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Outbound Brains

Border communities struggle to keep younger, educated residents when larger cities dangle economic and quality-of-life opportunities. They're afflicted with the reputation of being black holes of talent — where escape is necessary in order to prosper.

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“Laredo has a book store?”

That message was recently posted on Facebook after the launch of a campaign to raise awareness that B.Dalton Bookseller decided to shut down its operations in the border town.

The closing would leave the city of almost 200,000 without a bookstore, mirroring a drain of local brains and talent; border communities often struggle to keep younger, educated residents when larger cities dangle economic and quality-of-life opportunities.

The bookstore example, some have argued, is one that accurately reflects why cities on the Texas-Mexican border are often afflicted with a reputation of being a black hole of talent where escape is necessary in order to prosper.

Alberto “Beto” Cardenas is a Houston-based attorney with Vinson and Elkins and the former general counsel to Texas’ senior U.S. Sen. and current gubernatorial candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison. A product of Laredo’s United High School and subsequent graduate of Laredo Junior College (now Laredo Community College), Cardenas said his work with a legislator presented a chance to affect positive change for his hometown and state. He added that, aside from a family member’s illness or the contemplation of marriage, however, changes would be necessary to bring him and others like him home to Laredo for good.

“I find myself in a larger city based on the infrastructure that has the amenities, the professional sports and opportunities, the arts, the culture and the global interest that are there, as well as the financial interests,” he said.

Laredo is not without a supply of talented legal professionals. Attorneys with specialties in civil matters and criminal prosecution and defense are abundant. But Cardenas said settling in Houston offered him the opportunity to work with a larger law firm whose interests were global, which would have been almost impossible in Laredo.

Cardenas says he goes home at least five times a year and is not one of the “just home for Christmas” transplants. But every year, hundreds like him leave the border and take with them the energy and talent local officials say is a vital ingredient to the cities’ prosperity.

Hundreds of miles away and in a different time zone is El Paso, easily three times larger than Laredo but with its own brain-drain dilemmas. Enrollment of local students at the University of Texas at El Paso is increasing, said UTEP President Diana Natalicio, which means more high school graduates are finding reasons to stay. But graduates of the specialty UTEP is known for, Natalicio said, are putting their talents to use elsewhere.

“When you look at engineering, which of course is one of our key programs and part of our tradition as a mining school, nearly none of our engineering graduates remain in this region,” she said. “And that is to me one of the most serious brain-drain situations because what we’ve basically done is to invest a lot in preparing first-rate engineers and computer scientists who all have to leave the region in order to pursue their professional careers.”

Science specialists and some business-school graduates, she added, are also on the move after UTEP.

“They are getting great jobs, they are getting career jobs that will lead to further opportunities so they are on a kind of career ladder,” she said. “They are also getting paid more than they might be able to earn if they were to stay in El Paso.”

What El Paso doesn’t have are some of the cultural constraints Cardenas said smaller border communities must navigate away from.

“Let’s be honest, that small-town atmosphere or any-town atmosphere, they are always going to be weary of outsiders coming in and I think that, in an era of globalization, that’s something that you cannot have in you,” he said. “You’ve got to let that barrier down.”

A key element, he added, is a change of mindset for some with direct access to local policy.

“It requires civic engagement in public policy to move a city forward, not based on (local) personalities but based on trying to get to a better place,” he said. “And I think that is just something that is endemic in many areas of the state for all cities at a certain point in time.”

Laredo has almost doubled in size since Cardenas grew up, and he credits the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a catalyst for that growth. The city is currently home to the largest inland port in the country.

“It was a strategic decision that our city and others along the border made a concerted effort to say, ‘We are in the perfect spot in terms of the trade corridor,’” he said. “If you are looking at city planning, how does a city advance? You’ve got to put an emphasis on infrastructure.”

Laredo’s workforce population is growing faster than its job availability, according to the Laredo Development Foundation, but that category includes low-skilled and low-paying jobs. The lure might not be enough for those who are looking for more in terms of quality of life.

According to one economic development official from Laredo, the city needs to invest in a “differentiating event” to draw people from outside the city and diversify it. That’s even more true now, said the official — Nuevo Laredo, which used to be considered Laredo’s draw, has fallen victim to cartel violence and a sustained negative image to outsiders. 

Though he stressed patience, Cardenas said the city is on the right track.

“I would hope that it is only a generation away,” he said. I would look at some positive developments that have occurred within the last generation of leadership. The establishment of a full four-year university (Texas A&M International) was really important, not for the first five years or 10 years but the next 50,” he said. “How do we get a kid from Dallas and one from San Antonio and Houston to come to A&M International? That’s, I think, the type of thinking that needs to occur.”

Natalicio said El Paso is fortunate in that it is one of the larger border cities and thereby more diverse, but added the city’s attributes are not well known.

“El Paso’s image is such a big issue, I think, because people are always surprised when they come here the first time, how big it is and (how) we have the mountains and amenities and activities,” she said.

Quality-of-life issues and access to entertainment are often cited as reasons to move away from or to a city, but some are surprised that UTEP hosts one of the longest running collegiate bowl games, the Sun Bowl, and played host to the Rolling Stones in 1994, more than a decade before the legendary group played in Austin, the “live music capital of the world.”

“I think most people that come here are pleasantly surprised because the image sometimes isn’t very good,” she said.

For more than a decade, border cities have also faced the Mexico Factor, where a drug cartel war and reports of spillover violence drag on the neighboring U.S. cities’ images.

Border cities are inextricably linked and local officials have been forced to balance the cultural and economic advantages of the situation while simultaneously distancing themselves from the danger present in the region.

“Within the past couple of years we have effectively blocked off two-thirds of our potential, if you will. Very few people continue to go to Juarez, very few people who regularly went there in the past,” said Natalicio. “Life has changed and it really is different now. I am not terribly optimistic, frankly, that this is going to be resolved in a short period of time, because there is a lot of work to be done on the Mexican side and, I think, on the U.S. side.”

But even if border cities see some of their best depart, the ex-pats remain a loyal bunch. People from El Paso but no longer there are united in conversations about Chico’s Tacos and Don Haskins, and saying you are “Laredo Proud” to someone from Laredo could lead to conversations about the Nixon-Martin high school rivalry. Some city leaders just wish the former residents were having those good times in their hometowns.

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