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Former Mayor of El Paso Dee Margo's Perspectives From the Border

Former Mayor of El Paso Dee Margo shares insights on education, commerce, culture, and history from the context of the largest southern border city in the United States.

Article by Holly Kuzmich June 7, 2021 //   24 minute read

In an interview on immigration insights with Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich, former Mayor of El Paso Dee Margo discusses frontline perspectives from the U.S.-Mexico border and what a secure border looks like. 


Holly Kuzmich: Today I am really thrilled to be joined by former mayor of El Paso, Dee Margo. Mayor Margo served as the 54th mayor of El Paso, Texas from 2017 until 2021, following his time in the Texas House of Representatives. In addition to deep experience in the business and insurance world, Mayor Margo has served as the president of the El Paso Independent School District Board of Managers, a member of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of the Texas Oversight Committee, a civilian aide to the secretary of the US Army, the founder of Operation Noel, the chair of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, and on and on. Welcome, Mayor Margo. Thank you for joining us. It's great to have you here with us today.

Dee Margo: Thank you, Holly. I'm honored to be here.

Holly Kuzmich: So the situation, of course, at the southern border has been in the news for many months now, and we read about it every day in the newspaper. You live it every day in El Paso. Could you shed some light on what this surge looks like day to day in the border cities and towns like El Paso?

Dee Margo: Let me give you some insight that I picked up recently from the head of our Emergency Operations Center for the City of El Paso, which handles the humanitarian side for the migrants. Actually our numbers have been pretty low. Our NGO, the Annunciation House, is who we use for housing the immigrants  temporarily.

People need to understand the migrants that have been accepted and processed, they're only typically in El Paso for 24 to 48 hours. Historically, if you went to 72 hours it's because you had a medical problem of some sort. But they are then at the NGO there, the Annunciation House. Family members are contacted. And then they're provided with transportation by bus or air to wherever they're going throughout the United States. Which is something that most people don't fully understand from an immigration standpoint.

They're not staying on the border. They're going into the interior of the United States. But the NGO told us the numbers are actually kind of low, and compared to 2019, there were about 15 to 30 daily coming in. There aren't any more flights coming into El Paso, where we used to send them in from McAllen and elsewhere because of the overflow in the Valley. They haven't had any more flights to El Paso. And then there are about 25 to 30 being released at the ports of entry that are being processed and do ultimately go to Annunciation House and the others. Far less than 2019. We used to have as many as 700 a day released.

Now, that doesn't mean we may not approach that again, but right now we're doing okay. I asked why the numbers are down, and what I was told is that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, ICE, are returning more back to Mexico and elsewhere. Now, when you talk about on the border with CBP, what I'm getting is that the migrants it's manageable. Under Title 19, which is basically the USMCA agreement, it allows essential workers and travel back and forth, and those travel restrictions are still in place. You've got to be essential. It's not open.

Under Title 42 authority, which was the COVID ability because of the pandemic to return migrants back to Mexico, to expel the undocumented and the remain in Mexico policies, they're winding down. They are starting to see more processing of the Title 42 cases that were being presented to CBP headquarters by immigration advocates. So they have the attorneys to be able to process that. But whenever the restrictions are lifted, if we're unable to maintain the intake flow, we're going to be flooded with gradual increases in bridge traffic, which could be worse than 2019 at that point. My question of CBP was: Have you had staff shifted?

In 2019, they took the staff from the bridges, which is critical to commerce, and put them on the border to process because the courts have said you can enter anywhere along the border. You don't have to enter at a port of entry. Which really, really created great, great problems and consternation with everybody.

Holly Kuzmich: So as you've heard the conversation over the past several months and we've seen all of this news coverage of the border, is there anything that you think is missing from the conversation or not correct about the conversation? What do you see every day?

Dee Margo: Well, the bottom line is everything boils down to the fact in 35 years, we've not had the intestinal fortitude in Congress, both houses, both parties, to come up with a rational immigration process and deal with the variations and the situations that we have all across, whether it be with agricultural workers or whether it be DACA.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah.

Dee Margo: It's a political football. And that's been my argument that I talked about as mayor, that I talked about while serving on the US Conference of Mayors Task Force on Immigration Reform. It's just it's become a political football, and everybody blames the other party when I think everyone's culpable.

Holly Kuzmich: We'll talk about that a little bit more in a minute. But you were a participant in a working group we had over this past year on border policy. And one of the things we really talked about was the need to manage both people and goods, trade and commerce and migration at the border. How did you think about protection of our nation's borders while also understanding the need for commerce and trade along the nation's border at the same time?

Dee Margo: Well, I think it gets intermixed between border security and what defines border security and commerce. I mean, we're a sovereign nation. We need to control our borders. The big arguments when you come across and talk about immigration reform are how do we control our borders and the security that's needed there. And do you need what I call a fence? Not a wall, but it's really a fence. And what else do you need to protect the borders? It's a combination of a lot of things, but there's no one panacea. My argument has been that we ought to designate Homeland Security to tell us what exactly we need to do to control our borders, to have our border security once and for all.

