How is the U.S.-Mexico Border Region Represented in the National Capitals?

How is the U.S.-Mexico Border Region Represented in the National Capitals?
By Erik Lee and Victor Remigio Martínez*

A few weeks ago we discussed how the U.S.-Mexico border region (USMBR) has issues with its representation in the two national capitals due to its geographical configuration and isolation. But how is its current political representation in the national capitals characterized? While mayors and state governors and legislators can draw attention to a broad variety of regional and federal issues, the most direct route to the national capitals from the U.S.-Mexico border is through the offices of federal Senators, members of Congress or Federal Deputies on the Mexican side. These federal elected officials are charged with taking the issues of their constituents and giving them a national hearing.

Although U.S. and Mexican federal systems differ in their makeup and emphasis on federal versus state and local power distribution, generally speaking power flows up to the capitals through local Senatorial and Congressional offices and staff (oficinas de enlace in Mexico) to the Congressman/Federal Deputies/Senators themselves and to the numerous, relevant Congressional and Senatorial committees. It is through this slow, deliberative and highly fragmented process that the border region makes its issues known to policymakers in Washington and Mexico City.

On the U.S. side, border issues are myriad and handled among numerous committees and subcommittees depending on which federal agency (State, Homeland Security, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Government Services Administration etc.) has business before its respective oversight committee(s). Exhibit A is the Department of Homeland Security, of which Customs and Border Protection is a key component. DHS is under the oversight of 108 committees (due to the fact that the department was created from pieces of 22 other agencies and carried committee oversight from each piece as a result), not just the House Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by Texas Rep. Michael McCaul. Other examples include the Subcommittee for Western Hemisphere Affairs, (which is part of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs) and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

In the U.S. Congress, there is no one specific Senatorial or Congressional committee or subcommittee convened to take a broad look at issues relating to the U.S.-Mexico border region. The Border Congressional Caucus (one of many political caucuses convened by members of Congress to address myriad issues) consists of the members of the House of Representatives whose districts (each with approximately 711,000 citizens) touch the international boundary. The House members tend to skew Democratic, while the USMBR has even representation in the Senate (four Democrats from California and New Mexico and four Republicans from Arizona and Texas).

In Mexico, formal committees on northern border affairs exist both in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Their relative power vis-à-vis other forces in Congress is limited. These committees are presided over by a member of the National Action Party (PAN) in the Senate and by a member of the left-of-center PRD in the Chamber of Deputies. Neither committee president is from a border state (they hail from Durango and Veracruz, respectively) nor belongs to the PRI, the party of President Peña Nieto. The border affairs portfolio in Mexico’s Congress, then, has more to do with internal negotiations of the political parties than either being from a border district or having knowledge about and/or interest in border affairs.

These challenges notwithstanding, in 2017 the Northern Border Affairs Commission of the Chamber of Deputies approved the Border Fund (Fondo Fronterizo) of approximately $42 million USD for all (northern and southern) border municipios (including all the border municipios of Baja California, Baja California Sur y Quinta Roo). The Fund was earmarked for costs associated with infrastructure needs related to the impact of immigration on these municipalities. In addition, the Fund was also seen as a way to compensate for a significant boost in the value-added tax (IVA) in the border region from 11% to the national rate, 16%. This sensitive taxation issue had a significant impact on the 2015 midterm elections in Mexico, peeling off votes from the PRI–which supported the tax raise in the border region—in favor of the PAN in Baja California and Sonora. Border congressional districts are dominated by the PRI from Chihuahua to Tamaulipas.

Federal elected officials from the two countries have a limited number of forums in which to connect with and influence each other. While individual members of Congress occasionally travel back and forth between the capitals in order to connect with their counterparts and other government officials, the U.S. and Mexico federal legislatures also have an annual “interparliamentary” meeting. Currently border issues are part of that agenda, mostly related to the wall proposal, though the group mostly serves as a forum to air ideas and differences while its influence over policy has historically been limited.

Numerous regional/subnational groups such as the U.S.-Mexico Border Legislative Conference and the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association have traveled to the capitals over the years to advocate for the region, with mixed results. Some of these organizations’ former members are now members of Congress. The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce organizes a large and high-profile annual advocacy trip to Washington, DC and Mexico City.

So the USMBR, an enormous and elongated geographical space crisscrossed by numerous congressional districts and other jurisdictions, finds itself with numerous pressing issues (in the areas discussed in this report as well as others) handled at the federal level in an enormously fragmented fashion. The very structure of how the border is represented in the national capitals goes far in explaining the region’s relative poverty and neglect.

Victor Remigio Martínez has a master’s degree in public policy from ITAM and has been a scholar in regional and border-related issues at ASU and UCSD.