North America Works

Many voices are calling for the United States to retrench and retreat from the world, including distancing ourselves from neighbors in North America. Yet the reality of life across our continent, from Tijuana and San Diego to Dallas and Fort Worth to Windsor and Detroit, shows that we are connected to our neighbors in ways that benefit every side of each North American border.

In this essay, we show a slice of those connections and how they impact everyday lives.

by Matthew Rooney, Laura Collins, Sarah Reid, and William McKenzie

The border provides business opportunities

Elizabeth Brown is living the North American life. A Canadian who went to high school in Mexico and college in the United States, Brown now lives in San Diego. She works in the thriving coastal community as chief commercial officer for Cross Border Xpress. Both she and her husband, Vincent Miller, work for the firm, which operates an airport terminal that literally spans the U.S.-Mexico border.

A self-described career airport person, Brown's job is to help market the facility, which includes a building that sits in the U.S. and runways in Mexico. To complete the North American angle, the architect of record for the facility is a Canadian, while the artistic architect is from Mexico.

Brown joined the CBX team in August 2015 as a consultant. She and her husband both have NAFTA trade visas, which, as she says, allow them to work on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border as Canadian citizens.

They are not alone in regularly crisscrossing that border. The residents of San Diego and Tijuana interact in ways that are so common and organic that they can easily forget a border separates their communities. "People live in each city and go back across the border as much as several times a day," Brown explains.

Private enterprises certainly understand a border doesn’t stop commerce. Rather, innovative executives and entrepreneurs look for opportunities in cities like San Diego and Tijuana to capitalize on their proximity to the border.

In the Cross Border Xpress case, investors from both the U.S. and Mexico saw a need and met it. The need arose out of the limits of the San Diego International Airport, which is the busiest single runway airport in the U.S. With that lone runway, and little room to expand in its downtown location, the airport is limited in the number and variety of flights it offers.

Luckily for San Diego passengers, the Tijuana International Airport has the capacity to offer flights to numerous destinations. Over the last several years, about 2.4 million San Diego-based passengers have chosen to travel each year through Tijuana.

Yet they must endure the inconvenience of crossing the border through one of San Diego’s three land ports-of-entry. That includes San Ysidro, the busiest land port-of-entry in the Western Hemisphere. The grueling process forces fliers to allow an additional 45 minutes or more to ensure they arrive on time for their flights.

The return trip is not any easier, so Cross Border Xpress stepped in to address these problems. The CBX airport terminal is in San Diego County and connects to the Tijuana International Airport via an enclosed skywalk bridge that spans the U.S.-Mexico border. For only $16 one way, you can walk 390 feet across the border to your flight in a fraction of the time it would take to drive through one of San Diego’s land ports-of-entry.

The Cross Border Xpress pedestrian bridge connecting the U.S. with Mexico. (Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images)

The San Diego-Tijuana area has other examples of economic integration, including the beginnings of linking together energy markets. The Sempra Energia Sierra Juarez wind farm is located approximately 80 miles from San Diego in La Rumorosa, Baja California. The facility sells all its wind-powered electric energy generation to the San Diego market through miles of transmission lines that cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

La Rumorosa is the ideal location for a wind farm. Situated at the top of the Sierra de Juarez mountain range, the sustained winds blow hard enough to keep the turbines near optimal capacity but rarely gust so hard as to require production to stop.

The wind farm currently supplies enough electric energy to power 40,000 San Diego homes. Sempra plans on installing hundreds more wind turbines over the next few years, greatly increasing generating capacity.

A project like this offers tremendous mutual benefits for communities on both sides of the border. For San Diego, its consumers have access to a reliable clean energy resource. Baja California residents enjoy the job creation and economic growth that the wind farm generates for Mexican workers at many levels, from the middle-skilled to college-educated engineers.

To be sure, life along the San Diego/Tijuana border faces numerous challenges. One is the outsized influence of each country’s federal government. Inevitably, this changes how these neighbors may work together. A thriving cross-border dynamic is only possible when the U.S. and Mexico are able to successfully cooperate.

