With summer’s end approaching we are heading into an intense political
season, with much hanging in the balance. The U.S. presidential election will
have an outsized effect on border policy. I don’t think we have had two more
divergent views of the border represented in a presidential election in at least
the past 50 years.
COVID-19 is teaching us many lessons. One is now quite evident: any health contingency must have truly effective binational responses in a number of areas including prevention and testing, transportation, humanitarian assistance, manufacturing, and education. Community responses that were hatched out of desperation over the last six months could become the prototypes for a more sophisticated response, once another virus arrives.
Whoever wins or whichever political party gains an edge in the House and Senate, the border community will have to argue for unprecedented policies and proposals. Nothing reasonable should be considered out of bounds.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Non-Essential Travel Restrictions: As a result of a unilateral decision by the U.S. government, CBP has deliberately reduced its personnel all along the border with Mexico, increasing wait times at the ports of entry. CBP will reallocate resources to essential travel peak times.
Wait times on Saturday the 22nd and Sunday the 23rd were between 5 and 10 hours. Ready Lanes at San Ysidro were backed up as far as 5.5 miles. This represents unprecedented hardship for many thousands of travelers. If the equivalent were occurring in major U.S. airports, the story would be top headline news.
Some thoughts about the new restrictions:
The decision is aimed at reducing the further spread of COVID-19. The strategy is to dissuade U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents from traveling for non-essential reasons from Mexico to the U.S.
There are two groups of people most affected. First are U.S citizens and legal residents who go to Mexico for non-essential reasons, e.g., leisure and recreation. They should not be crossing into Mexico in the first place, but Mexico has had much looser inspection procedures at its land ports facing the U.S.
Second, there are many U.S. citizens and legal residents who live on the Mexican side of the border. Many of them are employed in the U.S. Making it difficult for them to cross at peak and non-peak hours directly impairs the economic wellbeing of hundreds of businesses in San Diego.
There are legitimate public health motives for telling U.S. citizens and legal residents to avoid coming to the U.S.
However, a dose of realism is in order. It is possible the U.S. is applying tougher restrictions to pressure Mexico to enable more controls on its land ports to stop U.S. citizens and legal residents from entering Mexico and thus help prevent the spread of the virus.
It is also possible that the U.S. administration is pursuing electoral ends in implementing stricter measures at the border. Let’s not forget, however, that additional restrictions today are not about illegal substances or undocumented crossers. They are all about authorized travelers, who make up 99.9% of all crossings into the U.S., and, incidentally, most of these are U.S. citizens or legal residents.
When one looks at the San Diego-Tijuana region from the mobility and public health perspective, one must think of contiguous urban areas such as Minneapolis-St. Paul. People in St. Paul will drive to Minneapolis and vice-versa to work and other reasons.
Is Minneapolis-St. Paul making it difficult for their residents to travel from one zip code to another? Is contact tracing used to stop citizens from going from one place to another?
So much of the federal management we have on both sides of our border is a result of seeing it in black and white terms from the perspective of the capital cities, e.g. two countries, two systems, two cultures – there has been little opportunity to make binational policy in terms of contiguous urban areas where eligible travelers go about their day as upstanding citizens and where economic, educational, health, and other aspects drive a complex but effective working relationship.
The COVID-19 Data Challenge: Navigating Life and Work in Border Communities. Melissa Floca of the Border Solutions Alliance at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) approached me about this special competition the alliance is organizing with the West Big Data Innovation Hub (https://westbigdatahub.org/).
The bottom line is about how border communities better understand risk levels in real-time for different situations and communicate them to the public.
The coordinators state that “Co-creating data-driven solutions – with a focus on equity and trust-building – will give communities new skills and tools for problem-solving with limited resources.”
A participant team could build an app or a website, create a dashboard, make a poster or video that uses data storytelling, or propose a pilot project to gather new data. For more information please visit: https://mexico.ucsd.edu/initiatives/border-solutions/data-challenge.html
Border Innovation Challenge, Second Edition: Our coalition has been working with Monique Casellas of the UCSD Rady School of Management to launch the Border Innovation Challenge. Competition information will be out on September 1st . Our goal this year is to have over 70 participants, double last year’s participation. Winners will be announced at our grand prize event on December 1st .
Border Master Plan Visionary Workshop, Led by Cheryl Mason, SANDAG Senior Project Manager, Consultants Elizabeth Hannon and IBI Group: I applaud SANDAG’s initiative to bring together a diverse group of border stakeholders to develop their wish list of innovative ideas for ports and surrounding areas.
