Sixth Annual Building a Competitive U.S.-Mexico Border Conference

June 20, 2019

Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center


It is an honor to be here today to share ideas on how to expand our vision on the Mexico-US border region.

One of the main setbacks that we have faced in defining a lasting vision of our border is that it tends to be analyzed under narrow perspectives that prevent us from understanding it as a whole.

Ordinary Americans hear single stories about the border that often fail to capture its complexities and its opportunities.

Any vision that intends to look into the future needs a careful consideration of the past in order to give coherence to the present.

The history of the border is so rich that the existence of communities on both sides predates the notion of Mexico and the United States as the nation-states they are today. From the 16th Century, there were forts and missions established by members of Catholic religious orders in the territories that are now part of our common border.

After the Mexican American War, the members of the Joint U.S. and Mexican Boundary Commission that oversaw the commission’s work on the western boundary line had difficulty imagining how a steep and rocky terrain, with freezing temperatures in the mountains and scorching heat in the desert could become a productive part of a country.

According to historian Rachel St. John, in 1851 Dr. Thomas Webb, the U.S. commission’s secretary declared that the territory at the western border was “worthless for any purpose than to constitute a barrier or natural line of demarcation between two neighboring nations.”

However, at the beginning of the 20th Century, international capital and a bi-national railroad network fostered a new understanding of the border and created new transborder ties.

The realities on the ground made it clear that the only way to achieve the most basic common goals, such as marking the border, suppressing transborder raids and facilitating the flow of trade and investment, required the adoption of binational strategies.

Cooperation became a necessity for both Mexicans and Americans.

As the border experienced dramatic changes and took on new meanings, we managed to turn this necessity into a spirit of binational cooperation. This is another part of the story.

The very same existence of this valuable conference is a perfect example of this binational cooperation.

Increasingly, legitimate security concerns, but also grim tales about the border have managed to capture the narrative of one of the busiest and most frequently crossed international borders in the world.

Mexico is convinced that the security of the border is primordial because it cannot thrive without the most basic security guarantees. However, while the security focus helps us see many things what it hides is crucial: our border is an environment of opportunity defined by social and commercial exchanges, and of common natural landscapes.

Yes, the border is a customs and immigration checkpoint, but it is way more than that. At different times, the border is a marker of national identities, a site of transborder trade, a home to binational, bicultural and bilingual communities, and also a symbol of our economic stature as a region.

Together, the 10 Border States, which comprise approximately 15 million people, would constitute the world’s 4th largest economy. Also, twenty-three U.S. states count Mexico as their No.1 or No.2 export market, including the four Border States of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. This is also the size and relevance of our border.


When we talk about the border, we are also talking about us. We are talking about people that move, that invest, that shop and that socialize across the boundary line. When we talk about the border we talk about ranchers, railroad builders, miners, investors and immigrants. We talk about thousands of people who cross the border every single day in both directions to work, conduct business, attend school or get medical treatment.

It is paradoxical that a narrative of a lawless, out of control border, has become part of the political language at a time when San Ysidro, San Diego – El Chaparral, Tijuana for example, is the busiest land border crossing in the world.

A dysfunctional border without the intense cooperation that Mexican and the U.S. authorities have managed to achieve would never be able to successfully manage our numbers: 56 ports of entry, 80% of our bilateral trade and daily crossings of 1 million people, 425,000 vehicles and 30,000 trucks.

San Diego and Tijuana are, in fact, increasingly linked. Both cities have become a hub for manufacturing and services with a strong presence of high technology businesses. As you well know, the Tijuana Airport is the world's first geographically binational airport as its cross-border terminal connects with Otay Mesa in San Diego.

The Mexican government understands that a border with solid infrastructure will boost the competitiveness and prosperity of our region. A prosperous border will attract more trade and tourism, it will foster the creation of more jobs, and it will generate a positive impact on the living standards of our peoples on both sides.

With this in mind, we have worked on a number of joint projects that tell another part of the story.

Both our governments share the objective of promoting greater economic competitiveness and security. For this reason, we work together through the 21st Century Border Management Initiative (2010) and the Binational Bridges and Border Crossing Group (1983). These two mechanisms regularly monitor and ensure the implementation of specific actions to improve our infrastructure, and to facilitate the movement of goods and people in a safe, efficient, expeditious and lawful manner.

Our two governments have also been working towards ensuring regional security and expedient inspection procedures. Last year, our countries started implementing the Unified Cargo Processing program (UCP) at 13 Ports of Entry, allowing officials from Mexico and the United States to conduct joint inspections of cargo in one place, at the same time, in order to reduce wait times and increase efficiency in trade.

Furthermore, in 2018 we also signed a series of MOUs to increase agriculture safeguarding and to combat the illicit flows of goods at the border.


This doesn’t mean we are ignorant of the significant challenges that remain on the road ahead.

We are well aware that the common opportunities that stand before us cannot be fully realized, and will not be fully realized, without a careful reconsideration of the difficulties that lie ahead.

For example, the land ports of entry that make trade and tourism possible have an outdated or beyond-capacity infrastructure. Also, there are often insufficient numbers of Customs and Border Protection agents to staff the land ports of entry efficiently and adequately.

We also need to stop slowing down or closing down border crossings to avoid raising costs for Mexican manufacturers that carry over to American consumers. We need to work towards the opening of new strategic crossing-points.

Furthermore, the managing of migration flows from Central America will require continued dialogue and coordination.

These examples allow us to accept the seriousness of the challenges we face, and to value the encouraging trends in order to work towards the future. Now, more than ever, we need to increase our dialogue in order to better align our priorities.


The history of the border has been a balance between change and continuity. The U.S. commission’s secretary that claimed in 1851 that the territory at the border was “worthless for any purpose than to constitute a barrier or natural line of demarcation between two neighboring nations”, was proven completely wrong.


On the other hand, the consolidation of the idea of cooperation as a necessity that arose in the beginning of the 20th century is perhaps more valid now than ever. If we fail to acknowledge this fact, we will continue to face the same obstacles over and over again.


It is up to us to define our approach towards the border and to our bilateral relationship at large, not by the challenges that we face but by the prosperity and the opportunities that we can create together.


Thank you very much.