Paola Avila / Photo courtesy of Paola Avila

The cities of San Diego and Tijuana have long touted their relationship and collaboration with each other. That relationship may get even stronger under new San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.

Gloria appointed Paola Avila as his chief of staff. Avila spent the past six years working on binational issues for the San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

I sat down with Avila to reflect on her time with the Chamber and to talk about what the city of San Diego can do to bring the binational megaregion to the next level.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Looking back at your time working for the Chamber on binational issues, what were some of your biggest challenges and successes?

When I started in that role, it was 2014. For many years, we had already been facing a tremendous underfunding of our border infrastructure. It had been tremendously underfunded in proportion to income when you put it in comparison to the increase of activity – cross-border trade and activity. So we had been for many years experiencing huge challenges with border wait times and that was a big focus. When I first started addressing that, we had many projects that had been stalled, not just a new port of entry, but the San Ysidro Port of Entry, its renovation and expansion project had been on hold. It had been in the works for like 10 years with no advancement. We hadn’t secured funding from the federal government. Mexico had already made their improvements.

We worked back-to-back years, securing funding from Congress to complete phase two and phase three of the San Ysidro Port of Entry expansion. … It was a bipartisan effort to get that funding identified through the federal budget. So that was a huge accomplishment, getting that built and approved.

Then, came the presidential election of 2016. If you recall during the campaign of 2016, one of the very first things the president, then candidate, did was to disparage Mexicans and talk about immigration border issues. He was depicting the border region and Mexico as lawless, a threat, danger. That was how it was described.

And it really put the work that I was doing at the Chamber in the crosshairs of the presidential election. And so even before he came into office, during the campaign, and then for the next four years, my work at the Chamber all of a sudden went from already challenging – addressing some of the lacking border infrastructure – to being at the forefront of every major debate and high-profile issue from immigration to border security talks to NAFTA.

It was all these issues that fell under my purview that were propelled to the forefront of every tweet, every press conference, every talking point. So it made an already challenging area more difficult and high-profile. We then had to do a lot of education around the importance of the binational relationship and so, what I will say, is this administration helped – more than ever – unify the border region as everybody coalesced together to defend and promote the U.S.-Mexico relationship and border regions as an opportunity versus a threat.

We were helping each other out, where in the past, we would see each other – Texas and California, in particular – as competitors … We face threats in terms of losing [Customs and Border Protection] staffing, which would further increase border wait times. We faced threats of tariff. We face threats of border closures. In fact, the San Diego border was actually closed a couple of years ago. We felt we were on the defensive … so it really kind of unified the entire 2,000-mile border region.

How will your experience working on binational issues help your work for the mayor?

The binational component for the city of San Diego is critical. It’s an opportunity for the city, and coming from that background allows me to identify those opportunities and work to integrate that in terms of everything from our economic recovery post-COVID to future planning and infrastructure projects.

This mayor doesn’t require education on these issues. He already knows the importance of the relationship. He’s traveled to Mexico City to meet with federal government officials. He’s met with the governor of Baja in his previous role.

And at a time when we have a new federal administration coming into office, who has already said they’re going to be prioritizing working on an immigration bill within the first 100 days, an infrastructure transportation bill and COVID relief – those are the three main priorities for the incoming federal administration, who better to lead on those issues than the mayor of San Diego? It’s the largest city along the border.

I think San Diego is well positioned to be a leader in the national conversation, the national debate on those upcoming bills.

What are some of the most important things the city of San Diego has already been doing when it comes to binational issues, and what more can be done?

San Diego and Tijuana, what we call the Cali-Baja region, has become a national and international model for cross-border collaboration. That has survived and been fostered regardless of who is in office. You have this shared history and priorities on issues that makes that necessary. We share a workforce. We share an environment. We share families. The workforce and businesses straddle the border.

So that is well established and well known and that’s great. How can we take that further? What else can we do? What have we been missing?

The pandemic showed us that as wonderful as these relationships were, there wasn’t synchronization. We were actually missing a coordinated approach, even down to the definition of what essential activities, essential businesses are. There still is not synchronization on health protocols and restrictions. The pandemic really highlighted how interdependent we are and where we’re deficient, where we still need work.

That’s a priority for us. We’ve already reached out to our counterparts across the border, not to just have a first official meeting, but to develop a plan on the pandemic and on COVID because one of our greatest challenges right now is addressing the spread of the virus and the economic impact that it has on our shared communities, our shared constituencies.

We’re in month nine of the pandemic. We’ve had ups and downs. We’re lifted restrictions, we’ve put restrictions back in place. Businesses have reopened. Businesses closed back down. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the travel restrictions at the border. They have not since March been lifted, and that has been a huge impact on our region. The community and many small businesses depend on that cross-border relationship. You’ve had nurses that live across the border that have had to line up at 4 a.m. to be able to cross and get to work on time. So even if you could travel because you were considered essential, lanes were closed at the ports of entry. We saw border wait times increase to eight hours at one point. It was awful. People congregating at the pedestrian crossing because of the long border wait times, with no enforcement of mask-wearing and no social distancing. It’s resulted in a disproportionate rate of infection in our cross-border communities.

Aside from COVID, what are going to be the top binational issues that the city has to deal with?

The Tijuana River Valley is a priority. There’s much more work to be done because the only thing that’s been done right now are band-aids to the solution. It’s going to require coordination with our counterparts across the border to secure funding from Mexico, as well, to address it at its core. It’s going to take many years. We’re talking about replacing sewage infrastructure, building new pump stations, new water treatment facilities. It’s just such a big issue.

Another one is immigration. The attack on immigration policies, everything from DACA to even temporary visas that were suspended or terminated, is a huge issue for San Diego. There’s a lot of work that will be done at the federal level to reverse a lot of it.

Border infrastructure, Otay Mesa II or Otay Mesa East Port of Entry, that’s being led by SANDAG and Caltrans. We have to make advancements on that. It is a huge infrastructure project for our region. It helps address our Climate Action Plan goals. It will increase San Diego’s competitiveness in attracting more business investment into our region. That will require a lot of coordination with Mexico to ensure that goes forward.

More Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.