The Bi-National Sustainability Laboratory is perhaps best described by its mantra, “Growing Regional Wealth Through Innovation”, where it looks to harness advanced and emerging technologies to promote economic development in the border region. However as part of the Lab’s vision of success in the border region we underscore the need for “Building Bridges, Not Walls” as we look to make a paradigm shift in the border’s economic culture and landscape. While the creation of individual businesses will certainly generate wealth for the specific individuals and companies created, the social impact goes well beyond those individuals or companies. Simply establishing wealth generating opportunities in the border region has secondary and tertiary impacts that go well beyond a single company or set of individuals. “Trickle down” economics in this sense does work. It provides a positive and vibrant stream of new jobs and business opportunities that extends well into the communities hosting these economic generators. It also offers hope in a time where the current regime of crime and violence, inextricably tied to poverty and joblessness makes life in Mexico’s border particularly hopeless and bleak.
The BNSL promotes a number of broad social impacts through its activities. While there is no one solution to the drug violence, business creation with concurrent opportunities for well paying jobs at the very least can mitigate the effect of the drug cartels in the economic structure of the region. Those jobs in turn can create additional jobs/opportunities extending to the most vulnerable members of society (the young, the poor, the uneducated) allowing for alternate pathways in life to those brandished by the cartels. Job creation in Mexico also has a direct impact on illegal immigration to the US. Jobs in Mexico are of prime importance to help stem the tide of Mexican workers surging northward—a surge based more on pure survivalism than a desire to relocate in the U.S. New jobs in Mexico providing livable wages for Mexican workers can only mitigate illegal migration. The creation of new wealth generation opportunities in Mexico, especially in the border region will provide those jobs. Another important impact of the BNSL’s efforts is the creation of technology-based businesses that will employ the new, young engineers and scientists being educated and trained in our border institutions of higher education. The University of Texas at El Paso graduates the largest number of Hispanic engineers and scientists in United States. Yet, despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars by institutions such as UTEP, these highly skilled men and women opt to leave the border region for jobs that can use their talents and advance their careers. The BNSL works to stem this regional “brain drain” as new businesses and economic developments are created through its activities.
Current debate on the southern border and illegal immigration for a variety of reasons focuses almost entirely on physical security—boots on the ground, fences / barriers (walls), surveillance and technology, etc—and ignores opportunities for cultural and social security, security that only comes with a populace that enjoys a high quality of life, one with good jobs and good wages. While certainly we need to invest in physical security we must also invest in those strategies that address the root causes of the problems associated with the border. As such we think building bridges, not walls focused on economic development is a strategy that must be adopted if we are truly to be secure at the border. We believe the BNSL provides the model for beginning that process.– Paul Maxwell
*This article was originally included in material presented by the author in April, 2011