“The border means more than a customshouse, a passport officer, a man with a gun,” Graham Greene said. “Over there everything is going to be different…. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveler expects the death he never finds.” That Greene wrote those words after visiting not Hong Kong or Trieste but Laredo should come as no surprise. The Mexican border—the very words are a metaphor for starting over—has been the inspiration for more feverish literary fantasies than that. The immediate significance of the border, however, is no longer to be found in the frequently overblown notions of romance or promise it provides south-bound travelers and writers, especially writers—Mexico, as Paul Fussell says, makes Anglo-Saxon authors go all to pieces—but in its distinction as the only international frontier in the world that separates a largely impoverished nation from a highly developed one. To the extent that the border still offers the promise of a fresh start it is not for those moving south, but north.

Though it is not really necessary to do so, one might quibble with Tom Miller’s description of the border as merely a strip of land two thousand miles long and twenty miles wide; the radians of its influence certainly extend as far as Louisiana to the east and Colorado to the north, roughly the area that Joel Garreau, in his imaginative book The Nine Nations of North America, has christened “MexAmerica,” and in several important ways there is now no place in the country they do not touch.

But the border as a sphere of influence is another topic altogether; as a meeting point of two countries it is equally deserving of study, if only because it is often no more than an imaginative collection of convenient fictions. For the moment, the most troublesome myth seems to be that the border between the United States and Mexico, like the one between, say, West Germany and Czechoslovakia, is a frontier over which this country can, should it choose to do so, exercise a near-absolute degree of sovereign control. This is not so, and even the idea that political boundaries in general ought to be barriers to mobility is relatively recent. In his book Abroad, Paul Fussell quotes C.E. Montague, the British novelist and journalist, recalling Europe before the First World War as a place where “you wandered freely about the Continent as if it were your own country…without knowing what a passport looked like.” So it was too in America, where until the early part of this century the only formality required of Mexican immigrants was the payment of fifty cents. Not until 1915, following the outbreak of war in Europe, did the US begin requiring visas of foreign visitors, and until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 there was not so much as a single border patrolman to thwart unwanted immigrants.

The strict enforcement of movement across national boundaries quickly came to be taken seriously in a Europe shaken by one war and about to be devastated by another. (“All these frontiers,” fussed Isherwood’s Arthur Norris in the early Thirties as his train approached the German border, “such a horrible nuisance.”) But while trans-Europe expresses were being boarded by stern-faced passport inspectors, the Mexican border, never considered a prospective threshold for military invasion, remained virtually unguarded. In the meantime the disparity between the quality of life on either side, which had earlier lent the border a good deal of its flavor (the difference between the United States and Mexico, Greene wrote in 1939, was dirt and darkness), grew ever wider until by the mid-1970s the average per capita income in this country was eight times that of Mexico. For nearly three decades after the Second World War the United States had failed to foresee that another kind of invasion was in the making, and by the time economic refugees propelled by the imbalance in incomes began arriving here in large numbers there was no mechanism capable of stopping them. Even then, successive administrations were slow to react or did so in peculiar ways. President Nixon, apparently perceiving the problem as akin to a military exercise in the interdiction of troop movements, named a retired Marine Corps commandant, Lieutenant General Leonard F. Chapman, to head his immigration service.

That the influx of uninvited visitors has now caused some alarm in Washington is evident from the serious discussions going on there of the feasibility of closing the Mexican border altogether. Whether such a thing is possible or not, the fact is that at present the border could hardly be more open. Anyone with a little perseverence can swim or walk across with about one chance in five of being detected on the first try, and the legal cross-border traffic of workers, shoppers, and tourists is far greater than the illegal. It is therefore far more useful at the moment to view the border as a membrane rather than a line that is simply American on one side and Mexican on the other. As Miller suggests in his too brief but nonetheless absorbing book, the melange of customs and cultures that such permeability affords has created along the border “a region that does not adhere to the economic, ethical, political, or cultural standards of either country,” a kind of third country that “obeys its own laws and has its own outlaws, its own police officers and its own policy makers. Its food, its language, its music are its own. Even its economic development is unique. It is a colony unto itself,…ruled by two faraway powers….”