One of the more infamous examples of the lack of cooperation is the ongoing snafu over a new border crossing facility. To improve the heavy flow of people and goods through San Diego's land ports-of-entry, the governments of both nations agreed to Mexico building a new El Chaparral border crossing facility at the San Ysidro port-of-entry.

At the same time, the U.S. agreed to reroute the interstate highway that fed into the land port so traffic could go directly to the new facility Mexico was planning on building. Fast forward several years, and Mexico has built its facility while the U.S. has yet to connect the interstate. Hindered by many factors, including a delay in highway legislation in Congress, the U.S. has yet to begin construction to reroute the highway.

El Chaparral is the perfect example of how a lack of cooperation between governments can intrude on integrating the economies of two border communities for the benefit of all. By contrast, Cross Border Xpress and Energia Sierra Juarez show how organic interactions can develop in the private sector to meet the needs of these border communities.

The crossroads of North America

Mike Rawlings sits in a comfortable chair looking out the floor-to-ceiling window in his Dallas City Hall office, explaining the importance of North America developing a trade route that rivals the old Silk Route of Europe and Asia. Rawlings is in a position to know something about the potential of such a route. As Dallas’ mayor since 2011 and a longtime business executive, he has seen trading relationships develop and expand.

NAFTA has been great, the Democrat points out, noting how the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement helped open up the flow of goods and capital across Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. Now, he says, those three nations need to put together an energy strategy that capitalizes upon their reserves.

“If we were energy independent, the three nations of North America would have massive leverage,” the two-term leader of the nation’s ninth largest city explains. “The game is over if Canada, Mexico, and the United States put together an energy strategy. We would outdistance every other continent.”

Of course, putting together that energy strategy would be hard work. For one thing, the latest oil market downturn shows the cyclical nature of the industry. Plus, many issues still need working out after Mexico laudably decided to open its energy industry to foreign investment.

Still, Dallas-Fort Worth is essentially the geographic center of North America, so talk about a more unified and prosperous economy for the region is more than theoretical chit-chat.

The North Texas economy is already a magnet for companies doing business in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. In part, that is due to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where numerous flights each day connect the three nations.

The Dallas-Fort Worth region is closing on seven million residents, many of whom have roots in Mexico. Hispanics comprise about 40 percent of the Dallas population alone. “The marketplace has spoken,” Rawlings says. “Jobs are here.”

Rawlings believes that the region can cement itself as North America’s business center, as well as its geographic center, if it adopts policies that promote the flow of capital and goods, quality schools, and ease of movement. He said as much in a 2014 speech, where he claimed that being the business center of the Western Hemisphere should be one of Dallas-Fort Worth’s top four goals over the next half century.

He underscored that point with a trip to Mexico in June 2016. Rawlings and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price met with top Mexican leaders as they went looking for customers for North Texas products and investment dollars for D-FW firms. They were hoping to build upon the flow of commerce that already exists. The Dallas Morning News reported during the trip that, in 2015 alone, trade between Mexico and North Texas amounted to $1.3 billion.

Doing business across the Texas/Mexico border is certainly a way of life to Ramir Camu and his colleagues at Werx Studio in downtown Dallas, barely a mile from Rawlings’ office. Working in glassed-in offices with whiteboards, concrete floors, and a foosball table, Camu and his high-tech co-workers design and sell software for companies in both the Dallas-Fort Worth region and Mexico.

Camu, who was born and raised in Mexico, was an entrepreneur as early as high school. He strengthened those skills while attending Monterrey Tech and later as a student at Southern Methodist University.

His company works across borders in developing apps and software for companies that need digital solutions. A team of about 10 software designers, project managers, and sales people lead the company from its office in a Dallas high-rise refurbished for high-tech start-up companies.

Another 60 employees work from the company’s office in Aguascalientes, Mexico. They develop the apps and software that the company sells to its clients, which include the Dallas Independent School District.

Camu, who describes himself as passionate about entrepreneurship, sits on the board of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Association of Mexican Entrepreneurs. The D-FW chapter, which is one of 30 across the U.S. and Mexico, has about 300 members.

