom where those in attendance hoped to join in a united voice to better display the issues in the border region for the leaders in Mexico City and Washington, D.C.
“Coming together and having conversation is important,” said Steve Ahlenius, McAllen Chamber of Commerce president, kicking off the two-hour session at the Double Tree Hotel in McAllen, with chambers of commerce leaders from the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua and San Luis Potosi, the Tamaulipas Secretary of Tourism, Mexico’s National President of the Federation for Chambers of Commerce, and mayors from Tamaulipas and South Texas.
“I’ve been with the city for 42 years, and for the first time, Mexico City and Washington, D.C., are focused on the border. I think for good reasons and some not so good reasons,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said before citing an “exciting” visit to Reynosa by new Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador earlier this year just weeks after he took office last December.
“Then, of course, in the United States, President Trump is focused on the border — not so good,” Darling said. “One exception: USMCA. I think once USMCA is passed in the United States, it’s going to make the border the most important part between our two countries.”
But the new North American Free Trade Agreement, or the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which was signed by the leaders of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada during a late 2018 meeting in Argentina, has not yet been approved by the Congress in Canada or the United States. And with the Trump Administration having centered its trade priorities on China and a vote on a new NAFTA unlikely in a presidential election year upcoming, officials said Congress would likely need to vote on the new trade agreement before the end of 2019 if there’s any hope of it passing.
But that hasn’t stopped members of Congress from pushing forward on the agreement. U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, visited Mexico City recently to meet with Marcelo Ebrard, secretary of foreign affairs in Mexico, and other high-ranking officials.
“I am committed to strengthening our trade partnership with Mexico and ratifying the trilateral trade agreement in Congress. I have witnessed first-hand how free trade has transformed our domestic economy,” Cuellar said in a statement. “Every day, $1.7 billion in trade and investment crosses the American border, and in 2018, trade between the U.S. and Mexico exceeded $611.5 billion. Now, we must build on our current trade partnerships to bolster our leadership abroad and support American businesses, workers, and consumers at home.”
At the binational meeting in McAllen on Friday there was also some optimism, but in the strength of the border region.
“We need to do a study,” Reynosa Mayor Maki Ortiz said. She has proposed a feasibility study of the border region to show how much commerce, business and tourism crosses the border every day.
“You need to talk about the financial impact to get people’s attention,” Ortiz said later, with Darling and other officials agreeing.
Ahlenius hoped Friday’s meeting would result in “two or three action items” to begin making a real impact. Two of those takeaways he mentioned were binational tourism between South Texas and Tamaulipas and wide support for “NAFTA 2.0.”
Darling and Ortiz said they are going to send joint letters to Mexico City and Washington, D.C., about some of the issues plaguing the region. Strength in numbers could help bring more attention on local issues, both mayors said.
“I think joint letters,” Darling said. “I think that helps to show the unity on both sides. It’s not just a concern on the American side or Mexican side.”