December 20, 2021
As we approach the end of another year, there is a flurry of activity that takes place in our office, our home, and at the border. This holiday season we are thankful for the reopening of borders to most people, the end of a difficult period for many merchants, the access to vaccines, and the renewed hope of better days to come. We also remember those we lost along the way, the families and friends who loved them, people who had a long bout with the virus and survived it, the businesses that closed their doors forever, and the people affected because of it.
Our board of directors met on December 2nd at SIMNSA in Tijuana. There was great curiosity about Frank Carrillo’s investment to modernize and increase the square footage of the facility. Well, he did not disappoint. The place is nothing short of spectacular, with is spacious lobbies, urgent care area and operating rooms, electric escalators, use of display technology and friendly personnel.
The investment is well over $100 million. Above all, Frank is making a statement about his belief in the future of medicine and medical tourism in Tijuana. He sees the industry growing several fold in the next decade. With 400 physicians and 1,000 employees, SIMNSA already serves at least 2,000 patients daily and will now have room for many more.
An important part of our discussion at the board of directors meeting was about how the coalition grows in stature. I invited Rafael Fernandez de Castro, Director of the Center for US-Mexican Studies at UCSD, to facilitate the dialogue. In the end, it is rather important that we change the way we do things as a border region in the areas of advocacy, governance and relationships.
Fernandez de Castro put forth a controversial thesis: Covid-19 unveiled the fact that cross-border coordination is still far away from being ideal. Washington, D.C. continues to monopolize decisions at the border, and Mexico City has marginal decision making and influence. Second, the region’s lobbying efforts are outdated: There is little lobbying in the first place and there is no strategy to lobby Congress.
Third, we lack the appropriate mechanisms for dialogue: We do not have enough governance --forums such as the Border Governors Conference, have disappeared-- and the City Mayors organization has been farmed out to a D.C. think tank.
He strongly suggested the creation of a grand “Smart CaliBaja Coalition” to manage the various issues.
The Tijuana Development Council’s Tomás Pérez Vragas has been busy at work with a parks system and mobility issues. Luis Lutteroth, the current President, has tapped Pérez-Vargas to lead the organization’s efforts to create dozens of parks in Tijuana and to accelerate mobility efforts to get fewer people to use vehicles and find ways to leverage technology to obtain sorely needed data to better understand why and where people travel.
At CDT’s Holiday party at the Lutteroth “compound” near the Club Campestre, it was evident that there is a renewed effort to make sure projects get done, but it is also clear that funding is a great concern. Typically, funds for EDC and business association enabled projects in Baja California come out of a 5% payroll tax. In recent years, state governments had not abided by the fund’s stated purpose, diverting resources for other, many times unspecified, needs.
Consequently, Tijuana faced a $200 million peso deficit for the 2020-2021 years. Instead of paying CDT with money transfers, the former state government opted to give away tracts of land in Tijuana whose claimed value was debatable, to say the least.
The new state government is currently reviewing the obligations left by the previous public administration and will hopefully go back to the model of collecting payroll taxes and channeling them to productive civil society and business association projects.
I don’t always agree with Jason Wells of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, but some of his opinions are spot on. For starters, he talks about a “balance” we had some 12 years ago when security and economy were both given equal importance by the federal government and CBP, thus allowing for shorter wait times.
Back in 2010, Alan Bersin was CBP Commissioner, overseeing the 57,000-employee work force. Bersin understood the equilibrium we needed to have between trade and security. He has been associated with the border since then, having occupied positions as Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Special Representative for Border Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security until January of 2017.
Wells also states that border communities as a whole do not have adequate representation in D.C. This is quite evident in our day-to-day dialogues with the crossing community as well as our local authorities. I realize that our Congressional delegation has done good things for our region, but it has fallen far short of where we need to be.
