Funders, Nonprofits Work to Boost Prosperity in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region


Border Fence

As part of GrantStation’s exploration of how nonprofits are dealing with poverty, we decided to  take a look at the U.S.-Mexico border area, especially given rising political tensions between the two sides.

We discovered a discouraging fact: If the border region, which includes land in ten states on both sides of the frontier, were the 51st U.S. state, it would rank at or near the bottom in nearly all measures of prosperity, community health, education, and quality of life.

That information comes from the U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership (BPP), a network of nearly 300 philanthropic, academic, corporate, and government entities that work to build opportunity in the region. Andy Carey, BPP’s executive director, details some of the challenges: “affordable housing, employment, food security, living wage, affordable health care.”

Carey highlights health problems like juvenile diabetes and an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tijuana and says the U.S.’s failure to reform its immigration system has impeded access to medical services. More people in the border areas would seek care in Mexico, where services are cheaper and the language and culture are more familiar, he explains, if they did not have to worry about showing documentation when they return.

"It’s a myth that everyone who comes to the border wants to jump to the U.S."
- Alma Cota de Yanez

Of course, the Trump Administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and calls to “Build a Wall!” have brought additional pressures. “We’re pandering to a political conversation in that effort as opposed to addressing real community needs,” Carey says.

The White House has also proposed slashing the foreign aid budget, which could affect programs that help Mexico in areas like hunger, drug trafficking, and human trafficking, Carey notes. Congress has so far resisted deep cuts, but it’s not clear yet what will happen with the 2019 budget. (To aggravate matters, after I spoke to Carey, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, resigned effective May 5, 2018.)

Unlike major metropolitan areas like Miami, Chicago, or San Francisco, the border region lacks an important resource. As Carey noted, “We don’t have a large number of Fortune 500 companies investing in our region.”

But there is good news too, he says, in the innovative steps BPP members are taking to give low-income families a leg up. Some, including the Clinton Foundation and the Carlos Slim Foundation, have developed programs to divert young people at the border from gang life or narco-trafficking by offering them employment opportunities. Others, like the Regional Center for Border Health in Arizona, have created health insurance vehicles that can be used on both sides of the border by residents who would be otherwise uninsured.

Alma Cota de YanezAlma Cota de Yanez, Director of FESAC Nogales.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a major BPP donor, has funded Building Broader Communities in the Americas, a project to foster partnerships between U.S., Canadian, Mexican, and other Latin American community foundations. The San Diego Family Asset Building Coalition works to help low-income families in San Diego County achieve economic mobility through services like financial coaching, homebuyer assistance, credit counseling, and tax preparation.

For a positive view from the field, Carey refers me to Alma Cota de Yanez, director of FESAC Nogales, an organization similar to a community foundation in the border town of Nogales, Sonora. Cota de Yanez calls herself “optimistic to death” as she describes how Nogales has developed since she arrived almost 18 years ago, thanks to public-private collaboration to clean up the city and strengthen social services. 

Cota de Yanez says FESAC Nogales serves as “a catalyst of social investment projects,” for example working with local government and businesses to build a center for children with Down Syndrome. Such efforts benefit from a network of maquiladoras (manufacturing operations that are allowed to import parts duty-free and export assembled products across the border), which pool money for projects ranging from playgrounds to addiction-treatment clinics, thus improving the quality of life.

“It’s a myth that everyone who comes to the border wants to jump to the U.S.,” she says. 

Sharing Information

BPP brings together its Mexican and American members to share information and discuss ways to grow philanthropy. In January, it joined with several grantmaking groups to sponsor an event in San Diego, “Border Kids Count,” to review the status of children along the California-Mexico border.

The Children’s Rights Network (Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en Mexico, or REDIM) and Children Now, nonprofits advocating for children in Mexico and California respectively, presented data that showed both good news and bad news.

On the positive side, Mexican children who live near the border fare better than Mexican children in general. More than half of children in Mexico (up to age 17) live in poverty, while only 28 percent of the 1.1 million children in Baja California live in poverty, REDIM found. Still, 20 percent of the children in the border town of Tijuana lack access to health services through their families and more than 20 percent don’t attend high school.

On the other side of the border, figures varied between the two southernmost California counties. The percentage of kids living in poverty in San Diego County is lower than the statewide average — 19 percent versus 23 percent. But the figure is 31 percent in Imperial County, which has a much smaller population but double the percentage of Latino residents (89 percent versus 44 percent). Thirty-seven percent of children in Imperial County live in communities of concentrated poverty, compared with 17 percent statewide.

Children Now also presented results from a new Kaiser Family Foundation study that found that immigrant families are living with heightened fear and uncertainty since President Trump took office — something that will take a toll on children’s health and well-being.

Meanwhile, anti-poverty activists are nervous about Republican efforts to trim federal safety-net programs and hoping that policymakers can focus on the reasons that Mexicans enter the United States without documentation. “The cost to get here legitimately is significant,” Carey says. “People can’t wait 20 years to put food on the table. The issue of humanity has to be addressed.”