San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg listen during the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Summit Friday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

Leaders of cities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border who gathered in San Antonio on Friday agreed that saving the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would maintain the momentum of cross-border trade and economic development.

The U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association held its seventh binational summit this week at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, with municipal leaders and experts from both sides of the border discussing how local governments are working with each other, businesses, advocacy groups, and philanthropic organizations to boost business development and trade, and even address immigration issues.

But efforts to save NAFTA, which is being renegotiated under President Donald Trump’s administration, was on most people’s minds. The United States and Mexico agreed in August on a new trade deal, and a White House advisor said Friday the U.S. is likely to have to move forward on a deal with Mexico without Canada. The U.S. imposed a deadline of  Oct. 1 to publish the text of a new pact.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said border communities represent the most positive aspects of the U.S.-Mexican relationship, particularly when it comes to trade.

“Not only do they dot the map as important points of prosperity and opportunity, but they serve as bridges between our two nations,” he said. “Our binational communities thrive on our dynamic cross-border opportunities centered on commerce, culture, and personal connections.”

This is San Antonio’s first time hosting the border mayors summit, which has been held in cities on or closer to the border. But Nirenberg said San Antonio represents, in many ways, a special place in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. He recalled how the leaders of the United States, Mexico, and Canada came to San Antonio in 1993 in a ceremonial signing of the trilateral trade pact.

Mexico is Texas’ top trading partner, with one third of all state exports going to its southern neighbor. Trade between Mexico and Texas alone is worth $200 billion per year.

“Overall, NAFTA expanded economic output in San Antonio by over $30 billion,” he said.

Nirenberg said top local employers such as H-E-B, Valero Energy Corp., and Toyota Texas rely on that cross-border interdependence.

Other leaders at the summit talked about neighboring cities on either side of the border, such as San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, capitalizing on economic synergy, which positively benefits the overall borderlands.

“We do have a history of success in working together,” Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum said. “The United States is [Mexico’s] main trading partner, with 80 percent of our exports and 50 percent of our imports.”

Gastelum echoed the view offered by his counterpart in San Diego, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, that it makes sense for both nations to support mutually beneficial trade and economic development, immigration, and environmental policies.

“As [Faulconer] said, we share the land, the water, the air, the culture,” Gastelum said. “Thousands of people cross the border every day, making millions of dollars in trade.”

Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum listens during the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Summit Friday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States, said mayors and community leaders on both sides of the border are in a position to help redefine the U.S.-Mexican relationship.

Sarukhan said anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric voiced by Trump and his supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign has had lasting, negative repercussions in national political circles.

“It’s being driven by not a disagreement on substance of policy or the mechanics of the relationship, it’s being driven by one man – one man, one narrative, and one decision that originates as a personal beef with Mexico,” Sarukhan said.

Sarukhan said thanks to positive interactions between border communities, the economic and cultural interests of the U.S. and Mexico are becoming more intertwined.

“Our economies, our cultures, our gastronomies – these are two countries that are converging,” he said. “This convergence is our great strength and resilience. That is what we need to continue to build.”

But more help is needed, specifically in investing in better roads, bridges and security at border crossings, summit attendees agreed. El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said his city sees more pedestrian crossings than any other border point in Texas.

El Paso is doing what it can to pour funds into local border infrastructure improvements, Margo said.

“We need to ensure this economic condition continues on both sides,” he added. “We’re integrally related.”

Institutions such as the North American Development Bank (NADB), based in San Antonio, and the U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership are two private-sector groups that are key players in helping to grow borderland economies.

Erika Prosper Nirenberg, chairwoman of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board, hailed the philanthropy partnership’s work, particularly in supporting groups and agencies that help children in underserved border communities.

“Sometimes when you don’t know how to help, it’s they that show you the way,” she said.

Display boards of NADB projects that have funded environmental improvements on both sides of the border were showcased Friday at the summit.

“Our mission is to finance projects that benefit the environment,” NADB Managing Director Alex Hinojosa said. “You need infrastructure to be able to do economic development, provide economic growth and create jobs.”

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.