The U.S. departments of Commerce and Homeland Security are teaming up to spread the word to communities in the interior of the country that the borders with Mexico and Canada are important to their economic prosperity, and that any problems in those regions have wider consequences, according to officials.
Much of the support for free trade agreements — such as the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S.-European Union trade and investment pact currently being negotiated — comes from states like Michigan, Texas, California and Arizona, which export a lot to the United States' neighbors. But there remains throughout the country a strong undercurrent of skepticism, and even outright opposition, to liberalizing trade after decades of manufacturing outsourcing, job losses and middle-class wage stagnation; many blame these trends on globalization.
The Obama administration has made a concerted effort to double exports by 2015 by bringing together under a common playbook disparate agencies that can help businesses expand into overseas markets. The object is to make it easier to learn about and access resources, such as credit assistance, market research, match-making and compliance support.
But many trade seminars and outreach events are typically held in international gateways such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston. Commerce and Homeland Security officials say they need to build awareness about the benefits of trade, and how to maximize import and export opportunities, in other parts of the country, away from major cities.
"The border is not just a 2,000-mile line that separates us from Mexico. It's not a Texas issue or Arizona issue. It's a Nebraska issue. It's an Iowa issue," Walter Bastian, deputy assistant secretary for the western hemisphere at the Commerce Department, said in an interview.
Many people don't realize that Canada and Mexico are the first, second or third largest markets for exports from their states, he added.
Alan Bersin, the Department of Homeland Security's acting assistant secretary for policy, said there is growing recognition by the leaders of both departments that more outreach is needed to counter the perception that the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement is bad.
(Registration is now open for an exclusive webinar with Bersin on Sept. 21 titled "The New Border Agenda — Customs as a Force for North American Competitiveness."
In addition to encouraging companies far from ports of entry to consider global markets, where 95 percent of potential consumers live, the outreach strategy suggests a desire to generate public support for more infrastructure investment at border checkpoints and Customs initiatives to streamline trade regulations so shipments can flow faster, with less hassle.
"Key to economic growth is our ability to get product back and forth across the border quickly," Bastian said.
So far trade seminars have been held in Atlanta; Des Moines, Iowa; and Omaha, Neb., he said. The events have included participation by members of Congress from local districts and the Congressional Southern Border Caucus, as well as representatives from the Mexican and Canadian embassies, he said.
Bersin has been unable to participate so far because he has been deeply involved with the immigration crisis involving unaccompanied minors from Central America, and he has had to travel more since taking on the policy portfolio at DHS in recent months.
The events are sponsored and hosted by local chambers of commerce, World Trade Center offices or other organizations with an interest in trade.
The target audience is business executives that are doing business in Mexico or contemplate doing so. About 100 people have attended each event, Basitan said.
The intent is to eventually expand the program to promote trade across the northern border as well, he said. Events are being considered next year in Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, Bastian said.
"The idea is not merely to go to Omaha, get on a program and leave by early afternoon, but to spend time there, visit the local paper, meet with the editorial board, or maybe do radio interviews," he said, noting that local members of Congress can be helpful in making those types of arrangements.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Trade Representative recently made a Midwest swing to highlight the administration's efforts to boost trade and explain how new agreements could open overseas opportunities for rural agricultural producers and manufacturers.