Apart from long, vacant stretches of desert, mountains, and river the essence of the region is to be found in the string of bilingual, bicultural cities that straddle the border from Brownsville and Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico to San Diego and Tijuana on the Pacific coast—cities linked not only by international bridges and ports of entry but by what Carey McWilliams identified as a unique set of interlocking economic, social, and cultural interests. The pairs of cities are really city states, self-contained to a surprising degree and more dependent on each other than on their respective federal governments. (Though official recognition of this interdependence has come rather belatedly, it was formally acknowledged last summer when the governors of the four American and six Mexican border states met for the first time, in Juarez, to discuss mutual problems that might best be solved without recourse to Mexico City and Washington.)

The general impression of such border towns, as Mr. Miller points out, “is that they are sleazy and sleepy, dusty and desolate, places where the poor and the criminal mingle,” impressions that were first acquired during Prohibition when the border began to attract Americans looking for a drink and were mostly well deserved. Some of the smaller towns are still a bit sleazy but Juarez and Tijuana, which had perhaps the most sordid reputations, are today tame by US standards—no pornographic bookshops, topless dancers, or massage parlors, the only reminder of years past being a handful of seedy nightclubs deserted except for a few aging prostitutes (like other Mexicans, the younger ones now cross the border to work where the rewards are greater).

Given the difficulty of enumerating largely fluid populations border demographics are approximate, as they were in the mid-nineteenth century when a patrician Easterner named John Russell Bartlett set out to map the new United States-Mexico boundary established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. At one point, Bartlett’s diary records, “We asked, ‘How many people are there in Chinapi?’ The reply was ‘Bastante.’ Enough…. Had I asked if the place contained five hundred people, the answer probably would have been ‘Quizás.’ Perhaps.”

Census taking is still difficult, not only in the Mexican “ciudades trampolinas” that serve as staging areas for those from the interior waiting to slip across the border on their way to Los Angeles and points north and east, but also on the US side. Until this year, United States Census forms in Spanish were not easily available and many older Mexican-Americans who grew up long before bilingual education simply went uncounted. There are probably about four million people living on each side of the border, and though the population of the region appears to be growing at an astonishing rate the myth of a sleepy backwater persists—one of the Washington correspondents who accompanied President Reagan to his meeting last February with José López Portillo, the Mexican president, referred to Juarez, where the meeting took place, as a “border community.” By most estimates, however, the population of Juarez is now close to one million, making it larger than all but six American cities. Taken together with El Paso, its twin, whose population is approaching half a million, the city of “El Juarez” would replace Houston as the nation’s fifth largest. (San Diego and Tijuana, with a combined population of nearly two million, would displace Philadelphia as the fourth.)

Miller sees the cities as “reluctant lovers in the night, embracing for fear that letting go could only be worse.” As Niles Hansen points out in his admirably researched but less entertaining study of the border, “the economies of El Paso and Juarez are so interrelated that it is difficult to discuss one without considering the other.” Residents of El Paso cross the bridge to Juarez not only to dine and drink, but to fill their automobiles with cheap gasoline, mail letters back to the United States for nine cents apiece (a trick that large-volume commercial mailers are only just discovering), visit cut-rate doctors and dentists, and to stock up on sugar, milk, coffee, fresh fruit and vegetables (including vine-ripened tomatoes for a dime apiece), lobster and giant shrimp, all at a fraction of their domestic prices.


The Mexican residents go north to work. Each day an estimated 40,000 holders of the coveted “green card” awarded to legal resident aliens commute to their jobs in the United States from their homes in Mexico, where they find life more agreeable and also cheaper. Perhaps an equal number enter with less exalted credentials that permit brief visits to the United States to shop but not to work. There are a million such cards outstanding, and the immigration service has no way to control how long their bearers stay in the United States or what they do while they are here. Mexico requires no such permits of US border crossers. An even larger number of workers simply cross the border illegally to reach their jobs, returning the same way each night.

