EL PASO — Rolando Pablos has been appointed to five different posts by Gov. Rick Perry, including stints on the Public Utility Commission and the Texas Racing Commission. And after living almost three decades in San Antonio, Pablos, 46, is back in the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez area, where he spent many of his formative years.
He returned last year to lead the Borderplex Alliance, a tri-state and binational development group focused on growing the regional economy.
Pablos is also on the board of Hispanic Republicans of Texas, a political action committee that supports and recruits Latinos to run for office. He recently sat down with The Texas Tribune and talked about what El Paso needs to do to shed its reputation as a hub for low-skilled and low-wage industries, why he thinks the war in Ciudad Juárez is officially over and what the region is doing right. He also offers his thoughts on what members of his own party are saying about immigrants and the border.
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.
TT: What is the mission of the Borderplex Alliance?
Pablos: The Borderplex Alliance is really focused on creating one binational metro area that includes southern New Mexico, West Texas and Northern Chihuahua. We need to be viewed as one region, and up until now, we really haven’t seen that unity so we can promote ourselves as one region and 2.5 million people that can compete on a global scale.
TT: What’s the primary focus? Is it building the economy, trying to improve the reputation of the area after the violence in Mexico or trying to improve education?
Pablos: It’s all of the above. We need to focus on making our region attractive and competitive so that we can bring in investment. We have seen a tremendous of activity and companies interested in taking a look at our region. There has been a tremendous amount of investment with Union Pacific, Fort Bliss and the military, and Texas Tech with the medical school. We’re seeing an unprecedented interest, so our job is to make us more attractive and also get the word out that this is a truly global logistics hub and manufacturing and military sector that is unrivaled.
TT: El Paso County ranks below the state level in graduation rates, it has a higher poverty rate and there are probably more low-skilled and blue-collar workers here than on average in Texas. Whose fault is that, and how do you make it better?
Pablos: Let’s focus on how we make it better; there is no sense in focusing on whose fault it is. I will tell you that somewhere along the line, people decided that El Paso was going to market itself as this low-skilled, low-wage environment, and I think that was a mistake. Right now there are a lot of good organizations in our community trying to turn that statistical situation around. We’re working with workforce development and our schools to try and educate our children and our workforce to make it more competitive.
TT: A recent article quoted you as saying that El Paso wasn’t ready to go to the next level. You said that was a misinterpretation. What did you mean by that? What does El Paso need now, and when it can get to the next level?
Pablos: My whole take is that our workforce development and initiatives do need to be taken to the next level. When we’re talking about competing for high-tech jobs for headquartered investments, my take is that right now other communities are further ahead. So for us to really and truly compete, we need to focus on ensuring that our workforce is trained at that level and that our kids and students that are coming out of our universities have a place to stay. Brain drain is a tremendous problem for our region; we want to make sure we provide these graduates a place to land within the region.
TT: Is it difficult being a Republican in El Paso County?
Pablos: It’s a great thing being a Republican in El Paso County. In my job, party politics doesn’t play a role. I am just glad to be able to represent this region. Party politics is very interesting in all of these communities, but when you are a rare specimen, you tend to stand out.
TT: Do you plan to campaign for any of the statewide candidates if they come to El Paso?
Pablos: Absolutely not. My job does not allow for that. We’re focused on the issues and want to make sure that El Paso, southern New Mexico and Chihuahua have a fair shake and bringing in investment.
TT: A lot of people fault members of your party for labeling places like El Paso, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley dangerous because of what is going on in Mexico. Or what was going on in Mexico. How do you feel about the rhetoric that includes sealing the border?
Pablos: There is no doubt that border security ought to be an important element of a comprehensive security plan. Security is needed all over the state, whether it’s in El Paso or Vidor, Texas. But when political strategists use border security as a wedge issue to try to gain an advantage over another candidate, that only works to hurt the entire state, given that our neighbor to the south is one of our most important trading partners. I would rather focus on legitimate travel and trade and not allow those wedge issues to cast a shadow over the tremendous opportunity we have in Mexico. Mexico is poised to become a very powerful world economy. If we don’t prepare ourselves to capture that opportunity, then others will.
TT: You have mentioned that your relationship with and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is close. Whoever her opponent is, he is probably going to discuss illegal immigration and border security issues. There are people in San Antonio whom you know and are part of the Republican Party who are saying they will support her because of this very issue. Would you support her?
Pablos: Again, my job does not allow for me to get involved at that level. But I’ll tell you again that anything that works to erase that competitive advantage with Mexico really should be cast aside. Our law enforcement in Texas is doing a great job; our sheriffs are doing a great job. So when you start using border security as a wedge issue, then we can’t help but to take exception to it.
TT: What is the biggest hurdle when dealing with so many state and federal governments? How do you communicate across those levels?
Pablos: Anytime you work across political boundaries, you are going to have difficulties, but you’ll also have opportunities. We need to take advantage and leverage the common assets we have. Obviously you will have interregional competition, which is healthy. But our mission is to focus on what brings us together. When you start aggregating these assets, we become a pretty powerful force. We still have a lot of work to do with some folks that tend to be a bit more parochial and territorial. I think [New Mexico] Gov. [Susana] Martinez is doing an excellent job; she gets it. I think Gov. Perry gets it. We just need to work with [Chihuahua] Gov. César Duarte. The image that Juárez has is still hurting it, so we have to work with Juárez to rehabilitate that image. It’s not any different than what New Orleans did after the hurricane.
TT: Do you think Juárez is back? Is the war over?
Pablos: Yes, I think Juárez is back. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just take a look at the investment that is coming in. We have a tremendous amount of companies coming in to look at Juárez and to relocate in Juárez. I am there once or twice a week. It’s going to take a while, but this notion that Juárez is unsafe is slowly but surely going away.
TT: It’s been said that immigration reform would be a boon to the economy. Are you for immigration reform with a path to citizenship? The DREAM Act?
Pablos: We have a situation; it is what it is and it needs to be handled. Immigration is another wedge issue we just need to once and for all put aside. I would like to see a solution that brings the folks that are here out of the shadows.
TT: Does that mean legal status or citizenship?
Pablos: I would like to see something that is possibly halfway, something where folks can work and play and invest in the U.S. but at the same time some things to recognize are that laws were broken and penalties need to be assessed. We’re not going to get anywhere if we go to either extreme. We also need to work on our immigration laws to make sure we don’t get into this situation in the future.
TT: What about the DREAM Act? Should they be given citizenship?
Pablos: It’s the equivalent of being in the back of a station wagon and your dad getting pulled over and given a ticket and you being faulted for speeding. These children had absolutely nothing to do with their parents breaking the law. They find themselves in an unfortunate situation. And especially if we’re talking about kids who have the intellect and will to go to college. Why wouldn’t we want to give them that opportunity? We should allow them to stay, and sending them back home, as some have proposed, is a ridiculous idea. This is their home.
TT: When are you going to go from Rolando Pablos CEO of Borderplex to Rolando Pablos candidate for office?
Pablos: My focus is making sure this region become competitive. I am very interested in making sure the world knows the North American Borderplex is alive and well. Our board is comprised of people from all three parts: Chihuahua, New Mexico and West Texas. I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life in San Antonio and recently Austin. We miss it, but this is a great place to be.
TT: But you’re not completely ruling anything out?