U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors: Close Neighbors Dealing with Distant Capitals

This week’s meeting of the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association in San Diego comes at an auspicious time for the United States and Mexico. With the Trump Administration pushing forward on augmenting the already existing border wall and dragging Mexico and Canada to a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, border mayors have a lot to talk about.

Decisions made at distant conference rooms in Washington and Mexico City tend to have an outsized effect on border communities, which have not really had a permanent seat at the table in these discussions. So with or without a Trump Administration, being a mayor on the border is a challenge. One of the principal and most challenging characteristics of the U.S.-Mexico border region simply has to do with distance, which manifests itself in a number of ways.

Border communities are first and foremost amazingly distant from the national capitals. San Diego and Tijuana are over 2600 miles from Washington and 1700 miles from Mexico City. But even Brownsville, Texas, the easternmost U.S. border community, is still over 1,700 miles from Washington, DC. That translates to an epic 26-hour drive or an inconvenient five-hour, one-stop flight. Brownsville’s sister city, Matamoros, Tamaulipas, is by comparison somewhat closer to Mexico City (via an 11.5-hour drive or a four-hour, one-stop flight).

In addition, with the exception of Mexicali, border communities are also remarkably distant from state capitals. On the U.S. side, Sacramento, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Austin each are hours from the border and usually a long ways from understanding the unique dynamics of these communities.

And finally, border communities are often far from each other. In the United States, Interstate 10 is the closest thing we have to a highway that links communities along the almost 2000 miles of border, while in Mexico, east-west freeway infrastructure runs counter to both the country’s mountainous geography and basic north-south orientation.

The point is this: physical distance translates into psychological and political distance in which obsessions about the border in Washington, the interior of the United States and Mexico City can and do easily fester. Washington’s long-standing obsession with border security and Mexico City’s complicated relationship with the border wall, outmigration and its own border communities are products of this mutual isolation.

This is essentially why organizations such as the Border Mayors Association are so important. These diverse and dispersed communities have needed to come together and present a collective “ask” of the two federal governments basically since forever. In the absence of a functioning Border Governors Conference, this is more important than ever. The challenge will be to mesh the concerns, projects and programs of enormous binational urban complexes such as San Diego/Tijuana region and the El Paso/Las Cruces/Ciudad Juarez region with much smaller cities such as Somerton, Arizona; Ojinaga, Chihuahua; and Alpine, Texas among many others.

If the organization is able to accomplish this, interesting things could happen. These binational urban areas could start to get some long-overdue attention in terms of urban planning and federal project funding, infrastructure could get built, local economies could flourish and cross-border business clusters could be created, expanded and in the process providing much-needed employment. As these outcomes can’t possibly be engineered from meetings in Washington and Mexico City, the key catalysts going forward are mayors, who are uniquely positioned to articulate the specific needs of their complex, crossborder economies to the two federal governments.