Part of the problem encountered by John Russell Bartlett, and shared by government officials to this day, is that for half of its 1,966 miles the Mexican border is a negotiated boundary marked by no physical feature that might also serve as a barrier to entry. From Brownsville to El Paso the border follows the twisting, sometimes changing, course of the Rio Grande (the Rio Bravo to the Mexicans), a shallow ribbon of water that in the summertime is barely knee-deep in places. (The expression “wetback,” still much used by natives north of the border, though no longer in polite company, became popular before farmers in Colorado and New Mexico began siphoning off the river water to irrigate their crops.) West of El Paso, where the river turns north, there is nothing that even looks like a border save for a long line of obelisk-like monuments marching to the Pacific Ocean.

The lack of a physical obstacle makes the proposition of closing the Mexican border to uncontrolled traffic an extraordinarily difficult one, despite the conviction of a badly overworked border patrol that issues recurring pleas for more troops and likes to point out that only 350 of its 2,200 officers are on duty there at any one time, about the same number of officers who police the New York City subways. But Miller calculates that actually to seal off the border would require no fewer than 2.5 million border guards standing shoulder to shoulder, and inanimate fortifications have also proven ineffective. Two years ago, the United States spent several million dollars to construct “impenetrable” chain-link fences along some high-traffic sections of the border. Within a week they were full of holes, further evidence that the border is being fairly overrun.

In 1964, the border patrol “apprehended” (it does not use the word “arrested”) 50,000 illegal aliens; last year it seized that many every three weeks, and veteran officers estimate that for each of those perhaps four or five others got past their meager defenses, either by wading the Rio Grande at night or making the punishing trek through the same Arizona desert that last year yielded up the dehydrated bodies of thirteen Salvadoran refugees. Because no one knows how many illegal aliens get through, how many are arrested more than once during the course of a year, or how many return home after acquiring a certain amount of money, the magnitude of net illegal immigration can only be guessed at.

Professor Hansen writes at some length about the economics of illegal aliens, and for those who fear that foreign workers are taking jobs that might have been filled by Americans he points out that the so-called “lump of labor” theory—that an economy provides only a fixed amount of work to be done—is a fallacy. Whether they are in the country legally or illegally, workers are also consumers and themselves constitute a market for goods and services that in turn creates more jobs (though at something less than a one-to-one ratio), and their very presence tends to give rise to work that would otherwise not exist because no American would accept it at the offered wage. Consider the hand-hewn rock walls and swimming pools, built by Mexican laborers working for two or three dollars an hour, that grace otherwise modest houses in middle-class developments along the border, or the surprising number of middle-income families who are able to employ full-time maids for as little as $30 a week.

Nowhere in either book, however, can much be found about the texture of the lives led by “undocumented” workers and their families once they step across the border, lives that range in quality from dismal—but usually no more dismal than the life that was left behind—to almost bearable. Since the dark days of the bracero program the traditional source of employment for Mexican workers in America has been agriculture, and many aliens continue to take jobs in the fields and to live the attendant rough life, sleeping under the lemon trees of Arizona or in the melon patches of south Texas, cooking their meals over campfires and bathing in irrigation ditches. Difficult as such an existence can be, life is worse still for uncounted thousands of aliens who fall victim to a kind of modern-day slavery in which they are in effect “sold” by unscrupulous labor contractors to farmers who withhold their wages—and in some cases physically restrain them from leaving—until the planting or harvesting is done. (The Justice Department won two convictions involving such peonage last year.)

In recent years, however, fewer than half of the illegal aliens apprehended by the immigration service on the job have been found working in agriculture—like many rural Americans, they are forsaking the countryside for the city at a rapid pace. In the industrial suburbs of Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and other big cities there now live hundreds of thousands of one-time field hands whose increasing familiarity with America and its customs has encouraged them to journey further from the border in search of better wages. In many cases they are now earning salaries of $10 an hour or more in steel mills and manufacturing plants where they are usually prized by employers as diligent, uncomplaining workers who do not demand such niceties as fringe benefits or union shops.

