EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The way outsiders and Washington politicians perceive the U.S.-Mexico border would seem a surrealist nightmare to the region’s mayors, except they’ve grown used to it.
“That’s something that we do every day: try to change people’s erroneous perceptions,” said Enrique Rivas Cuellar, the mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
His city is the top commercial land port of entry to the United States, with more than 15,000 trucks transporting millions of dollars’ worth of assembled goods north every day. The bond between his citizens and the people of Laredo, Texas is such that the local professional baseball team plays half of its home games on the Mexican side and half on the U.S. side.
Yet, many outsiders would never consider setting foot in Nuevo Laredo because they’ve only heard about the drug cartel violence there.
Dispelling misconceptions about the border was a recurring theme as the Mexico-U.S. Sister Cities Mayors Summit moved into its second day in El Paso. More than 300 mayors, diplomats and business leaders are here to share experiences and make new partnerships.
“Few people who make decisions that affect us come to the border. They need to come to the border,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo.
His city’s relationship with the Mexican city of Juarez just across the Rio Grande was put to the test last year, first during the Central American migrant surge and then after the Aug. 3 mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart.
The first trial came after the Trump administration threatened to shut down the border at the height of the migrant surge.
“That was absolutely ludicrous. It would have crippled our area,” said Margo, a Republican former Texas state representative. “Mexico is Texas’ largest trading partner. The ramifications wouldn’t have been just El Paso and San Antonio. It would have been Houston, Dallas, all of over (the state).”
The Administration’s alternative to handle the crisis proved just as trying. First El Paso had to organize its nonprofits to provide for thousands of migrants released to their care, then Juarez had to make do when the Administration decided to send over asylum seekers to wait in Mexico. Juarez ended up spending half a million of its dollars last year on migrant food, utilities and security.
The two sister cities’ cooperation shined again in the aftermath of the Walmart shooting that claimed 22 lives — eight of them Juarez residents. Mayor Armando Cabada and Chihuahua state authorities called for calm and urged their residents not to stop going to El Paso, whose economy is 8 percent to 14 percent dependent on their shopping.
Cabada said border officials have had many “bad experiences” as a result of decisions made in Washington, D.C., or Mexico City by people who don’t know the border. Hence the importance of mayors to work with their American or Mexican partners, he said.
One such detrimental issue is the constant anti-immigrant barrage coming out of Washington, said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
“One thing we need to do from an economic standpoint, a cultural standpoint and certainly an educational standpoint is to reject the rhetoric of isolationism,” he said. “The xenophobia is an economic peril for our cities and we have to counter that by showing how much of our economy is tied to bilateral and multilateral trade” and immigration.
Laredo’s Saenz said it’s up to mayors and other border officials to protect their interests.
“We want to secure our borders — even the Mexicans agree that their border needs to be secure …, so we need to work in a collaborative spirit and with that mutual respect that we have for each other,” he said.
In El Paso, one out of every four jobs is linked directly to Juarez’s manufacturing plants, which employ more than 200,000 people.
“All the goods that traverse our international bridges end up in someone’s breakfast table or dinner table. The clothes that we wear, the automobiles that we drive, the electronics that we use on a daily basis had their origin both in the U.S. and Mexico,” Saenz of Laredo said. “It’s important people realize how unique the border is and the special relationship we have with our Mexican counterparts. Yes, we’re on the U.S., but Mexico is a big part of who we are especially in the border area.”
The Sister Cities summit concludes on Saturday.