Now, with Chris Magnus as new CBP chief in Washington, D.C., we are hopeful that we can return to an era of more balance. And with our very own Pete Flores stepping away from his 11-year role as Director of Field Operations in our sector and becoming Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations in D.C., we will have a strategic connection to CBP.
Our Border Trade Alliance board meeting in mid-November featured Armando Taboada, head of CBP in Laredo, Texas. He listed a slew of important facts we should keep in mind. The Del Rio, Texas border crossing was shut down for one entire week due to migrant camps and attempts at crossing. This was the first time in 34 years we had seen a closure. And to give you a sense for the importance of Texas as a trading state, there are 23 ports of entry with commercial facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as 96 commercial lanes. 47 of these lanes –49% of the total-- are in Laredo, and four more will be added this year at the city’s World Trade Bridge!
The November meeting of our US-Mexico Foundation C26+ group looked at trade and people movement changes at our border as well as expectations. My experienced colleague Gerry Schwebel, Executive Vice President of IBC Bank in South Texas, has truly great expectations for the border, including “maintaining a strong supply chain network”, anticipating a much “stronger binational infrastructure planning effort”, and eyeing a “technology infrastructure movement.” Another colleague, Karyl Fowler of startup sensation Transmute (), sees interoperable data sharing and technology integration in the steel, automotive and ecommerce sectors as keys to a new, digitized border.
There are challenges such as CBP imposed disruptions with pilots. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they last far too long. The end result is that we have multiple pilots but infrequent implementations. Another challenge is CTPAT, the program that allows for more expedited trade for trusted shippers. Its growth has been stagnant.
The Smart Border Coalition recently launched a CaliBaja Travel Experience Task Force to galvanize efforts from various groups to advocate for better
flowing borders. We have a lot of pressure to perform as a region, and though CaliBaja is known for its innovative cross-border dynamic and its collaboration, there is much to improve.
Let’s take lobbying as an example. While there are groups and companies across the U.S. that devote millions to getting the word out about what they want, creating sophisticated campaigns and reaping the benefits of organized and well-funded work, we as a region cannot claim to have such organization or firepower. We are characterized by groups doing significant yet mostly isolated efforts to advocate for border issues, but it is in doing things together that we are going to get a bigger bang for the buck.
WinWerks continues to present their water treatment projects for Baja California as a complement to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding on the U.S. side of the border. The EPA has already chosen a set of solutions for the Tijuana River Valley (TRV), which it presented late last month. The Mexican Government, through the Foreign Relations Ministry (SRE) has developed a 15-project plan for water use and treatment along the entire Mexican border with the U.S., and 7 of these projects are in Tijuana. Their value is in the 500 million dollar range. However, Tijuana projects do not address water treatment and reuse. They focus on fixing an outdated distribution and collection system. I was surprised to see this as the sole objective.
I made a statement at Nadbank’s December 3rd public meeting that in part addressed the latest positive news about the bank’s decision to expand the scope of projects it handles, whether loans or grants. Essentially, I asked the bank to expand its grant making capacity in 4 areas.
The first is an opportunity to grant seed money to a mobility as a service solution (MaaS) that allows passengers in vehicles to book themselves before they go to the border, thus allowing them to wait at home and not in line. The
second is to work with our coalition to fund a Qualcomm-based Smart City program to enable traveler data at the border. The third option is to work with border communities and CBP to fund staffing for our ports of entry. The last point focused on supporting United States companies that have practical, technically and economically sound strategies to treat and reuse water in Tijuana.
Olivia Graeve, UCSD Professor and head of the University’s Center for Resilient Materials and Systems, has walked the binational walk all her life. Back in 2013 she launched a virtual summer research experience called ENLACE () for high school and college students from Tijuana and San Diego. Next summer she expects 200 students. She is working on the CaliBaja Symposium for 2022 to highlight ENLACE and its graduates. She is planning for a huge celebration with over 500 guests!
