Border obsession misses trade benefits

07/26/2014 12:00 AM

07/25/2014 6:27 PM

Texas Gov. Rick Perry made headlines last week by ordering 1,000 National Guard troops to the border.

This bravado comes at a price: $12 million a month. Perry plans to send the bill to the federal government. That’s one way to finance your presidential campaign ads.

Nothing burnishes a Republican office holder’s bona fides like aggressive talk about “sealing” or “closing” the border — nonsensical though it may be.

More than $1 billion in trade is exchanged between the U.S. and Mexico daily. Massive amounts of goods and materials traverse north and south by truck and rail.

When we talk about border crossing, this is what we should keep our eye on. It’s how the aisles are filled at many of the stores we shop at daily, and how small and large businesses will find new and growing markets.

Making such cross-border trade more fluid will position the U.S. to compete better globally and to reap the economic benefits.

The same week that Perry was flexing as commander-in-chief of Texas, a trade conference was held in Kansas City to mark the 20th anniversary of NAFTA. The contrast in sentiment couldn’t have been more striking.

“History is happening, despite what is happening in our two capitals,” said Agustin Barrios Gomez, a member of the Mexican Congress. “Washington and Mexico City will have to catch up, but society is going the way societies need to go.”

Business is pushing these connections forward, unfazed by the heated rhetoric about immigration. The Mexico-U.S. border is the most-crossed border in the world, with nearly 1 million people going back and forth for work and tourism daily. These are legal crossings, not migrants being smuggled across, a problem that has slowed to historic lows in recent years.

The crossing point at San Ysidro-Tijuana-San Diego will soon have a mind-boggling 43 lanes to accommodate the traffic. At the northern border with Canada, plans are underway for a new international trade crossing bridge and customs processing center, connecting Windsor to Detroit.

All of it will fall under the watch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It’s the too-often-overlooked customs end of the work that directly affects the economy.

Last year, U.S. exports set a new record for the fourth straight year, reaching $2.3 trillion, up nearly $700 billion since 2009.

Granted, free trade is not always fair trade, and globalization has displaced no small number of American workers and companies. Yet the arc of history is unmistakable. The economies of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are becoming more interrelated.

Plainly put, we need each other. Canada is the U.S.’s No. 1 trading partner. Mexico is third, after China. But that is expected to change, with Mexico moving into second and eventually first.

HSBC Global Research predicts that this shift is a few years away, spurred by investments in Mexico’s automotive, aerospace and energy sectors.

“We will be quite happy to cede our spot over to Mexico,” said Gilles Gauthier, minister of economic affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

Why? It’s good for all three countries to be competitive together, replies Gauthier, who also attended the Midwest trade conference.

Gauthier also noted that Congress considered 53 “Buy American” campaigns last year. We all would do better to realize that any given product may have been built in more than one North American country. A part might come from Canada and be assembled in the U.S. along with other parts from Mexico.

Guess the Obama executive order you don’t hear the GOP pitching a fit about? It’s the one from 2010 that ordered a December 2016 deadline to fix the nightmare of conflicting import/export regulations that stifle cross-border enterprise.

Spending more to chase migrants on the border may please voters, but devoting more resources to expedite and rationalize the way customs agents check cargo may be a better use for federal funds.

Gives a whole different meaning to “more boots on the ground.”

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. msanchez@kcstar.com

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