The list includes entrepreneurs running start-ups as well as executives managing large companies. The association’s goal is to help Mexican business people learn how to do business in the U.S., as well as help U.S. companies do business in Mexico.

Working across borders has been the pattern with Camu’s own work. His business combines labor, marketing, and capital in both the U.S. and Mexico. Werx Studio’s work also shows the modern version of a Europe-to-Asia Silk Route will run over the Internet as well as over traditional roads and bridges. "Technology allows us to communicate across borders," he emphasized during a conversation in his downtown studio.

This technological reality requires people who have the right skills to design software, market digital products to companies, and successfully solve problems – all while dealing with companies and people in two different countries.

The key is education, both in the United States and Mexico. The quality of schools will determine whether students in each nation have the skills to innovate, solve problems, and communicate across cultures.

This is more than a theoretical notion. The challenge is a reality in cities like Dallas, where nearly 70 percent of students in the Dallas school district come from families whose roots run directly or indirectly to Mexico.

Their children attend schools like Adamson High School, whose student body has drawn from families who came to the U.S. from Mexican states like Guanajuato. In fact, Casa Guanajuato operates an English tutoring and social service operation just a few blocks from Adamson for residents of the central Mexican state.

As much as districts like Dallas' keep searching for the right combination of strategies, moving students toward high school graduation and post-high school education remains a big challenge. Dallas high school graduation rates have improved and the district has two of the top five high schools in America, according to U.S. News and World Report. Yet finding strong principals and effective teachers remain a hurdle that the district must overcome to realize greater student achievement.

The need for quality schools extends to Mexico, too. Most of Camu's hires in his native country have graduated from college, a technical school, or high school. Yet Mexico trails many industrialized nations in academic achievement, which is why Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto rightly has pushed for a range of education reforms, much like business, political, and philanthropic leaders have done in cities like Dallas.

Camu himself went back to SMU to graduate, after previously dropping out. His education is one reason he is able to live the North American life. As he does so, Camu is helping fulfill the vision Rawlings has for the Dallas-Fort Worth region being the business center of North America.

Border-hopping nurses

Lee Anne Raper is living the North American life along another border, the one that separates Canada and the U.S. A nurse at the Henry Ford Hospital close to downtown Detroit, Raper doesn’t live in Detroit. Actually, she doesn’t even live in the United States. For the past 19 years, she has driven to work every day across the Ambassador Bridge from her home in Windsor, Ontario, a trip of only about six miles.

“I can see where I live from the 17th story of the hospital,” she says. “I actually know some of the (border) guards. They call me by name and ask me if I’m going to work.”

Raper is just one of about 800 Canadian nurses who cross the border every day to work in the U.S. These border-hopping nurses highlight some of the similarities but also the differences between the economies of the two North American neighbors that share a 5,525-mile border and enjoy one of the world’s longest-standing and most amicable relationships.

Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan to Windsor, Ontario.

Over 400,000 people cross the U.S.-Canada border every day. In 2015, the trade in goods and services between the two countries totaled $662 billion.

The connection between the two nations comes to light in the nursing shortage both nations are experiencing. Because of Windsor’s relatively small population, and a corresponding lack of full-time nursing jobs, many nurses have been forced to look for jobs across the border. As they do, they help American hospitals fill their staffing needs.

“We have a very large hospital that’s growing and we cannot fill all our positions if we did not include our Canadian neighbors,” says Gwen Gnam, chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services at Henry Ford Hospital. The hospital currently has 292 Canadian nurses on staff.

The nursing shortage on both sides of the border is due mostly to demographic trends: aging populations require greater care, and the nursing workforce itself is greying too. Even though nursing is one of the fastest growing occupations in the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2022, the U.S. will face a shortage of more than a million nurses.

“The only place those nurses are likely to come from is probably Canada,” says Anne Snowdon, chair of the Odette World Health Innovation Network at the University of Windsor. “Their workforce shortages become our workforce challenges.”

Joanna Roupas Mardegan is a registered nurse who has been working in Detroit and living in Windsor for the last 15 years. She works at the Karmanos Cancer Center at the Detroit Medical Center. “They’re making a bridge with Windsor’s cancer center,” she says. “They’re doing research together, and Karmanos will do bone marrow transplants now for Windsor patients, instead of us having to send them further away.”