It was excellent to see Mayor Todd Gloria next to Department of Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas on December 7th. Mayorkas referred to Mayor Gloria as his “partner” and underscored the collaboration with the City of San Diego. In part, Mayorkas was celebrating border economic prosperity with the lifting of restrictions to non-essential travel so long as travelers show proof of Covid-19 vaccination.
Kudos to Paola Avila, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, for having a hand in a strategy to show Gloria’s “muscle” as the Mayor of the largest city along the border. I am convinced this strategy will continue to bear fruit.
I appreciated the opportunity to meet with U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, EPA Director Michael Regan, IBWC chief Maria Elena Giner and CILA
Director Adriana Resendez in the context of EPA’s new water treatment solution for the Tijuana River Valley. Mexico’s Foreign Relations Ministry was also present. Leading the Mexican group was Roberto Velasco, Chief for North America, with Consul General Carlos González Gutiérrez. I was also joined by Baja California’s Water Management, Sanitation and Protection Secretary, Francisco Robledo.
It is increasingly clear to me that these top level people want to solve the Tijuana River Valley crisis once and for all and that there is real camaraderie between them. I want to thank our host, Consul General Tom Reott of the Tijuana Consulate, for making this possible.
Air quality at the border is now a “thing.” In the months and years to come, the quality of the air we breathe, particularly at or close to the ports of entry, will be a significant factor in our approach to elected officials and organizations like Nadbank. For decades, crossers on foot and in vehicles have been subjected to abnormal levels of toxic fumes. We have not yet scratched the surface of the health impact these conditions have wrought. It is time we not only monitor the air but use our learnings to influence policy.
In Mexicali, there is an organization called Redspira () that has done more to monitor air quality at the border than any other organization. Its founder, Alberto Mexía, is an entrepreneur (www. ) who funds most of the needs of the small organization. In the last few years, he has been able to set up 150 monitors in different households and businesses in the Mexicali Valley and has an incredible amount of data coming from all neighborhoods in the city and valley. Thanks to his efforts, the Imperial Valley, CalEPA, and others have taken notice. A $50,000 dollar donation from Imperial Valley allowed Alberto to set up most of the sensors in place today. He has partnered with the Comité Cívico Ambiental de Mexicali () to get the word out, in turn creating various educational campaigns, primarily in elementary schools.
It is conscientious and “invested” people such as Alberto who will help us move the needle on environmental justice for all borderlanders.
Maria Elena Giner, International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) Director, met with me and a very successful water treatment expert to discuss Tijuana River Valley (TRV) treatment and reuse needs on the Mexican side of the border. The meeting was especially useful since the EPA has just approved a comprehensive water treatment plan for the TRV on the U.S. side of the border.
The EPA will be working hand-in-hand with the IBWC for years to come due to the approved $300 million for water treatment and water pollution prevention in the United States. There will be another $300 million needed to complete the U.S. side. The expansion of the International Waste Water Treatment Plant’s capacity in San Diego will be subject to an upcoming bid.
To dispel any confusion, the role of the IBWC is to apply boundary and water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico and settling differences that may arise in their application. It is technology agnostic, is not an entity that does public-private partnerships, does not given out concessions of any type and does not assume debt of any kind.
It was indeed a pleasure to speak with Senator Toni Atkins, current President of the California State Senate. She is a San Diegan with a wealth of experience in government and someone who is deeply concerned about the quality of our air and water at the border, among other aspects of the cross-border relationship. The Senator and I discussed many issues, including vehicles and used tires imported illegally into Baja California, long wait times and the effect on people’s health, Otay Mesa East Port of Entry, and cargo rail crossing at Tecate. She has two very dynamic and sharp people at her side in district representative Diana Lara and policy director Deanna Spehn.
Our next online Stakeholders Working Committee meeting will convene on January 13, 2022 from 9:00AM to 11:00AM in San Diego. You have been receiving invitations. Please register at:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
Gustavo De La Fuente
/ (619) 814-1386