Security, trade, family bind both sides of border

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By Pam Frederick

From the roof of the commercial customs lanes at the US-Mexico border in El Paso, TX, a line of trucks four lanes wide stretches beyond sight into the Mexican city of Juárez. A similar line of cars inch along, idling for hours, towards the Bridge of the Americas, one of 10 border crossings in the region.

The view makes one point perfectly clear: free trade between the US and Mexico is not ending anytime soon. And no one around these parts knows that better than local business owners.

“We build everything together,” says Miriam Kotkowski, the owner of Omega Trucking located just three miles from the border crossing at Santa Teresa, N.M. Her father started his business in New Mexico 50 years ago, crossing cattle. She and her brother then started the trucking business 19 years ago, and make at least 10 cross-border trips a day, hauling oversized and overweight items such as the molds for 140-foot wind turbine blades, which are cast in Mexico.

“There’s a partnership between the two countries,” Kotkowski says. “I believe that Mexico is a kind of workforce for the United States.”

In this stretch of high desert, surrounded by rust-colored mountains rising over both sides of a broad valley, three states, two nations and more than 2.5 million people meet in what is called the Paso del Norte, the pass to the north. Think of it as three corners, with Texas then New Mexico to its east sharing the border with the state of Chihuahua, Mexico to the south.

It’s this spot that President Trump has in mind when he talks about ending the North American Free Trade Agreement and reinstating tariffs on imported goods. The symbiotic relationship between the two nations extends to all ways of life here: Mexican students cross the border to go to college; friends from both sides of the bridge meet in Juárez for margaritas; American kids cross over in the afternoon to go biking in the Mexican desert.

But the world of commerce could not be more robust. Mexico is the US’s third largest trading partner, and nearly $2 billion dollars of goods and services cross the border every day

Mexico is the top export destination for five states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and New Hampshire, and is the second most important market for another 17 states across the country, even states in the heartland such as Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Michigan, according to the Wilson Center. The Detroit metro area exports more goods to Mexico than any other state.

The way business people here see it, the economy here is more regional than international. The two nations together make for a more diverse economic system. And, they say, a more diverse system is a more competitive system.

“NAFTA could be the strongest trade pact worldwide, and you really want regional dominance.,” says John Rippee, the vice president of border solutions for Tecma, his family’s company in El Paso.

Rippee’s grandfather started as a peanut farmer in Oklahoma. Three generations later he’s an Army attack helicopter pilot by trade and permanently settled in El Paso, a town and a region he says he’s “bullish on.” Tecma operates 37 plants in Mexico (with another on the way), employs more than 7,000 people, makes 18,000 border crossings annually and has offices and warehouses in both El Paso and Mexico City. Put simply, the company straddles the border, every day.

“It’s very much integrated — borderland regions are very unique in that regard,” says Rippee, who received his master’s degree from the University of Texas at El Paso between serving in two wars. “The cultures don’t care about a border. And it’s our job as a company to make that border disappear and be more efficient.”

When Rippee talks about efficiency, he’s really talking about the process at US Customs and Border Control, where agents inspect 11,000 trucks coming into the United States from Mexico every day. As Ruben Jauregui, chief officer for customs says, “If it’s manufactured or assembled in Mexico, it came through here.”

Jauregui immigrated to the US as a 6-year-old and still remembers crossing the border as a child to visit family, and falling asleep on the couch at his uncle’s house in El Paso as he waited for his parents to pick him up to return home after a night out. He served in the Marines for four years after high school, traveling all over the world before coming back home to take a job as an agent.

The way he sees the role of the agency is safety and security first, with the facilitation of travel coming in at a close second, especially for commercial haulers.

“We know the importance, the impact,” says Jauregui. “So it’s important that we get it right every time.”

Over the lines of traffic — 100,000 vehicles and pedestrians crossings each day at the El Paso point of entry alone — the panorama of the border region stretches for miles in every direction, from the sprawl of Juarez that extends to the base of Sierra de Cristo Rey to the low rise of El Paso as it continues to the hills of the Franklin Mountains. From this view it’s easy to see the border as less of a division and more of a connection.

“We have relationships, we have people that we care about.,” says Rippee. “It is no different than if we were in Ohio or New York or anywhere else. This is our home, this is our family and this is how we operate.”

This multimedia story was produced for 2017 Dow Jones Multimedia Training Academy by Cleo Allen, Pam Frederick, Wendy L. Moore and Gerald Townsend.

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