The College of Nurses of Ontario estimates that 610 Canadian nurses crossed the border each day in 2014. The number was lower than in previous years, when it hovered around 1,000. The decline is in part because the college has changed to a self-reporting system. Also, in 2013 they changed their licensing requirements, meaning that fewer nurses were counted working in the U.S.

“I think it’s the largest group of professionals that cross the border on a daily basis,” says Sarah Dunphy, an adjunct assistant professor of political science at the University of Windsor. Dunphy conducted a study of border-hopping nurses in 2015. She estimates that about 800 Canadian nurses cross the border every day.

Canadian nurses have been crossing the border to work in Michigan since the 1980s. Under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, nurses from Canada and Mexico were designated as professionals eligible to work in the United States, using a NAFTA trade visa like the one that Elizabeth Brown and her husband use in San Diego.

Prior to 9/11, all nursing students at the University of Windsor did clinical rotations in Detroit as part of their training, says Snowdon. “The American hospitals loved it because they had a pipeline of highly-trained and educated nurses,” she says. But after the attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security “literally stopped dead all education training traffic, despite lots of attempts by universities to overcome that hurdle,” says Snowdon.

The daily exodus of nurses across the border has raised concerns in Canada. “We’re losing nurses to the U.S. after we paid for their education. It’s a terrible return on investment for taxpayers,” says Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.

Nurses are not the only workers who commute across the Canada-U.S. border. In 2014, 2.6 million Americans traveled to Canada for business purposes, including conventions and employment, according to Statistics Canada.

Many U.S. firms, such as IBM and the three Detroit carmakers, and Canadian companies, such as Bombardier and Nova Bus Company, have substantial operations in both countries, and employees that travel between them.

In 2010, Air Canada Jazz became the first new airline in six years to fly into Cincinnati. Its service from Toronto caters mainly to Proctor & Gamble, whose head office is in Cincinnati but which has a sizeable operation north of the border.

People who live in border towns in New York “don’t think of anybody from Ontario as being different from anyone in New Jersey. That is the ultimate achievement of integration,” says Jim Philips, president of the Canadian/American Border Trade Alliance.

At some points, it is hard to tell that the border exists at all. In the towns of Stanstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont, the border runs right through the middle of a local library.

For Roupas Mardegan, one of the border-hopping Windsor nurses, the decision to live in Canada and work in the U.S. is personal. Her husband is a construction worker. If they were to consider moving, she would need a green card to help her husband move, because his job is not covered by the NAFTA visa exemption.

It’s not only work that draws Roupas Mardegan and other Canadians south. “We’ll go see concerts. We’ll go see the Detroit Red Wings or to a Tigers game,” she says.

The cross-border traffic seems unlikely to slow any time soon. “We’re looking for opportunities to expand recruitment to fill needed jobs,” says Gnam at the Henry Ford Hospital. “We’re very interested in continuing to work with Canadians.”

The hospital held a recruitment fair in Windsor last year. Gnam says, “We had an overwhelming response.”

The arrangement works well for the nurses too. Lee Anne Raper says, “I just found that the [Henry Ford Hospital] environment was something that was very conducive to my happiness as a nursing professional.

“You can even choose to live in Detroit if you so desire, but my parents are on the other side in Canada, and I do a lot of things with my family. I actually have the best of both worlds.”

* * *

The flow across the U.S./Canada border of people like these nurses, as well as the movement of traffic, goods, and ideas across the border between Mexico and the U.S., reveal how connected the three nations of North America are on a day-to-day basis. They also show that North America works.

Yes, works. As fashionable as it has become to question the relationships, especially with Mexico, the three economies are so connected that they cannot be split apart – in fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that Americans would be less prosperous and less secure if they were to try.

We do not doubt that the region faces many challenges. But North America operates on many levels, as these lives underscore. They also point out why leaders in each nation should maintain this strong alliance, strengthening the bonds that benefit individual lives and the economies of each nation.