Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Revitalizing the Border Governor’s Conference

by Shannon K. O'Neil
September 27, 2011

Governors (L-R) Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan of Baja, Humberto Moreira Valdes of Coahuila, Texas Governor Rick Perry, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jose Natividad Gonzalez Paras of Nuevo Leon, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and Eduardo Bours Castelo of Sonora pose as characters from the movie "Terminator" at the 26th Border Governors Conference (Courtesy Reuters).

This week the Mexican state of Baja California will host the two-day Border Governor’s Conference. Started nearly two decades ago, the annual meeting brings together governors from all four U.S. and six Mexican border states to discuss the issues directly affecting their states and citizens. At its height in the early 2000s, the governors and their ministers met not just with each other but also with representatives from Commerce, Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other departments and agencies to influence border-centered debates in both Washington, DC and Mexico City.

But in recent years the conference has fallen on hard times, a victim of polarizing politics. The 2009 session hinted at the divides, as the governors of Arizona, California and Texas failed to make it to Monterrey due to “scheduling conflicts.” It hit its nadir in 2010 in the wake of Arizona SB 1070. The Mexican governors wrote a letter calling the law “discriminatory [and] racist” and announced their plan to boycott the meeting if hosted, as planned, by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in Phoenix. Brewer cancelled the conference in retaliation. In the end, Governor Richardson of New Mexico held the meeting, but no other U.S. governors attended, leaving the future of this consultative mechanism in limbo.

The conference also has suffered from a sprawling agenda and size. With its initial successes the agenda items grew, as did the number of participants. In recent years there have been some 25 working groups on topics ranging from wildlife to science and technology. The influx of hundreds of staffers and activists has made the process much more cumbersome, and reduced the intimacy and spirit of cooperation that guided the conference in the past. Reduced in large part to the signing of agreements and photo opportunities, many governors (particularly from the United States), began skipping the event.

As the United States and Mexico search for common ground and mutual solutions to pressing problems, it is time to revitalize this mechanism. It should refocus on practical problems facing the border states and their residents. Rather than covering the gamut, the agenda should be streamlined to emphasize a few vital issues. It must enable leaders to actually meet and discuss the serious challenges facing their states and constituencies, re-energizing the consultative element of the event. Most pressing today is security, where policy so far has been guided from the center, even though the effects are concentrated on the border.

Once refocused, the border governors need to organize better to influence their respective governments, shaping policies that in turn shape the border. One potential model is the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER), which brings together state legislators, governors, civil society and businesses to lobby the federal government and strengthen U.S.-Canada border security and the region’s economic competitiveness. Another is scaling up the San Diego Association of Governments’s (SANDAG) annual binational conference, which brings together local leaders in California and Baja California to address just one broad agenda item at each meeting – such as the economic impact of wait times at shared border crossings.

As Arizona Governor, Janet Napolitano repeatedly said that one of her closest day-to-day working relationships was with Sonora Governor Eduardo Bours. This reality – that cross-border issues and events strongly affect border state residents’ daily lives — hasn’t changed. Revitalizing the Border Governor’s Conference is one means to address these shared challenges, and reincorporate regional problem-solving strategies into larger U.S.-Mexico debates.


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