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Panelists Discuss How to Manage U.S.-Mexico Border

By Amber Ebanks

President Donald Trump won legions of voters with his pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants. But it’s not just people that pass through that heavily trafficked border. It’s trade — nearly $1 billion, in fact, on a daily basis.

The implications — and potentially high costs — of Trump’s border plan have many experts cautioning that cordoning off relations between the U.S. and Mexico is a recipe for disaster.

From left, Kimberly Breier, director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Pamela Starr, Jose M. García, Michael Huston participate in a panel discussion at CSIS on the U.S. Mexico border. Photo: CSIS

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a two-part panel discussion titled “U.S.-Mexico Border: The Way Forward” on Feb. 27 to examine ways that the United States and Mexico can practically and peacefully manage their shared land border. Panelists discussed how the U.S.-Mexico border doubles as a security instrument and a huge doorway for the two-way flow of people and goods that pass through it every day.

While Trump famously said his wall would keep out illegal immigrants, including rapists and murderers, the CSIS panelists stressed that the U.S.-Mexico border is one of the busiest in the world, with at least 1 million people, 400,00 cars and 15,000 trucks using it each day.

“The border is where the rubber hits the road in the U.S.-Mexico relationship when we’re talking about issues of trade, security, immigration, the core issues in the bilateral relationship,” said Pamela K. Starr, director of the U.S.-Mexico Network and senior associate for the CSIS Americas Program. Photo: CSIS

“The border is where the rubber hits the road in the U.S.-Mexico relationship when we’re talking about issues of trade, security, immigration, the core issues in the bilateral relationship,” said Pamela K. Starr, director of the U.S.-Mexico Network and senior associate for the CSIS Americas Program. “I’d like to refer to the bilateral relationship today as being at a peculiar moment, neither good nor bad, but just unusual in a way that we haven’t seen before. Prior to the rise of candidate Donald Trump, the relationship was uniformly lauded by practitioners and analysts alike as being the best it’s ever been, defined by close collaboration, mutual respect and partnership.”

Starr added that the bilateral relationship is now more tense than it has been in at least a generation, placing the blame squarely on the 45th president. Starr referenced Trump’s comparison of Mexicans to rapists and murders, his threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and his plan to withdraw the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement as damaging what was once a stable relationship.

The U.S.-Mexico border spans roughly 1,900 miles and Trump “says his wall will cover 1,000 miles and natural obstacles will take care of the rest.” The president has estimated that the total cost of the wall will be a minimum of $7 billion. A plan by the Department of Homeland Security, however, put the cost at $17 billion with a three-stage plan.

Trump’s plan requires extending the wall into remote and mountainous regions, which could raise the overall cost of the ambitious project. In fact, some estimates put the costs above $30 billion. So far, Congress hasn’t shown much appetite for funding Trump’s signature campaign pledge, although it did include some money for border security in the form of more agents and technology in the recent continuing budget resolution (and despite Trump’s many pronouncements, Mexico has no intention of paying for the wall).

The U.S.-Mexico border is seen above. Fencing separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. Photo: Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde - http://www.ngb.army.mil

Nevertheless, the president began accepting bids for construction of the wall, and it is predicted that the government will announce which companies will be hired to build prototypes in June. DarkPulse Technologies, an Arizona-based company, plans to construct a wall made out of ballistic concrete to withstand tampering or attacks.

“We will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border,” Trump told Congress earlier this year. “It will be started ahead of schedule and, when finished, it will be a very effective weapon against drugs and crime.”

Kimberly Breier, director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at CSIS, said the current debate over providing border security is “legitimate and necessary.”

“In the modern world, with transnational threats of all kinds, having a secure border is essential,” she told the audience.

But any conversation on the U.S. border also touches on another national interest, she added, which is the commercial side. “Economic security is national security and our border plays a key role in allowing flows of legal and legal goods in and out of the United States,” she said.

On that note, panelists delved into the intricacies of cross-border traffic that is often taken for granted in the larger debate over migration.

Juan Carlos Villa, a senior associate of the CSIS Americas Program, noted that total truck trade between the U.S. and Mexico grew 4.7 times between 1995 and 2016 period, discussing potential alternatives for operational improvements, including a streamlined construction processes.

The towns of Nogales, Ariz., left, is separated from Nogales, Mexico, by a high concrete and steel fence. Photo: Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde - http://www.ngb.army.mil

Andrew I. Rudman, managing director of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, focused on the development of another crossing — San Diego’s Otay Mesa, one of the busiest freight crossings, mostly for trucks. On average, four trucks enter Mexico or the United States via that crossing every minute during peak hours. Rudman said that in 2015, about $42.5 billion in merchandise crossed via that border alone.

In February, the city unanimously approved creating one of California’s first enhanced infrastructure financing districts in Otay Mesa. The projects primarily include freeway onramps, road widenings and other transportation upgrades.

“This project is unique for several reasons, both in terms of leadership, technology and financing,” said Rudman. “Back as far as 2006, an analysis was undertaken that stated that the border wait times were costing the region money, missing out on a lot of economic opportunity, millions of dollars in fact.”

The goal of the project is to increase wait times and boost economic revenue for the region, with Otay Mesa serving as a test city for other underdeveloped communities nearby.

“The border needs to be both a barrier and a conduit at the very same time,” Breier said, likening it to the image of a valve. “Sometimes the valve needs to be firmly closed to prevent threats from entering or exiting. At other times the valve needs to be open to allow for flows in two directions. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated valve.”

Amber Ebanks is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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