Border states forge their own foreign policy

Common interests drive US and Mexican governors to reach across tortilla curtain.

They meet several times a year, negotiate trade and environmental agreements with foreign powers, and trade war stories about what it's like to run a government.

No, they're not members of President Clinton's Cabinet (although one supposes they do this too), and they're not part of some secretive New World Order.

They're the governors of America's four Southwestern border states and their six Mexican counterparts. And their annual Border Governors Conferences and bimonthly talk-shops are a sign of not just how much warmer US-Mexican relations have grown since the days of General Pershing and Pancho Villa, but also how the balance of power is shifting subtly from Washington to state capitals.

"There's always been international cooperation at the citizen-to-citizen, business-to-business, city-to-city level," says Julie Blase, a researcher in US-Mexican trade at the University of Texas at Austin. But the increasing role of states in setting foreign policy is unusual in American history, she says, and it's growing so fast that "it's outpacing current law on both sides of the border."

It's hard to imagine such a relationship burgeoning under a hands-on, controlling president like Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Richard Nixon. But since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1996, states have begun driving foreign policy under the motto that all politics is local, even when the foreign nation lives next door.

It's an arrangement that has largely escaped controversy, in part because federal officials in Washington and Mexico City still retain final word on any treaty. But experts say the results of all this state involvement may be felt in important ways, on everything from trade ties to the environment and even labor relations.

Driving the new state involvement in US-Mexican policies are several factors, most prominently the integration of the US and Mexican economies under NAFTA, says Kevin Middlebrook, director of the Center for US- Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego. Drawing together these two different countries, with their distinct legal systems and business cultures, "requires the involvement of state governors in ways that weren't so in the past," he says.

But state-to-state relations go back before NAFTA, to 1979, when Republican Gov. Bill Clements of Texas and Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona asked President Jimmy Carter for permission to meet with the Mexican governors to talk about common problems.

"Our common goal is that we have a common border, and we're all dependent on each other's trade," says Jorge Garces, chief negotiator under Mr. Clements and now under Gov. George W. Bush. "We also have a very large Hispanic population, so the region has an identity that you don't find anywhere else in the US."

The role of state governors in all this has been subtle, but much more than cutting ribbons at new border crossings.

*In immigration, state officials pushed Washington to delay parts of the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act until 2001, and to cut the visa fee for Mexicans visiting the US.

*In agriculture, the 10 states formed a committee and signed a pact in which each party agrees to work toward strengthening sanitary practices, pest prevention, and food safety enforcement.

*In economic matters, the states are exploring ways to attract industries to both sides of the border, from manufacturing and health services to tourism.

States have taken individual steps as well. To deal with car theft and crime, the state of Chihuahua has set up a register of foreign vehicles with owner and vehicle information. Texas has established a toll-free number for Mexican officials to obtain information about cars they suspect have been stolen.

To deal with a recent flood of immigrants on its border, and a dearth of workers in its interior, Arizona has asked the federal government to test a guest-worker visa to manage the migrant flow.

"It's not our side and your side," says Margie Emmermann, the chief negotiator for Gov. Jane Hull (R) of Arizona. "It's how do we ... grow throughout the border region, and not just my little area."

Still, just because the 10 state governors have common problems to deal with doesn't mean they have common solutions. In the US, three of the border governors are Republicans and one is a Democrat. In Mexico, partisan politics is rearing its head as well, as some governors cling to the long-ruling PRI party, while others embrace newly elected President Vicente Fox.

At meetings, this partisanship rarely leads to shoe-throwing, but it can often lead to stalemate. One participant in the negotiations, who asks anonymity, says glumly, "Off the record, there is no common ground. On anything."

For some critics, this lack of forward movement brings mixed feelings. Environmentalists, for instance, worry that governors are more likely to focus on the agendas of large business interests, but they encourage states to speed up the regulation of new industries that they say are bringing pollution to the Southwest.

Similarly, labor activists welcome new thinking on immigration issues, but worry the governors are sidestepping the issue of wages and working conditions in Mexican border factories.

But Ms. Emmermann says the process is geared to speed up or slow down, depending on the collective political will on both sides.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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