Commentary: As a young international trade specialist working for the New Mexico Economic Development Department in the early 1990s, my boss sent me to Portland, Oregon for a week. My objective was to study Oregon’s trade assistance sector and to ascertain what New Mexico could learn from it. At that time, Oregon was considered innovative in its approach by locating local, state, and federal officials all under one roof in Portland’s World Trade Center, located on the banks of the Willamette River, thus fostering greater cooperation and productivity.
Upon arriving at the World Trade Center, I was escorted to a room down the hallway in which the door was left open. The administrative assistant told me that she would be gathering people from the different agencies for my first general meeting. During the next 15 minutes, a cavalcade of people tiptoed down the hall, and peeked in or waved at me, and then disappeared. Finally, the meeting participants were assembled in my conference room and the meeting was started. I made the comment that I thought I had been led to the wrong room because people kept showing up looking through the open door before quickly leaving. I thought that maybe the conference room had been double-booked.
The participants started chuckling and the director of the meeting sheepishly told me, “I apologize, but when word got out that we were having a New Mexican guest in our offices for a week, curiosity got the better of the staff and they just had to see what a New Mexican looked like. And with the North American Free Trade Agreement being negotiated, all of us are envious of your state, because you share a border with Mexico and you are probably already benefitting from trade with Mexico.” Everybody, myself included, cracked up laughing, although I did admit that I felt that some type of animal in a zoo that people were examining. It was not an uncomfortable feeling, it was more of feeling that I had just experienced a big adventure, and I was on a stage so that everybody could figure out what just happened. As I chuckled, I could not help but think that Oregon’s exports to Mexico were double New Mexico’s that same year. I knew we had a lot of work to do.
That feeling I experienced more than 20 years ago in Portland came back to me recently as I hosted a visiting group of journalists from throughout Germany, who were making stops within the U.S. to get a pulse of what is happening in our country. I was asked to make a presentation on U.S.-Mexico trade, cross-border relations, and how the border fits into the picture. As I went through my presentation, I was peppered with questions pertaining to President Trump, his proposed southern border wall, immigration restrictions, and how business flows along the border could be affected by failed NAFTA renegotiations.
The Germans were extremely polite in their questioning, but I felt that they were viewing me as somebody who was in a very unenviable situation. They were generally concerned about the direction the U.S. was taking in terms of scaling back international relations and causing discord with its North American trading partners. I was surprised at how knowledgeable they were about the NAFTA renegotiations and interested whether a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement would shut down U.S.-Mexico trade. I assured them that although terminating the agreement would not be helpful and would certainly cause some negative effects, the three North American partners traded before NAFTA and would do so if no agreement was in place.
We discussed both legal and illegal immigration. I explained to them that apprehending undocumented immigrants on the U.S. border had been steadily declining during the past few years. In terms of legal immigration, the Germans were puzzled that the U.S., with an aging population and a need to compete with other trading blocs, would not want to capture the talent that comes to the U.S. to be educated in our schools and universities. Germany has taken advantage of talent and labor from other parts of Europe to fuel its large economy. In fact, one of the Berlin-based journalists was a lady originally from Catalonia, who had been working in Germany for years.
I had the distinct feeling that the topic of Trump’s border wall was a sore spot with the Germans, most likely due to the Berlin Wall, which was erected in 1961 and used until 1989 to separate Berlin into eastern and western sectors. One journalist commented about the futility of erecting a static barrier and asked why the U.S., with all of its technological prowess, wouldn’t be focused on taking this route to control illegal entries. I explained that technology was being deployed at the border, and that I also saw the futility of erecting a border-long wall, which would be a waste of valuable resources that by itself would not stop illegal crossings.
As a final point of discussion, the Germans were alarmed at the ultra right-wing and nationalist movements that were occurring in both the U.S. and Europe. It was encouraging to me that they still viewed the U.S. as the bastion of freedom and democracy in the world; however, they were puzzled to see the sudden change in the reduction of engagement with traditional allies by the U.S.
As they left my office, I hoped that each of our sides had gained knowledge about our respective countries, and that frank discussion can help foster understanding and greater cooperation in the future.
Jerry Pacheco is President of the Border Industrial Association. His columns appear in The Albuquerque Journal.