The Mexico-U.S. border is a peculiar world: part Mexican, part American and, at the same time, different from both. Above all, it is absolutely different from what it is imagined to be by Washington or Mexico City politicians. The border has come to acquire its own character due to its particular circumstances: the disdain of its central governments, the distance to the respective capitals and, most of all, the mutual dependence that each point along the border has developed. El Paso could not exist without Ciudad Juárez and both reside in the middle of an inhospitable desert that attracts rather than repels them. The challenge, and the opportunity, for Mexico does not lie in going back to isolating the border zone (which is what the current policy seems to be) but instead to integrating it into the country, while the country integrates itself into the border proper.
In a visionary book, La Frontera: The United States Border with Mexico, Weisman and Dusard describe many borders that typify the line that joins (and separates) the two nations: each region possesses its essential qualities, but the two together maintain similarities deriving from the permanent interaction –and the interdependence- arising from an increasingly deepening coexistence. That book, written nearly three decades ago, was a mere hint of what was to come. The book describes, and illustrates with photographs, the changing natural geography, but also the manner in which the communities interact daily on both sides of the border, with all of the issues and tensions forming an inherent part of the panorama.
Were they to publish a sequel today, these authors would surely describe two new realities: first, the colossal increase in border interaction, principally the product of the growing integration of the two economies, the supply chains that sustain the automotive, chemical, electronic and aviation industries and so many others that are the daily bread of the Mexican economy and that have led to a dramatic rise in trucks, freight cars and persons that cross in both directions every day. On the other hand, the description would most likely include the deterioration undergone by the region as a result of the ever increasing criminal activity, the interminable migratory flows that now have swarmed the Mexican side and the stresses, strains, and conflicts that all this entails.
Despite these ills, the region comprises an increasingly “country” in itself, an area in which communities of both sides coexist as units of both sides and that have features in their everyday lives that are radically distinct from the rest of each of the two countries. It is not by chance that whenever fiscal or regulatory changes are brought about (such as the IVA, the value added tax, or money-laundering) exceptions are created for the border zone because there would be no other way of functioning there. Countless Mexicans attend school in the country to the north, or live on “the other side” and cross the border into the States every day. Mexican workers routinely go to the U.S. side, while U.S. businesspeople come to work on the Mexican side.
Some border states have formalized diverse schemes of cooperation to facilitate the exchanges, others simply engage in them. Perhaps there is no better example than that of the Sonora and Arizona border with its bilateral commission. For the state of Texas, Mexico is its largest trading partner, superior in volume and value than that of the remainder of its exchanges with the rest of the U.S. and its governors, both Republicans and Democrats, dedicate themselves to making the relationship work. The U.S. Federal Government itself has been inventing mechanisms to facilitate border life and to attenuate the growing bureaucratic complexity that distinguishes their security programs, through projects such as Sentry, whose purpose is to expedite the border crossing of previously registered motor vehicles.
For Mexico, the border has always been a challenge. The historical instinct has comprised that of distancing ourselves from Americans, tolerating the inevitable peculiarities that are the trait of those living in that region and forgetting the entire matter. It was with that end that, at mid-XX century, the free zone was devised and, later, the establishment of assembly plants was favored, always restricted to that region. That is, they wanted to isolate the border region in quarantine fashion for health reasons: for the rest of the country not to be contaminated.
That perspective is no longer sustainable nor does it make sense. From the eighties, the border has become the key factor between the economies and the meeting point of Mexico with its main economic engine. Of course, there is no reason for Mexico limiting itself to a sole engine but it is impossible, and would be suicidal, to attempt to diminish or eliminate the elements that make the region work.
In a word, instead of once again isolating that zone from the rest of the country through the re-creation of a free zone, the government should integrate it completely into the rest of the country and, simultaneously integrate the country into that zone. This is not a play on words: the only way of being able to prosper is simplifying, decentralizing and (de)bureaucratizing, all these, a trait inherent to that region.