Jon Barela, CEO of Borderplex Alliance. Photo courtesy Borderplex Alliance
It wasn’t Jon Barela’s idea to end up at ground zero in the increasingly heated debate regarding U.S. relations with Mexico, immigration, the proposed building of a wall between the two countries, and a possible U.S. 20 percent tax on imported goods from Mexico.
“The policies that are emanating from the new administration and the discussions occurring in the new 115th Congress have in fact put our region at the forefront of national discussions,” Barela diplomatically says of an increasingly fractious divide between the two countries.
“Clearly,” adds Barela, those rancorous policy debates, have become “the first topic of conversation today with business people, and I think the general public alike.”
Barela came to his new job as chief executive officer of the El Paso-based Borderplex Alliance in October, after serving for nearly six years as director of the Economic Development Department of the State of New Mexico.
He arrived during the height of a U.S. presidential campaign seeing Republican nominee Donald Trump pushing for the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, a wall that would cost anywhere from $8 to $15 billion to build. Trump also insisted that the construction of that wall would be paid for by the Mexican government.
Trump also attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, calling it the “worst deal ever approved in this country,” and suggesting it could be done away with.
Barela says he decries any heightened rhetoric threatening to undo trade and business relations over the border, and has a different view of NAFTA than now-President Trump.
“It’s been a very successful agreement that has led to the creation of between 5 and 6 million jobs,” says Barela.
“In the border region and throughout the country, most business people - most people who are familiar with the bilateral relationship with Mexico - understand and know that NAFTA has been a successful instrument,” says Barela.
“It has created millions of jobs on both sides of the border,” he continues. “In fact, it has stabilized the southern border.”
But Barela acknowledges that “the agreement itself does need to be modernized and strengthened.”
A three-state, two country organization representing southern New Mexico, El Paso, and Juarez, the Borderplex Alliance is five years old and dedicated to promoting economic development in all three places.
Barela sees his job as one of promoting the region’s “business climate, our way of life, our quality of life, and to show that it is in fact a great place to invest.”
Barela also takes seriously the Borderplex Alliance’s goal to strengthen border infrastructure, noting that “an investment in infrastructure is also an investment in border security.”
“Some of the ways of creating infrastructure is creating new ports of entry, expanding ports of entry, improving the thru-lanes on our bridges, and coming up with new and innovative technologies to speed wait times,” he remarks.
With new and controversial U.S./Mexico policy ideas coming out of Washington, such as a recent administration proposal for a 20 percent tax on the importation of goods from Mexico, Barela has emerged as a point man for alternative proposals, coming from someone who is daily steeped in the intricacies of business, trade, and border issues.
On the 20 percent tax proposal, Barela is direct: “It would have a chilling effect on trade with Mexico, no doubt about it. It will kill jobs not only in Mexico, but most important from the U.S. perspective, in the U.S.”
“The consumers will be the ones who will pay for the increased cost,” Barela adds, disclosing that he recently spoke with an automobile manufacturer who has an “integral supply chain in Mexico and the U.S., and he flat out told me the price of an entry-level vehicle could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 more.”
As for NAFTA, Barela would like to see the agreement updated rather than discarded altogether.
He suggests a modernization of the energy grid in the three NAFTA countries; a recognition of e-commerce, which barely existed when the agreement was first ratified; an improvement in infrastructure along the border, including a reduction of wait times; and an increased emphasis on environmental concerns in those same countries.
Finally, Barela tackles the labor issue by noting, “Imagine a labor side agreement that would include migration of populations. The irony is that this is a golden opportunity to address these matters within the NAFTA framework,” Barela adds.
Barela says that despite the recent tensions between the U.S. and Mexico, the Borderplex Alliance will continue to do its part to improve economic development on both sides of the border.
“This is a region of 2.5 million people,” notes Barela. “What goes on here affects the entire U.S. economy.”
By Garry Boulard
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