Then when you get into the USMCA agreements and the commerce back and forth, what people don't realize is Mexico is Texas's largest trading partner. I think we have close to a hundred billion dollars of goods and services typically on a year going back and forth with Mexico from El Paso. We have the maquilas over there. We have, I think something like a close to 75 of the Fortune 500 companies are in Juarez and the maquilas and the manufacturing. Vehicle manufacturing in 2019. We talk about the need for the chips to function for vehicle manufacturing today. Well, in 2019, they couldn't get the parts from Mexico to complete the cars, simple things like door locks, things like that. So we are intrinsically tied to that. But it is imperative that we have free flowing goods and services. As I stated before, El Paso is a region with Mexico. We've been here for 350-plus years, in 1659, 361 to be exact, and we've had commerce and culture and families on both sides of the border since that time. And with the maquilas and where we are, it's a real buildup.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about this shared culture and history along the border. Can you talk a little bit about what that border culture looks like to people who have never been to El Paso or McAllen or other cities along the border where people go back and forth all the time?

Dee Margo: I think one of my biggest challenges, if not the largest challenge I had as mayor was to explain who we are, where we are, and what we're about. People didn't understand. And what I tried to explain, as I stated earlier, our history dates back over 350 years. Until 1848, the bulk of our population was on the south side of the Rio Grande. And then 1848, Fort Bliss came to El Paso, and then the railroads in 1880s and population shifted. But we have never... We are the largest US city on the Mexican border. We say that we are the largest bilingual, binational, bicultural region in the Western hemisphere.

We're a population in our region. I call us a region, not between Mexico and El Paso. Our region has a population of 2.7 million with an average age of 31. There is nowhere else in the Western hemisphere like the El Paso, Juarez, Southern New Mexico region, so we're intrinsically tied both by culture, by families, by history. That's what's hard for people to fully understand, especially if you get into xenophobia on the border and the concerns on that. But we went through our tragic August 3rd shooting in 2019 and seven of the victims were from Mexico. And I would get questions by saying, "Well, how did that happen?" That's [inaudible 00:10:17] the fact that don't understand who we are, where we are, or what we're about.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah, yeah. Our schools obviously have an obligation to serve all kids in the community, although, unfortunately, there's often a debate about that and whether schools should be serving all kids in the community. But El Paso's very strongly always said we serve all kids. Talk a little bit about the role of schools in terms of the culture and immigration in a region like El Paso.

Dee Margo: Well, let me address it with two ways. From higher education, the State of Texas allows Mexican nationals to pay for in-state tuition at Texas universities. So the University of Texas El Paso has over a thousand students that come basically daily from Juarez to attend the University, which I think is great. The legislature's approved that. It's been going on for many years, and when I was in the legislature, we affirmed that.

Now, on the public schools, sometimes you have dual citizens. You have residents and family members in El Paso sometimes, but you may live in Juarez. There are about, I think, 6,000 students at the El Paso Independent School District or the other districts as well, I'm not sure, it's all one, who come over daily from Juarez and are educated in El Paso. We've been doing that for many years. The federal government says that if you can document some residency, you can do that. Plus they can charge tuition for the Mexican nationals that don't have any tie-in residency to El Paso. You can charge tuition and they can attend our public schools, which I'm all for. Education is the key to our future. It determines the economic viability of our region and it's critical.

Holly Kuzmich: Not necessarily in El Paso, but we've seen some pushback recently on whether even though those long-standing programs like what you mentioned in higher ed have been in effect. Have you seen conversations around whether those should be pulled back?

Dee Margo: Not recently, but when I was in the legislature, there were some. I call them xenophobic representatives, mostly from far east Texas, and they just didn't understand the border.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah.

Dee Margo: So, as I say, I've done my best over the years that I've had the opportunity to have some form of a bully pulpit to explain to people who we are and where we are during immigration, during our August 3rd tragedy, during the pandemic. When national media would interview me, I would try to explain every time who we are, where we are. It was just amazing to me, the number in the media who had never been to our area, had no knowledge of it and no context.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. Obviously, you talked a little bit when you talked about some of the numbers you're seeing in El Paso earlier, we've obviously seen a surge at the same time that we have these Title 42 protections in place or rules in place because of COVID. And COVID's brought a unique set of challenges to thinking about how we manage the border right now. What's your feedback and advice as we think about coming out of COVID? Number one, for either how we should address this as we start to open back up. Or number two, the larger economic implications that we just need to keep in mind as we have to start to make decisions about Title 42.

Dee Margo: My biggest concern as a mayor was COVID in Mexico, primarily Juarez. They could not give us... My public health people met with public health directors of Ciudad Juarez, and I met with the mayor, and we would discuss where we were. They had severe outbreaks. They did not really have a good grasp of the severity. My biggest concern was that while Mexican citizens or, excuse me, US citizens that live or domiciled in Ciudad Juarez have free movement back and forth, although we still encouraged it'd be essential. That infected persons at the height of the pandemic, which really hit El Paso in October of last year, at the height of that pandemic they would be coming over, and we didn't have the hospital space to take care of them.