The trend toward urbanization has changed the lives of many illegal aliens for the better, though not by much. The sun-splashed tenements of south El Paso are as grim as any in Harlem, but living there still does not compare to sleeping under a tree, and the tumbledown houses that are to be found in the barrios in Chicago and other northern cities, their floors covered with mattresses subscribed in eight-hour shifts, at least have indoor plumbing and electric lights. The illegals are also valued as tenants—their immigration status discourages them from complaining about high rents and broken faucets as it transforms them into fearful half-persons: taxpayers who cannot claim many of the public services their wages help support, consumers who have no one to complain to about being gouged, victims of street crimes who are afraid to confide in anyone with a badge and a gun. And yet, driven by the prospects of earning a year’s wages in six and a half weeks, they continue to come and to suffer silently whatever indignities they are handed along with the money.

The Reagan administration has now proposed that some two million foreigners without permits enter the United States each year, more than half of them across the Mexican border, and that a quarter of them remain permanently. As part of its carrot-and-stick approach to resolving the immigration problem the administration is proposing an “amnesty” for some three million illegal aliens, about half the total number it thinks may now be living in this country, the admission of 100,000 Mexican “guestworkers” over two years, and the hiring of another 1,600 immigration officers, half of them border patrol agents. The hope is that these three elements will combine to slow future illegal immigration to manageable proportions.

But whether an amnesty proves an added incentive to such immigration remains to be seen. And while the addition of more border guards will surely mean that more aliens are apprehended, it may also mean only that the same ones are apprehended more often before finally making a successful crossing. (Because of shortages of jail cells and immigration judges, most illegal aliens are offered—and accept—the option of returning home “voluntarily,” without penalty and free to try their luck again.) While Mr. Reagan and Mr. Portillo both like the idea of a temporary worker program, no one in either administration seems to have paid much attention to the Europeans’ decidedly mixed experience with “guestworkers.” Professor Hansen, who has studied it, provides some cautions, among them that guests have a way of overstaying their welcome. The European programs, he says, inadvertently encouraged permanent settlement in northern Europe by the millions of workers who were recruited in the 1960s from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Yugoslavia, and who have become a “permanent under-class” there.

That the illegal alien traffic is currently beyond control may come as no surprise. What is less well known is that the authorities can no longer control the much larger legal border traffic. There were 184 million legitimate crossings of the Mexican border into the United States last year, ranging from an average of three per second at El Paso to three a day at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Customs and immigration inspectors are under instructions to ask forty-six different questions of those entering the United States and to search their vehicles, but actually to do so would back up traffic all the way to Mexico City, as the Nixon administration’s Operation Intercept showed. As a result, not many questions get asked and not many cars get searched. “The prime thing is that we move traffic,” an immigration officer in California complains. “Nobody really gives a damn whether we catch anything or catch anybody.”

Were an attempt made to seal the border, one effect would be the near-total devastation of the border economy, both the visible sector on which Professor Hansen concentrates and the underground equivalent illustrated by Mr. Miller, who quotes federal agents as estimating that fully a third of the residents of a single county in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas make their living directly from smuggling. Much of the contraband is narcotics, but the northbound trade has expanded in recent years to include human beings—the organized smuggling of illegal aliens by rings that rival the dope smugglers in sophistication is now rampant. It also includes fresh lobsters, flasks of mercury, truckloads of candelilla (the chief ingredient in chewing gum), and even highly regarded double yellowhead parrots, tranquilized with tequilla and crammed into wire cages before being floated across the Rio Grande on inner tubes.

Just as important to the border’s economy is the contraband smuggled south, much of it by Mexicans who cross into the United States to buy everything from toothpaste to Christmas-tree lights. The unimposing stores along Laredo’s Convent Street, where $3 of every $4 is spent by foreigners, sell more merchandise per square foot of floor space than anywhere else in the United States, even Fifth Avenue. For years, a single grocery there sold more Tide, Pet milk, and Kool-Aid than any in the country. Mexican customs officers usually do not even bother to require border shoppers to declare their purchases, and when they do only a token mordida, perhaps 20 pesos, is called for.

