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Interview: Rep. Beto O'Rourke on How to Build Jobs at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Congressman Beto O'Rourke

(Image: Courtesy of UTEP)

September 18, 2013

“It’s very much in the economic self-interest of this country, of every single state in the union, and by extension every representative and senator to ensure that we facilitate the secure flow of people, goods, and commerce through our ports of entry with Mexico.”

How can the United States secure its southern border without compromising over $1 billion a day in trade? U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) spoke to Council of the Americas’ Kezia McKeague about this issue, as well as U.S.-Mexico relations and immigration reform. A former El Paso City Council member, O’Rourke was elected to Congress in 2012, forging a reputation in Washington as a leader on border issues. In August 2013, he co-hosted the Border Conference on U.S.-Mexico Competitiveness Agenda with the Council of the Americas and the University of Texas at El Paso. “I am unwilling to move forward if that means sacrificing the community I live in and the border and the 6 million people on the U.S. side who call the border home,” says O’Rourke on why he disagrees with bundling the “border surge” security proposal with comprehensive immigration reform. He added: “We’re talking about spending $46 billion on a problem that we do not have.”

AS/COA: At our conference last month, you expressed concern with perceptions that identify the U.S.-Mexico border as a security threat rather than as an economic opportunity.  Why should your colleagues from non-border districts care about facilitating cross-border trade? 

Representative Beto O’Rourke: Members of Congress who don’t live close to the U.S.-Mexico border have a vested interest in the success of the border and helping to facilitate a healthy border because it will mean more jobs in their districts. Even more importantly, it will also mean that they won’t lose the jobs that they have now that are dependent on U.S.-Mexico trade and commerce. 

The estimate is that there are about 6 million U.S. jobs that are supported by trade with Mexico and in the state that I live in, it’s more than 460,000 jobs. In California it’s nearly 700,000 jobs.  But even in states that you might not make an obvious connection with in terms of trade with Mexico, New Hampshire has 30,000 jobs, Maine has almost 30,000 jobs, the state of Washington has 130,000 jobs. So my appeal to these other members of Congress from around the country is that it’s important for the border and our quality of life to facilitate the secure but quick flow of people in commerce through our ports of entry, but I don’t expect them to act in our interests. 

So the appeal to that member from Illinois is that there are more than 250,000 people in your state who depend on this and if you will help invest in the ports of entry with additional customs officers, with better infrastructure, with investing in twenty-first century technology, I can guarantee that we will create more jobs in the district that you represent. And to put it a negative way, the long wait times that we see at our ports of entry right now result in $166 million lost to the U.S. economy for every additional minute of wait time at our commercial crossings with Mexico. So it’s very much in the economic self-interest of this country, of every single state in the union, and by extension every representative and senator to ensure that we facilitate the secure flow of people, goods, and commerce through our ports of entry with Mexico. 

AS/COA: What do you think is the solution to long and unpredictable wait times that produce bottlenecks at the border, and why hasn’t more money been dedicated already to better infrastructure given the importance of the bilateral economic relationship with Mexico?          

O’Rourke: The most immediate need is to staff every single lane at every port, every hour of the day that they’re open and, in some cases, to increase the number of hours that those ports are in active service. We have some 24-hour ports, but we have some ports that are operating on a much more limited schedule. It is simply a matter of throughput, of being able to get more trucks, more people. In El Paso, Juarenses—the people of Ciudad Juarez on the other side of the Rio Grande—spend $1.4 billion a year in our local economy, as conservatively estimated by the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve. 

We’ve been told by Customs and Border Protection and by Secretary Janet Napolitano at the Department of Homeland Security that more than 99 percent of the people who are crossing our ports of entry—either the truck drivers who are bringing over commerce, the students who wake up in Ciudad Juarez and attend the University of Texas at El Paso, the shoppers who cross our bridges to spend their hard-earned money in our local economy—more than 99 percent of them are traveling for legitimate purposes, have the appropriate documentation, and pose no threat to the homeland or to communities like El Paso. And it’s part of the reason that El Paso is the safest city in the country now, three years running.

To put the simple investment in more port officers in context, to hire a new officer it costs around $147,000 to train them, to bring them to the community in which they’re going to serve, and to pay their salary that first year. Each additional year is something significantly less than that. The hiring of that port officer creates 33 new additional jobs in the U.S. economy and adds $2 million to our economy. You compare that with the proposal that successfully passed the Senate to “secure” the U.S.-Mexico border to the tune of $46 billion to double the size of the Border Patrol, to add 700 more miles of fencing, to invest in unproven military technology, to defend the homeland in a part of our country that is far more safe and secure than the rest of the country. 

All that while, net migration from Mexico this last year was at zero. You understand that it’s a failure to educate those members about the true nature of any threats that we see at the border, to put them in perspective, to try to offer a proportionate alternative to what those threats are and to turn their attention to the wonderful opportunities that we have with Mexico, our country’s third largest trading partner and the number one trading partner for the states of Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and many, many more states in the union. 