That was my concern on opening the borders any more so than we were doing [inaudible 00:15:18]. So I was in support of Title 42 as a restriction, and then Title 19, which says under USMCA it's only essential workers going back and forth. But if we are provided comfort that they are on top of their vaccinations and their health, then I think that the border ought to be open more. There was a letter that was sent, I think, this week by the Borderplex Alliance in El Paso, which handles Mexico, El Paso and Southern New Mexico for economic development, requesting that the borders be open more so. I'm fine if we can get our hands, our arms around where we are from an infection standpoint and a medical standpoint.

It is just critical to us to have that commerce. There are places along the border in Eagle Pass, McAllen, Laredo in which over 50% of their city budgets comes from sales tax revenues, and the Mexican consumer hasn't been coming over. In El Paso was about 18% of our revenues were coming from sales taxes, and we didn't have good numbers on what percentage was coming directly from Mexico. We just never were able to quantify. We were in the process last year of trying to do that. But during that, just so everyone understands, if we get to the point of, as Yogi Berra said, "Deja vu all over again," in this year similar to 2019 on the migrant influx, we had waits at our border of two hours for pedestrians, four hours for private passenger vehicles and as many as 11 hours for commercial vehicles and trucks. Now, that's they're waiting on the bridges.

What that did was a multitude of things. Number one, it forced the Juarez airport to bring in cargo planes, which they'd never done before, to fly out for manufacturing for just-in-time supplies. It forced them when they did get across to fly from El Paso, rather than being trucked to the Midwest for auto parts or whatever. But also it was an environmental issue in that the trucks were idling with ozone and carbon dioxide, et cetera. We have six of the bridges that cross into Mexico, and our Bridge of the Americas, which is our free bridge, that's the federally run bridge. The rest of them are run by the feds, but they're owned by the City of El Paso. It's a neighborhood. So these trucks were idling with ozone and carbon dioxide in a neighborhood with neighborhoods around them. And the only reason we didn't have a real environmental problem in March and April of 2019 was because that's our windy season and it was blowing the emissions away. Otherwise we might've had some severe environmental issues. So people need to understand there's a little bit more to this than people fully grasp as you look at immigration.

Holly Kuzmich: Right. You mentioned before that we haven't had the political fortitude in decades to really resolve this issue. Do you see any hope for that changing anytime soon? And what do you think it's going to take?

Dee Margo: I always like to look at the glass as half full, but I'm not certain right now. I went up and visited with Senator Lindsey Graham in January of last year, in 2020, at a US Conference of Mayors meeting, just to talk to him about immigration because he seemed to be one who was a pragmatist and had the staffing to be able to do it. But then when COVID hit, everything kind of got put on hold. But I've talked about it. The first argument you used to hear about immigration reform was going back to what I talked about earlier, border security. We know we need to have border security, and nobody could really define border security.

My position is that a politician is not the person to determine what a border security is. It's not militarization of the border. It's not a wall, which I call a fence, because geographically, you can't build it across Texas anyway. But give Homeland Security the responsibility to define, once and for all, border security and what resources they need to do that. And take that away from the table. I also think it's easy to do something on the DACA students that came here as children. I mean, I know them in El Paso. They are as American as you and I, and a lot of them don't even speak Spanish. That's what people don't fully grasp there, so...

Holly Kuzmich: They have nowhere to go back to.

Dee Margo: And they have nowhere to go, and they're sitting there trying to figure it out. To me, that ought to be an easy one. We need more H-2 visas. We need more, we don't need less. On the 10 to 12 million that we talked about who have been here illegally undocumented for many, many years, I think that we ought to vet them for any criminal problems or issues, and if there's a problem with criminality then they ought to be deported. But the others ought to be given the opportunity to have a green card, whatever that process is, and it's a little more. It's not as simple as saying, "You get a green card." But then that makes them legal, they're taxpayers. But I don't believe they ought to have a path to citizenship and voting, to take away that political football that goes back and forth between Democrats and Republicans as to how the immigrants might vote.

They're here. I don't believe most of them came here to want to participate in our electoral process. They came here for economic opportunity for their families, so let's continue to give that. Have them producing, but make them legal so that they're not using false Social Security numbers, and they can do those things.

And lastly, we need to do something, in my opinion, about agricultural workers. We had a Bracero Program that ran from the '40s until 1964, when the Great Society came into play with President Johnson. As an appeasement to the labor unions when he passed all those bills, they stopped the Bracero Program that we had, which allowed Mexican workers to come across, work during the harvest, take their funds and go back. We have a version of it out there, but the restrictions are so onerous that most people are not abiding by it. So what happens right now, they're coming across because we're in dire need of agricultural workers during harvest all throughout the United States. They're coming over, they're working the harvest, but they're not going back because they're fearful if they go back across the border, they may not be able to get back for the next harvest. So they're staying. So by inaction, we've exacerbated a problem we talk about.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah.

Dee Margo: They ought to go back to that process, figure out how to do an agricultural worker program. Allow them to come in and then allow them to take their funds and go back to Mexico.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. That's a really important point. Well, we're going to keep working at it. As you know, we're committed to reform at the Bush Institute. We know how long overdue this is. We're appreciative to you for being part of our work and helping support what we're doing, so thank you for being with me today.

Dee Margo: Thank you.