California-Mexico relations are strong. This bill can help make them stronger

By Jerry Sanders and Alfredo Pedroza, Special to CalMatters

California shares more than 140 miles of our border with Mexico, and the flow of goods and people across the border is critical to the state’s success. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom can help improve that vital relationship by signing Senate Bill 558. It’s a bill that will grant official recognition to the importance of our close proximity and shared values, which have resulted in one of the strongest economic, cultural, and social regions in the world. 

Nowhere is this relationship stronger than when discussing the economic realities of the California-Mexico border region. Each day, thousands of Mexico-residing visitors cross over to California to shop for groceries or back-to-school supplies, and California-residing travelers visit Mexico for dinner or to see their dentist. 

In fact, every month 5.9 million people cross our border into California to spend millions of dollars in our stores and visit our parks and beaches. The economic impact isn’t felt solely in the border region. A growing binational economy has enormous implications across the state.

In 2018, California’s exports to Mexico totaled $30.7 billion. Mexico purchases 17% of all California exports, making it the state’s No. 1 export market. Trade with Mexico supports 566,000 jobs in the state. 

However, the benefits of a partnership with Mexico are not yet fully realized. We are far behind other states, especially other border states. Texas’ exports to Mexico in 2017 outdid ours by more than $70 billion.

Sharing our border with Mexico comes with a unique set of challenges. 

The San Ysidro Land Port of Entry is the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. An average per day of 70,000 northbound vehicle passengers and 20,000 northbound pedestrians cross through it into California. 

Unfortunately, this high volume of traffic has caused our border wait times to increase, and the idling cars are having a huge impact on the air quality in the region.

This is only one of many challenges impacting our relationship with Mexico. From pollution at the Tijuana River Valley and New River, to students who are forced to split their educational careers between California and Mexico, California cannot and should not have to wait to address these issues and activate the full potential of California and Mexico’s shared production platform.

Unfortunately, the more negative attention the border region receives, the harder it becomes to address these and other issues. 

The worsening of these problems can partly be attributed to red tape and a federal government that lacks a common understanding of the border region dynamics. 

This lack of understanding is compounded by slow-moving and politically-driven government agencies that seem to be buried in protocols that have become less about solving problems and achieving goals, and more about reflecting a defensive posture.

Indeed, the federal government and the state are missing something that the San Diego-Tijuana region knows very well. To address cross-border issues, you need constant and ongoing conversations with the people of Mexico, and plans developed by community members on the front lines of our relationship. 

All this brings us back to Senate Bill 558, by Sen. Ben Hueso, San Diego Democrat. The Legislature approved it with overwhelming bipartisan support. This bill would establish a commission on California-Mexico affairs to help us realize the full set of benefits that come with a strong California-Mexico partnership. 

By deputizing members of the public into commissioner roles, we can lead these ongoing conversations, create a strategy for California-Mexico relations and make community-driven policy recommendations. 

Community organizations, nonprofits and private businesses have led efforts to work with the people of Mexico to address cross-border problems.

But California needs to invest in our relationship with Mexico by giving strong community leaders tools to ensure that our economic interests are prioritized, and to address the Trump Administration, which is more focused on scoring political points than helping the people of our state. 

As individuals with broad experience working with Mexico, we know how imperative strategic long-term planning is to solving some of these problems. SB 558 will accomplish that while ensuring that the government acts in the best interests of those most impacted by this binational relationship.

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Jerry Sanders is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, [email protected]. Alfredo Pedroza is president of the Latino Caucus of California Counties, [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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