Participants made over 30 phenomenally energizing proposals. We all had a chance to pitch our top projects. The Smart Border Coalition’s top five ideas were (1) key performance indicators for CBP; (2) pre-clearance of passengers and cargo well ahead of arrival at the ports; (3) a private enterprise “brain trust” to look at the border as an opportunity for profitable investment; (4) a practical binational mechanism to prioritize minor yet significant infrastructure projects; and (5) a governance structure to develop responses for border needs.
We are expecting the abovementioned consultants to help develop white papers of the most feasible ideas. More to come…
The South County Economic Development Corporation Binational Committee continues its good work. Councilmember Barbara Bry, candidate for mayor of San Diego, was a special guest in the last convening. She believes that the City of San Diego should have a senior-level director for binational economic 7 development, connecting two disparate worlds: tech in San Diego and Baja California.
Co-Chair Flavio Olivieri discussed an interactive mapping tool that would let our community know about the myriad cross-border collaboration efforts in the fields of health, entrepreneurship, education, tech, civic engagement, government, manufacturing, and others.
With our day-to-day talk about Tijuana and San Diego, we sometimes overlook the fact that Ensenada is a major player in the California-Baja California relationship. Sales among the city’s hospitality, restaurant, and wine industries have fallen to 70% below last year’s levels. Visits by cruise ships have ceased. However, activity has been picking up. Most tourists are coming from Mexican cities; approximately 30% are originating in the U.S. In a normal year, those percentages are inverted.
Ensenada has been reactivating its economy. One way has been to remove a highway inspection team that was checking for U.S. citizens not visiting for essential reasons. The mayor and his economic development team led by Brenda Mendoza Kawanishi have also been meeting with the state’s Sustainable Economy and Tourism Secretariat (SEST).
I’ve gotten stakeholder questions about the role of the North American Development Bank (NADB) in the Tijuana River Valley issue. The NADB has participated as funds administrator for the Border Environment Infrastructure Fund (BEIF) which is part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This has come in handy especially with disbursements to water agencies in Mexico.
BEIF funds have been meager over the last 5 years. They are only $25 million this year, and only about 40% come to the California and Arizona border. Mexico must match these funds 1-to-1. Some of these funds have been 7 used to improve Tijuana’s east and west sewage collectors, but this is very piecemeal given the sheer size of the problem.
There are two areas where new, non-BEIF EPA funds totaling $300 million will almost surely be applied to solve the Tijuana sewage issue and where NADB could play a role: Tijuana River contaminated water that crosses into the U.S. and the treatment plant rehabilitation in Tijuana.
The question remains whether EPA funds can actually be invested on the Mexican side of the border. If some of this money is allowed in Mexico, NADB will most likely manage it.
NADB has always been involved in technical and policy groups organized by the EPA but has not been given any decision making power. The best they can do is lobby for a particular outcome.
I was astonished to hear the story of Estudios Baja/Baja Studios last week in the words of Don José Galicot, producers Rolando Navarro and Luisa Gomez de Silva. The studios are still a hidden gem. Don José opened the presentation with the comment about the symbiosis between Rosarito and the studios and how they activate the small city’s economy and excite so many.
Baja Studios was built in 1996 by 20th Century Fox and is known for Titanic, but there have been plenty of top box office hits such as Pearl Harbor, Point Break 2, Little Boy, Fear the Walking Dead, The Rescue (Chinese), Señora Acero (Telemundo) and others produced there. The set has four enormous tanks to simulate sea scenes and shoot underwater scenes. The largest tank holds 17 million gallons!
AI Mexico is one of those diamonds in the rough we need to engage with (aimexico.org). It promotes “artificial intelligence (AI) education and its responsible adoption by industry to create competitive businesses that ultimately benefit our communities.” It started in Ensenada, the city with the highest number of scientists per capita in Latin America.
I spoke with Director Adrian Munguia, former SAIC and ABB employee and Universidad Autonoma de Baja California (UABC) graduate, who started the organization with a handful of AI professionals and now employing over 600. He is also creating a cross-border AI innovation community. Microsoft and the Canadian government have established ties with AI Mexico to develop a strong capability of experts for cutting-edge projects in North America.
Thank you all for your generous support for the Smart Border Coalition. We hope to see you at our next webinar on September 10, from 9 to 11 a.m.. Please register here: us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_uVnhTgEbSeGLn2qc6YImwQ
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.
I leave you with a link to the recently done, lively welcome video for our coalition. I think it reflects effectively the spirit we strive to promote. I hope you like it: youtube.com/watch?v=xRuQTMSaO6U
With best wishes,
Gustavo De La Fuente Executive Director