US Border Cities Panel

The United States and Mexico border is a major entryway for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers into America. Border communities are utilizing agile and innovative thinking to manage the flow of individuals while simultaneously managing their communities. Panel members at the ICMA Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, shared their approach to responding to the needs of these individuals while maintaining a high quality of life in their communities and coordinating efforts with public and private partners. Local leaders representing Brownsville, Texas; El Paso County, Texas; and Calexico, California, shared their lessons learned and best practices to give helpful insight to other communities facing similar challenges.

Practical Integration of Border Communities

Border communities harness a unique international feel, and there is integration between them, especially in terms of commerce and education. All three jurisdictions represented on this panel reported between 30 and 50 thousand people crossing their borders every day, each direction, for work, school, medical care, and more. Betsy Keller, county administrator, El Paso County, Texas, described El Paso’s relationship with Juarez, Mexico, as being one that is “truly seamless in nature—they are us, and we are them.” Keller views the relationship between El Paso and Juarez as being more of a partner and a neighbor, rather than a completely different country.

Challenges Experienced on the Border

Despite the often-well-integrated nature of communities on the border, there are natural challenges that come with managing a border community. One major challenge is the lack of resources to manage an influx of migrants. Esperanza Colio Warren, city manager, Calexico, California, described Calexico as one of the most devastated cities in California based on financial indicators, so an unexpected surge of migrants stretches already thin resources for this community. In addition to a lack of resources available to Calexico, they also experienced a lack of support from Imperial County in assisting with migrants being released into Calexico. While the county was able to provide assistance within the first 12 days of a surge of asylum seekers in December 2022, Calexico was largely left to its own limited resources to deal with this surge after those first 12 days. Though frustrated, Warren said she understood the lack of tangible support from decision makers at Imperial County. They are placed in a difficult position when county resources are already stretched thin, and residents have expectations with respect to the allocation of those resources.

Another notable challenge exists with the impact of federal policies on the local government. Looking back to El Paso County, Keller explained how the surges and lulls in migrants crossing the border can largely be attributed to federal immigration policies at the time, like Title 42 and Title 8. Keller described the surge experienced in El Paso County right before Title 42 was lifted, and how the county mobilized to manage the thousands of people coming into the community to be processed by Border Patrol. Although surges can sometimes be predicted based on federal immigration policies, there is still a predominant layer of unpredictability that exists. This element of uncertainty requires border communities to perpetually be on their toes and ready to respond with services and support should a surge arise.

Agile Responses

In times of crisis or uncertainty, communities benefit most from innovative thinking and agile responses. Border communities especially benefit from these leadership qualities. Helen Ramirez, city manager, Brownsville, Texas, stressed the importance of being adaptable, recalling a specific instance where Brownsville utilized quick, innovative thinking to aid migrants. It was April 2023 when Ramirez received a call from the Border Patrol chief who reported an incredible surge of 4,000+ migrants coming through the Rio Grande River, which divides Mexico and Brownsville. Operationalizing quickly, Brownsville utilized an abandoned golf course, mobilizing hundreds of employees, and over 20 departments to help bring water, electric, ambulatory, trash, brush clearing, mosquito spraying, and fire services to help treat these migrants in a humanitarian way before transporting them elsewhere for processing. That all was mobilized within an incredible 24 hours and an emergency declaration was put in place in order to be reimbursed by the Texas Department of Emergency Management. Ramirez recalled, “We were very agile. We were able to heed the call for help. We think of efficiency, humanitarian efforts, and how we can be effective in the way we help these migrants.”

Beyond the Border Crisis

While border communities are often portrayed as unsafe and existing in turmoil, these panelists proved otherwise. Both Brownsville and El Paso have been awarded distinctions based on the safety of their communities; Brownsville was ranked fourth in best places to live for quality of life in the United States and sixteenth in safest places to live in Texas by U.S. News & World Report, while El Paso was ranked the fourth largest safest city to live in the United States based on FBI crime statistics. Keller even encouraged attendees to visit El Paso County for an unfiltered look at their operations and impacts on their community, Border Patrol, and the migrants themselves. She said that the realities of her community do not reflect the often-sensationalized media coverage.

In addition to ensuring a safe community, nurturing the local economy continues to be a priority for these panelists. Ramirez stressed that Brownsville maintains a strong and resilient economy, outlining the tireless efforts Brownsville puts forward to improve the economic development of their city, describing a “resurgence and a renaissance” in economic development. Ramirez shared some of Brownsville’s record-breaking numbers in terms of revenues related to sales and property tax, as well as SpaceX manufacturing, operations, and launch site contributing to additional revenue and 2000+ jobs.

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