By Ayse Kelce
Javier Perea was first appointed mayor of Sunland Park, a New Mexico border town of 17,000 people just west of El Paso, in 2012 after a prostitution-payment scandal swept then-mayor Daniel Salinas out of office.
Perea was 24 when he filled the position, making him one of the youngest mayors in the country. Now 34, Perea is currently serving his third term.
Sunland Park was the focus of another controversy in the summer of 2019 when a group called We Build the Wall started its project to erect a border wall on private land within the city limits. Perea drew national media coverage when he took the controversial step of issuing a stop-work order because the organization had failed to obtain the required permits to build in Sunland Park.
While the wall controversy became a national conversation, Sunland Park officials and residents have their own unique ideas about what a border wall means to them and the city. Perea spoke about these controversies and his hopes for the city’s future in a Zoom interview on April 20. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
You were only 24 when you became the mayor of Sunland Park. Describe your journey to that appointment? Would you say that your age was a challenge?
Back in 2012, the city was going through a scandal and we made national news. There were over 17 different arrests within the city, both public officials and public employees, including the then-elected mayor. Under New Mexico law, you have 30 days to take your oath of office. After 30 days, the council decided to take the mayor position vacant.
Seeing everything that was going on, it was embarrassing to say you were from Sunland Park. And I said, if I didn’t do anything to prevent what happened, I’m trying to step up and do something to try and change it, to fix it. I went up to the city council and I submitted a letter of interest and my resume. Fifty-five minutes later, I became the mayor for the city of Sunland Park.
We were the laughing stock across the entire state and in many parts around the nation. Sunland Park was associated with corruption. So we had to work tremendously to get that image fixed.
I was 24 years old. And that in itself, had issues with some individuals. They thought about me as a 24-year-old with no government experience and no political background, telling them what to do. So, I did struggle with a few personalities within the city. But at the end of the day, I realize that it’s not necessarily about me. It’s about being able to organize other people, experts in their fields, to be able to produce a product.
What is it like to be a mayor of a border city? What are its unique challenges?
Although we’re a small municipality, we still have to be able to have the ability to deal with different international borders, but also across state lines. Sometimes it is easy to be forgotten since we are far away from Santa Fe, the New Mexico state capitol.
But we’ve made an effort to get involved across the state. I’m actually now the vice president of the New Mexico Municipal League. I now not only represent the city of Sunland Park, but I represent municipalities across the entire state of New Mexico.
How would you describe the relationship of your city with the other side of the border?
Here in the city of Sunland Park, we don’t have a port of entry. We’re actually working on developing one right now. We do have a very strong relationship with our neighbors in the south. And I think that’s something that people don’t understand that we have a very happy, strong relationship with our neighbors.
Whether it’s medical tourism where people go over there because, you know, medical practice is more affordable over there than it is in the United States. So for those who don’t have insurance, they go to Mexico.
Another thing we have, for example, my administrative assistant, he actually lives in Juarez. But he comes over here every single day. One of my city councilors lives here, but he’s a plant manager in Juarez. So there’s a dynamic of cross-border living that exists.
And we depend on each other and for our economic success. If Juarez struggles, we’re going to struggle as well because of that cross-city exchange that happens between both. Also we’re a logistics hub. In this area, there’s a lot of merchandise, a lot of goods that cross through our area.
Why is building a port of entry here important?
One thing is going to be an economic vitality of our community. Right now we’re a bedroom community (of El Paso). And what we need in our community to continue to thrive as a municipality is the development of commercial areas within the city.
Another important thing to realize is that in Mexico, in Juarez, there are 1.5 million people, probably even more. And they are a large part of our economy. There’s a huge space that has the opportunity for a new port of entry. And that’s what we’re trying to capitalize at this moment.
How do you think that the border policies are affecting politics in the city?
Actually, not as much within the city of Sunland Park. When people who do not know our area try to present solutions to the issues here, it can get a little frustrating. I wish people would come down here to have the opportunity to actually see how we engage with each other. I realize that most people do not know how things work here on the border.
When there is an issue about the border wall here, you see the entire nation divided about it, but actually the people here are very normal about it in the sense that there’s no major arguments between people.
We’ve had a border wall here since the second Bush administration; I think it was in 2002 they implemented a wall, a fence there. And then under the Obama administration, they allocated more funding, and then it was redone under the Trump administration. People go on about their daily lives. Every day you come to work, you see that wall. Or when you go home, you can’t miss it. So people are not necessarily divided here, but I think that people outside misinterpret what the wall does. For us, it has helped curb some petty crimes, for example, thefts and vandalism. But it doesn’t necessarily deal with the issue of immigration. It doesn’t change that issue that we have to deal with at a much bigger level at the federal level.
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like when We Build a Wall started its project? The city got national attention, how did you deal with that?
I think one of the biggest reactions was not necessarily about the wall being built, it was that the wall was being built without the proper clearances, without the proper permission from the city. They did this behind our backs. They intentionally did it, starting to work without notifying anybody. And of course, our role as a local government is to enforce local ordinances, local law. And that’s when we got wind of what was happening there; we took the necessary steps to stop it. And then that’s when this became a national issue.
There was actually nothing that we could do to stop it, whether we were neither for it or against. If they followed all the rules from the very beginning, I don’t think this would have become a scandal or a big issue.
What is the perspective of local residents toward immigration policies?
From within the city of Sunland Park, I did not hear major reactions. I know there’s groups within the El Paso region here in our area who are getting into the national discussion of it. It’s been pretty quiet here within the city, so I think that’s what people like or are drawn to our community. It’s pretty peaceful.
Being on the border, there’s a large immigrant population within our communities. Like I mentioned, some of the people don’t understand the dynamics of people who live in our area. I think we work towards being inclusive and making sure that everyone is an active member in our community. It’s an interesting dynamic, but, my hope is that others can get to see that dynamic and realize that these immigrants are people who just want to create a better environment for themselves for their kids and a better future. I mean, we’re one of the safest communities in the state of New Mexico. I think that says a lot about who we are.
Is there an effort to get an accurate census count in Sunland Park?
The undercount had been a big problem. [The debate about including a citizenship question, which has since been excluded] scared some people from participating. But, we are working with Donana County and all the state agencies we can to make sure that the publicity gets out there for people to get counted and get the census forms done.
The coronavirus doesn’t help very much, but I understand that there is going to be another push probably in June to get people counted. But I think it’s important that we realize that there’s a lot of people who need the services from the federal government, and we need to make sure that they get counted so that the proper allocations are made.