By: Janet Napolitano and Gary Locke
Over the last few weeks, mayors, sheriffs, business leaders and citizens have joined together with a simple but powerful message: America's Southwest border communities are open for business. This is a message the American people need to hear.
Unfortunately, there is a widespread misperception that the Southwest is wracked by violence spilling over from Mexico's ongoing drug war. The facts tell a different story. Some of America's safest communities are in the Southwest border region, with crime rates in cities along the border staying steady or dropping over the past decade. For example, the crime rate in Tucson, Ariz., fell 15% between 2008 and 2009 and 21% in Brownsville, Texas, over the same period.
In the last two years, the Obama administration has made historic deployments of manpower, technology and infrastructure to help secure our Southwest border. These efforts—along with the heroic work of our Border Patrol agents—are paying off.
Between fiscal years 2009 and 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized 81% more currency, 25% more drugs, and 47% more weapons along the Southwest border than they did between fiscal years 2007 and 2008. Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal aliens—the best indicator of illegal immigration—have dropped by 36% over the past two years to less than a third of its all-time high.
We know these gains are tenuous, which is why we won't let up for a second in our efforts to secure the border and protect communities in the Southwest. In the meantime, the American people and American businesses should know that this region is a vital hub of commerce with room to grow.
From San Diego, Calif., to Brownsville, Texas, the hundreds of billions of dollars of commerce crossing through the border region each year support hundreds of thousands of good jobs at the border and throughout the country.
Thanks in part to major investments to renovate and expand outdated ports of entry, we have bolstered security while increasing trade. Last year, U.S. exports of goods to Mexico totaled $163.3 billion, an increase of 27% over 2009. Those exports are tied directly to American jobs.
Yet local leaders in the region tell us that the misinformation about safety and security at the border threatens this progress. It drives potential visitors away, hurts local businesses, and simply does not square with the fact the Southwest border region is one of the safest parts of the country.
That's why the Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce joined El Paso Mayor John Cook, as well as the mayors of Nogales and Yuma, Ariz., at the port of entry in El Paso, Texas, last week to call for an end to this type of misinformation and to discuss emerging economic opportunities.
To amplify this message, four gateway states—Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas—will be the initial focus of a new export strategy aiming to promote enhanced cross-border trade with Canada and Mexico as part of President Obama's National Export Initiative.
Under the strategy, trade specialists from the Commerce Department and other agencies will work with border communities to address challenges and foster opportunities along the border. The emphasis will be on helping small and medium-sized U.S. businesses tap into new markets.
El Paso provides an example of the economic opportunities that exist in the Southwest border region as a result of increased security. It now has one of the lowest crime rates among big American cities, and the value of U.S. merchandise exports passing through ports in the El Paso district amounted to $29.2 billion last year—48% higher than in 2009.
We are seeing similar increases in trade in other places across the border, including at major ports near San Diego and Nogales.
Make no mistake: We agree that the security challenges we face at the border are real. But to maximize the economic opportunities in the region, we must also acknowledge the progress we've made over the past two years.
Ms. Napolitano is secretary of Homeland Security. Mr. Locke is secretary of Commerce.