Beyond Sister City Agreements: Exploring the Challenges to Full International Interoperability

Calvin Shanks

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

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Border communities are often interconnected by more than simple proximity. They are connected through social networks, economies, cultures, and by shared natural resources. The more closely connected the communities are, the more likely they are to be mutually impacted by a significant emergency event. In a metroplex region where commercial trade is a significant part of daily business, the chances of any event—such as a major traffic accident that shuts down a port of entry, regional flooding, or hazardous materials incidents—impacting the economy of both entities are significant. This connectedness necessitates collaboration and coordination but, significant issues arise due to the presence of an international border. Despite this interdependent relationship, crossing the border with emergency resources, even for a humanitarian purpose, can be problematic. While any area can have interoperability concerns, the issues are most problematic along the southern border. The framework along the Mexican border is for interoperability agreements to be developed locally rather than regionally, as they are along the northern border. This makes them more susceptible to local legal, political, and economic difficulties. These challenges impact the ability, and inclination, to allow international border-crossing for emergency and non-emergency operations. This begs the question: “What are the challenges facing a fully interoperable preparedness and response framework within binational, sister city regions in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands?”

A literature review provides an overview of the issues framing the research question. This overview includes a discussion of interoperability in general, with communications-related difficulties highlighting the complexities that can impede interoperable efforts. The literature further provides examples of successful binational collaboration in both emergency and non-emergency situations. As the research question focuses on the relationship with our Mexican neighbor, a sampling of literature introduces regional challenges such as border security, drug violence, and economic/trade deals. Literature also illustrates the dynamic trade and economic drivers that led to the development of sister city partnerships.

To understand binational agreements’ importance, the thesis evaluates globalization’s impact on the push to develop international agreements. Discussions on impacts of trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and of disaster-driven diplomacy provide an understanding of the issues that have resulted in mutually beneficial international partnerships. Globalization’s impact is also demonstrated through a brief history of three sister city pairs: San Diego/Tijuana, Detroit/Windsor, and El Paso/Juarez. This helps justify the value of establishing partnerships with our Canadian and Mexican neighbors. Looking at this history, it becomes clear that emergency preparedness and response agreements are a natural outgrowth of these partnerships.

This evolution can be seen in the emergency preparedness and response agreements which have been developed with both Canada and Mexico. A brief history of these interoperability agreements is presented, showing the distinctions between the regional compact (Canada) and the local sister city agreement (Mexico) models. Canadian border agreements are fairly consistent throughout and include the necessary provisions for cross-border resource deployment. The Mexican border sister city agreements are, however, inconsistent. While emergency preparedness interoperability has been achieved to varying degrees of success, there are unique challenges along the Mexican border that must be addressed in order to develop fully interoperable response agreements.

The limitations to full interoperability are examined in order to identify potential challenges to binational response agreements on the southern border. Some of these challenges are specifically stated in the existing agreements; others are not. Examples include the San Diego/Tijuana agreement, which states that personnel and equipment liability issues and communications concerns, along with other unspecified issues, are absolutes which cannot be overcome in order to allow emergency response resources into Mexico. The El Paso/Juarez agreement does not identify specific issues; it simply states that resources shall not be deployed into Mexico. Regardless of how explicitly they are defined, these challenges all impact local entities’ ability and/or desire to develop fully interoperable cross-border partnerships. This thesis examines if these challenges can be overcome. Identifying possible challenges to full interoperability opens up the discussion about potential impact on local communities, as well as on international relations. As the majority of these are local challenges, they must be addressed locally. A recommendation is made for municipalities to task steering committees to re-evaluate their local agreements, taking into account the information presented in this document as part of their review.

A “what-if” scenario is offered to consider how overcoming the identified challenges would improve the preparedness and response capabilities between binational partners, and to examine how impacts would reach beyond sister city agreements. No matter if an emergency occurs one-half mile across the Texas–New Mexico border or one-half mile across the U.S.–Mexico border, the citizens of the international region can benefit from emergency assistance by their closest neighbors. The impact of local interoperability agreements just might move us “beyond sister city agreements” and put us on the path toward functional international partnerships.

 

 

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