To a degree, that is the border’s fault. That is our fault in El Paso, in San Diego, and Brownsville, in McAllen, and Nogales. And it’s something that we’re trying to correct. So our office, for example, has led an initiative that is delivered to every single member of Congress, a one-page fact sheet that describes their state’s economic interdependence with Mexico and with the U.S.-Mexico border, and tries to show them the opportunity present at the border and really put any concerns they have about threats into perspective. So education, I think, is the answer to why we haven’t seen a more rational response to the opportunity with Mexico. 

AS/COA: You’re a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, but it seems that increased investment in border security may be the price to pay in order to secure bipartisan passage of reform. What are your views on that tradeoff and where do you see the immigration reform debate going this fall?

O’Rourke: It’s clear that the Corker-Hoeven amendment to the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform plan, also known as the border surge, was a political calculation to secure more votes to perhaps provide comprehensive immigration reform with the momentum needed to pass the House. I think that was a miscalculation because it didn’t have the desired political result in the House. As we all know, Speaker John Boehner has decided to approach this in a piecemeal fashion instead of comprehensively. 

When I spoke to senators who voted for and even advocated for the inclusion of Corker-Hoeven, they admitted as much and essentially said, you know, this is something that we agree is unnecessary, it certainly can be seen as waste of taxpayer dollars, but we just have to hold our nose and pass it and move forward. My response to these members of the Senate is that it’s fine for you to have to hold your nose, but for the 6 million of us who live on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border, we won’t simply be holding our nose, we’ll be living that every single day, militarizing the communities that we live in, wasting money on additional border patrol and fencing at a time that we have zero net migration from Mexico and absolutely missing the chance to capitalize on this wonderful opportunity that we have with Mexico right now. And for a fraction of that $46 billion, we could invest in ports officers that would facilitate billions of dollars in additional trade with Mexico and far more jobs in all of our districts throughout the country.

I’m a big proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. So many of the things that are proposed in the Senate, like a tough but fair path to citizenship, reuniting families, focusing on the real threats that we might see at our border instead of people who are coming to our country to work, and improving our communities and our economy—it all makes sense to me, but I am unwilling to move forward if that means sacrificing the community I live in and the border and the 6 million people on the U.S. side who call the border home.

That proposal is inhumane considering how many additional crossing deaths this militarization has already caused. It is irrational given the fact that net migration from Mexico is zero, and it’s not fiscally responsible. We’re talking about spending $46 billion on a problem that we do not have. So yes, I’m for comprehensive immigration reform, but I have a responsibility to represent the community that I serve in Congress, and it is not in our interest to militarize El Paso or the border with Mexico.

AS/COA: As we approach the twentieth anniversary of North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA) entry into force, how you view the next 20 years of the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship? How can we continue to maximize the economic opportunities along the border and jointly advance the competitiveness of the U.S. and Mexico?

O’Rourke: Looking back on 20 years of NAFTA, it was certainly incredibly tough for a lot of people in the community I represent to adjust to the implications of NAFTA and to, in many cases, lose those low-wage, low-skill jobs that were headquartered in El Paso, Texas. And as we all know, the vast majority of those jobs moved to cities like Ciudad Juarez just across the border. So I think it’s important to say that many people, especially in communities like El Paso, paid a very heavy price for moving forward with NAFTA.

In Juarez, you see a lot of success in terms of the industrialization of that community, of the wealth that was created there. But it also happened so quickly that I don’t know that that community was prepared with the hard infrastructure—water and sewers just as an example, in addition to roads, as well as the soft social infrastructure in terms of the community, schools, the ability to integrate people who are moving in from the countryside for these factory jobs.

But having said all of that, it is certainly within our interests to see Mexico rise as a leading Latin American and leading world economy. A prosperous Mexico equals a more prosperous United States and also lessens the demand for economic refugees to come into our country. It creates bigger markets for U.S. exporters. And very unique to our trade relationship with Mexico, 40 percent of the value of imports coming in from Mexico is made of content produced in the United States. That is unlike our relationship with any other trading partner across the world.  So we win, obviously, when we export to Mexico; that creates U.S. jobs, but we win even when we import. There are U.S. jobs connected to the U.S. content of those Mexican imports into the United States.

So I would love to see the next 20 years of NAFTA or potentially the Trans-Pacific Partnership or other trade agreements build upon those successes, but also, frankly, do a better job of helping those people who are negatively affected by the very disruptive part of the integration of our economies.

AS/COA: Vice President Joe Biden is going to be in Mexico this week to launch the high-level economic dialogue between the United States and Mexico. What would be one takeaway from our conference that you think would be relevant to the launch of this dialogue and Biden’s consultations in Mexico City?

O’Rourke: I believe the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. [Eduardo Medina Mora] said something to the effect that we have a twenty-first-century trading relationship between our two countries that is largely dependent on twentieth-century processes and technology and nineteenth-century infrastructure.

Even though the Mexican economy had some difficulty recently, the larger trend is that it continues to grow and become more and more of a dominant player in Latin America and around the world. It is in our interests to modernize our ports—not just the infrastructure, but the processes and the technologies that we employ there so that we can capitalize on the export and import opportunities, because both ends of our trade relationship are tied to millions of U.S. jobs.

So to me, that was the clear message from our conferences. There is so much potential, so many great things already happening, but we are holding back even greater possibilities by our unwillingness to invest in our border, and to treat our relationship with Mexico in a much more rational fashion. That would be my message to the vice president.