Of all the counties in the United States, only 24 share a border with Mexico. Representatives of those counties came together at a special summit Thursday and Friday, Sept. 24 and 25, in El Paso, to discuss their common needs and their common goals.
Of the 24 U.S. counties that border Mexico, Doña Ana County is among the biggest, both in terms of population and geographic area. For that reason, County Commission Chairman Gilbert Apodaca said, it is imperative that Doña Ana County participate in the ground-breaking move of organizing a multi-county organization devoted to addressing issues along the U.S.-Mexico corridor.
As a charter member of the U.S./Mexico Border Counties Coalition, Apodaca said, Doña Ana County would position itself to share resources and affect lobbying decisions before the U.S. Congress. Among the concerns already identified by all the participating counties, Apodaca said, are the financial burdens on border counties associated with educating Mexican children who enrol in U.S. schools and detaining Mexican criminal defendants who commit crimes in U.S. states.
Currently, Apodaca said, costs associated with those problems – and others like them – are borne primarily by county taxpayers with only limited support from the federal government, even though it is the federal government that mandates strict border controls.
Apodaca echoed El Paso County Judge Chuck Mattox, who told the delegates assembled Friday that, individually, the border counties have very little clout in Washington, but as a coalition, they could act together to insist that the federal government step up to the plate to assist border counties in dealing with the costs associated with unique border issues.
According to a position paper drawn up by delegates to the coalition planning meeting, other issues that the coalition should address in its first year include:
* Working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to limit fines levied against border communities for non-compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. Many delegates whose communities are in close proximity with Mexican communities pointed out that evacuating whole areas on the U.S. side of the border would not bring those areas into compliance with the Clean Air Act because the Mexican communities don’t recognize the EPA’s authority, and the wind knows no borders. On the U.S. side, Apodaca said, communities should make every effort to comply with EPA emission regulations, but they should not be punished when compliance is compromised by emissions from Mexico.
* Lobbying the federal government to spend disproportionately more on border infrastructure than is currently allocated. The delegates agreed that cross-border traffic, much of it spawned by the North American Free Trade Agreement, is stressing border communities’ infrastructures, but present federal assistance funding formulas take into account only the U.S. population base.
* Lobbying the federal government for increased assistance in the area of indigent health care. The delegates all complained that federal mandates for indigent care unfairly impact border communities, whose health care systems must address a disproportionate number of indigent clients, as well as be prepared for outbreaks of sickness and disease related to the drug trade and less stringent vaccination requirements in Mexico.
Mattox called each of these areas “indisputably in the purview of the federal government” and said the formation of a U.S./Mexico Border Counties Coalition to address the issues collectively is “long overdue.”
Apodaca said he will propose that Doña Ana County immediately join the coalition and begin paying dues of $500 each month beginning in November of this year. Dues, he said, are determined according to population of the various member counties. The coalition also plans to seek associate memberships from corporate sponsors along the border who have clear interests in the coalition’s long-term success.
All the monies raised by dues and associate memberships, he said, will go toward administrative and lobbying costs associated with achieving the coalitions goals.
“This is an historic opportunity for Doña Ana County to get in on the ground floor of an important new organization whose focus is on the betterment of border communities,” Apodaca said. “Just meeting the other border county delegates and sharing among ourselves the common challenges we face has been a great start. The next steps of the organization will go a long way toward making every county along the border a better place to live. As one of the larger counties, we have much to gain from actively participating.”