A delegation of San Diego and Baja California leaders meet with Mexico's Senate, March 28, 2017. (Jean Guerrero/KPBS)
The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce signed a historic memorandum of understanding with Mexico’s Senate on Tuesday, expanding the influence of San Diego and northern Baja California leaders on Mexican legislation related to ports of entry, trade and immigration.
The agreement establishes a working group made up of business leaders and politicians from the San Diego-Tijuana region, as well as members of the Mexican Senate.
The working group will meet twice a year through 2018, alternating between Mexico City and San Diego or Tijuana, to collaborate on legislation related to those key issues.
"This agreement serves as a model that others can use to establish their own agreements with Senate representatives," said Chamber President Jerry Sanders.
Sanders promised to share the memorandum of understanding with other business associations, economic development organizations and academic institutions promoting cross-border trade and the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
Paola Avila, vice president of international business affairs for the chamber, said the agreement to meet at least twice in the San Diego-Tijuana region instead of the Mexican capital is significant because "they'll be able to see first-hand our thriving economy."
She said the memorandum of understanding helps overcome misconceptions about the border region, noting that both Washington, D.C. and Mexico City are far away from San Diego and Tijuana, so federal officials are sometimes out of touch with border realities.
The chamber is in Mexico City this week leading an annual delegation of nearly 90 business leaders and politicians from the San Diego-Tijuana region. They are pushing for port of entry improvements and the preservation of key elements of NAFTA, which they argue benefits both cities.
On Monday evening, a few members of the delegation met privately with Mexico's Foreign Relations Minister Luis Videgaray, the equivalent of the U.S. secretary of state south of the border, who was "very responsive" to the delegation's requests, Avila said. Videgaray is Mexico's point person for upcoming NAFTA renegotiations with the U.S.
Videgaray promised to take a leadership role in advancing Otay II, a toll-operated port of entry planned for 2020 or 2021 in Otay Mesa, as well as to issue a diplomatic note necessary to allow a binational railroad to move forward through Tecate.
In exchange for that commitment, Avila said the delegation members promised to increase awareness in the U.S. about Mexico's importance as a trade partner. San Diego exports about $5.5 billion in goods and services to Mexico each year, and nationally, trade between the two countries was at $583.6 billion in 2015.
"We wanted to make sure he knew we were a partner," Avila said. "While there is a very negative message that has been received in Mexico, that is not shared by everyone. Our region is working every day to advocate in support and promotion of that relationship."
Videgaray has become a legendary figure in Mexico, leading sweeping structural reforms in Mexico's energy and telecommunications sectors as economy minister, then triggering a public outcry after inviting Trump to Mexico City during his campaign for president -- a scandal that forced Videgaray to resign as economy minister.
He told the delegation members that in preliminary conversations with U.S. officials regarding NAFTA, "there is a willingness and an interest in working together on these infrastructure projects."