BY DAVID FITZGERALD & JOHN D. SKRENTNY JULY 3, 2013
An effort to dramatically increase spending on U.S. border enforcement was a key reason for Senate passage of immigration reform and will be key to bipartisan support in the House. The debate has focused on walling off the border rather than thinking of it as a conduit. Yet border states such as California, and cities such as San Diego, have the unique opportunity to leverage proximity to Mexico to generate jobs and bolster economic growth for the themselves and the United States as a whole. By further integrating with its Mexican sister city, Tijuana, San Diego could become an international trade hub of more than 5 million people in a binational, regional metropolis.
The economic challenges of recent years have aroused fear and skepticism in the United States around global trade and outsourcing. While moving manufacturing outside the United States can cost American jobs, not all trade and outsourcing is equal. Mexico’s shared border with the United States mitigates the costs associated with trade and maximizes the benefits. Many goods imported from Mexico are actually coproduced on both sides of the border, creating jobs for American workers. In fact, according to a report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 40 percent of the value of imports from Mexico was actually created in the United States by American workers — about 10 times the level of value created in the United States for goods imported from China. Coproduction keeps jobs in North America that might otherwise be lost altogether overseas.
A further benefit of trade from Mexico compared to transoceanic trade is environmental. While all transport of goods relies on the burning of fossil fuels, trade within North America has a smaller environmental footprint and thus produces less pollution and greenhouse gases than transoceanic transport.
The benefits of integration are clear, but many barriers stymie its full potential.
A 2007 study by the San Diego Association of Governments found that border wait times cost the regional economy $7.2 billion in lost economic output and more than 62,000 lost jobs. The hassle of crossing is a major deterrent to mobility. Improvements underway at the San Ysidro crossing and the upgrading of state Route 905 to Otay Mesa are a good start, but more could be done. Programs like FAST (Free and Secure Trade Program) and SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) that speed crossing for businesses and individuals who have undergone background checks could be expanded. Additional spending authorized by a new immigration bill could ease the logjam, with more agents dedicated to processing travelers and goods, rather than further militarizing a border between two friendly countries.
Old and limited-capacity border infrastructure is another impediment. On the Tijuana side, the design of roads feeding into the border crossing area is confusing and aggravating for drivers. A faster trolley service from downtown San Diego to the border would spur tourism in both directions. An expansion of the San Diego port could export goods coproduced in San Diego and Baja California. To his credit, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner has identified border development as a top priority. Yet the mayor faces an uphill battle, as much of the problem with border infrastructure is resolved at the federal level.
Although San Diego has been a border-crossing city as long as there has been a border, the city’s rail, freeway and air links historically made it a southern spur of Los Angeles rather than an important link for the entire state. A more robust partnership between San Diego and Tijuana would re-center the region. Rather than San Diego being the end of the line, it would be a major hub linking the two Californias. The immigration reform now being debated in Congress provides the opportunity to make this dream a reality.
FitzGerald and Skrentny are co-directors of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, and co-leaders of the San Diego Scholars Strategy Network.