Rocío Guenther for the Rivard Report
GUADALAJARA, MEXICO – Overpopulation, climate change, border security, and mass transit are among major challenges countries across the globe currently face. Traditionally, national leaders have led the conversation and the policymaking to combat these issues. But can leading that charge at the local level contribute to national and global goals, and should local governments do more than just provide basic city services?
A group of more than 60 mayors and public officials from more than 30 U.S. and Mexican cities who attended panel discussions Friday at the inaugural All Mexico-U.S. Sister Cities Mayors’ Summit think so. In fact, many of them believe it is paramount that cities all over the world collaborate on solutions.
"We all know that solutions to our world's problems are created at the local level," said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who led a delegation of more than 20 members of the San Antonio business and education community to Guadalajara on Thursday for the start of the summit.
"San Antonio's approach on climate, flood control, and water purification will impact our neighbors thousands of miles away ... and the work we do to create friendships [with other cities] will be the bedrock of our economies generations from now."
Many citizens complain about the federal government's inaction or believe that implementing policy on a national level takes too long, said Tim Keller, mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, but cities are stepping up to fill that leadership void.
"The needs of our cities will not be solved only by providing public services such as collecting garbage, fixing lighting, or caring for public parks," Guadalajara Mayor Juan Enrique Ibarra added in Spanish. "Local governments are facing a more demanding citizenry, which calls for transparent solutions to day-to-day problems. It's pivotal that municipal government leaders all over the world step up to the plate to face our problems on a national and global scale."
All mayors in attendance stressed the importance of the Sister Cities network, which promotes long-term relationships between cities and municipal, business, trade, educational, and cultural exchanges. Diplomatic officials representing the U.S. Department of State and Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs who spoke Friday called the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the U.S. "unique" and "multifaceted," with trade at its forefront.
"New Mexico couldn’t even survive as a state if the U.S. were to cut off trade with Mexico," Keller said, adding that the most recent state audit showed most of New Mexico's exports end up in Mexico.
Magdalena Carrasco, vice mayor of San Jose, California, said Mexico is California's No. 1 commercial partner as well. Around 5 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico, according to a recent study by the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy forum that addresses global issues through independent research.
"We do get involved in political debates over immigration, over bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations," Nirenberg told the crowd at the Centro de la Amistad in downtown Guadalajara, adding that the North American Free Trade Agreement was initialed in San Antonio in 1992.
"We have to embrace our neighbors to the north, to the south, and across the world in order for us to thrive as a community. Our relationship with Mexico is not one of partnership, it's one of family. We are Mexico, in fact, we were Mexico."
Immigration Challenges and Successes
San Antonio City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) participated in a panel about success stories and trends in immigration between Mexico and the U.S. Friday. Joining her were Bill Boerum, Sister Cities International chair emeritus; Jorge Canavati, San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce international business co-chair; Zulma Maciel, City of San Jose Office of Immigrant Affairs director; Raul Tadeo, mayor of Cuautla in the central Mexican state of Michoacán; and Mexican immigration expert Alejandro Luna.
Gonzales, whose district is 97 percent Hispanic, is the daughter of immigrants. San Antonio's municipal government has had to step in several times to respond to recent immigration challenges, Gonzales said, which prompted the City to hire an immigration liaison.
In December 2016, "more than 200 immigrant women and children [who had just been granted asylum in the U.S.] were dumped at a Mennonite church with no food or supplies," Gonzales said. "But the city came together and donated supplies to support these families. Within three days, all those people went back to their families in the U.S."
The City also took action when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detained a local DACA student and threatened deportation for possessing a small amount of marijuana, Gonzales said.
"Josué, who was just 18 years old, was taken to jail and he was going to be deported," she explained. "Everyone came together and the city rallied together to provide him with legal assistance."
The City is also working with the San Antonio Police Department to ensure that immigrants who were victims of a crime receive assistance in applying for a U.S. visa, Gonzales said. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” law, San Antonio and Bexar County joined the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other municipal governments in a lawsuit to block it.
"These are just some success stories of cooperation [that show] how cities can make a difference," Gonzales said.
The City of Morelia implemented a program called Sin Fronteras, Tadeo explained, which assists local Mexican families in getting temporary visas so they can reunite with undocumented family members in the U.S.
"There were parents that hadn't seen their sons or daughters for over 20 or 30 years, which was very moving," Tadeo said. "The Mexican consulates are helping with this program, and we are looking to expand it."
Canavati, who is originally from Mexico and came to the U.S. in the 1970s, said the process of becoming a U.S. citizen took years and involved "nightmare" paperwork and bureaucracy. Through his experience and bicultural upbringing, he strives to help people on both sides of the border who want to do business in trade. "We have to promote biculturalism to be successful," he said
Around 38 percent of the population in San Jose, California is foreign-born, Maciel told the audience, which is why the city created an office specifically dedicated to foreign affairs in 2015.
"We had to start thinking – how do we support all immigrants in our communities, from Dreamers, to manual laborers, to scientists," Maciel said. "The values of San Jose contradict those of the White House, so now we have more services for the undocumented to inform, protect, and defend them."
City officials in San Jose are still developing strategies to build more welcoming communities and provide more opportunities for social, economic, and linguistic integration for immigrants, Maciel said.
"Why do we invest in this? Because we believe that immigrants drive the economy in San Jose and Silicon Valley," she said. "Inaction on our part would be detrimental to our economy. We have 83,000 permanent legal residents who are eligible to become citizens. Now more than ever, it's time for them to become citizens and vote."