More serious “reverse smuggling” also goes on, in everything from cars stolen in American cities and hastily repainted to carloads of American-made television sets and computer parts, but the mordida cleanses away all sins, even to the point that the larger “wholesalers” are able to guarantee delivery in Mexico. Though there are periodic crackdowns, the Mexican government knows it can no more rigidly enforce its customs laws than the United States can its immigration laws, and that if it tries the goods will simply flow across the border outside official channels in the same way that attempts at strict enforcement of the American immigration laws have produced large numbers of illegal aliens.

Mr. Miller devotes large sections of what is essentially a travelogue, though a well-reported and brightly written one, to the shady side of the border. An entire chapter, for example, is concerned with parrot smuggling; another gives a history of the megawatt radio stations that operate with studios in the United States and transmitters in Mexico, just beyond the reach of the Federal Communications Commission. But just as Professor Hansen’s more scholarly study ignores the illicit economy of the smugglers, Mr. Miller’s slights the equally crucial fact that in addition to being one of the most interesting places in the world the Mexican border is also one of the very poorest.

Border regions, as Professor Hansen notes, have traditionally suffered from a lack of development and the poverty that attends it, and the Mexican border is no exception; the lowest per-capita incomes in the United States are to be found in the Rio Grande Valley, and conditions are not much better west of El Paso. The border, moreover, is one of the least healthy places on earth. Many of the poorest families on both sides live in substandard housing without indoor plumbing, and among the large number of unintended imports that cross the border are disease—El Paso is currently experiencing a rabies epidemic—as well as air and water pollution, which like the radio waves from the Mexican stations pays no attention to lines on a map.

But the border is not without hope. The American side is now one of the fastest growing regions of this country, and both sides may yet benefit from the inventive “maquiladora” program, in which American firms engaged in labor-intensive industries are being encouraged to build plants just across the border so that Mexican workers can sew designer jeans and assemble electronic components without leaving their own country. The future of cross-border development may well depend on a high degree of openness, on a border that not only divides but unites. To try to close it in response to migratory pressures would deal such efforts a serious blow.

The fragile equation of the border is made still more complex by the realization that those pressures are not likely to subside any time soon. Half of Mexico’s labor force is unemployed or underemployed, and though the Mexican economy is now growing at a furious pace its population of about 65 million is projected to nearly double by the end of this century. Nor do the upheavals in El Salvador and Guatemala, which themselves have some foundation in economic disparities and which are hurting more political refugees in this direction each day, seem near to a resolution.

At the moment the Mexican economy is in turmoil, with rising expectations fed by the promise of fabulous oil reserves that by some accounts may rival those of Saudi Arabia. The oil has already begun to fuel a rapid economic expansion—the real growth rate last year was 8 percent, more than four times that of the US—but also an uneven one, with production bottlenecks and a resulting rate of inflation of 35 percent a year. In Mexico City, whose building boom resembles Houston’s and where the number of automobiles on the streets, sometimes an excellent measure of how the middle class is faring, is said to have doubled in recent years, the excitement about the country’s future is almost palpable. But many of the tiny villages are still not much changed from their sixteenth-century beginnings, and it is from such villages, not from Mexico City, that the illegal aliens come. Whether they continue to come will depend on whether the benefits likely to accrue to a major petroleum-producing country ever reach those villages, many of which still lack such fundamentals as pumps to irrigate their crops.

But whether Mexico’s oil-driven take-off into sustained growth takes hold depends in large part on how the petroleum revenues are spent once they are fully realized—not, for example, in building up the country’s dilapidated armed forces, as the Mexicans are currently doing with the $120 million they will spend to acquire a dozen new American jet fighters. The process of development is a delicate one that can easily be delayed or derailed entirely by a few serious mistakes of judgment. The present Mexican government has decided to reserve much of the current petroleum output for domestic use rather than for export and is keeping the price of diesel fuel at an artificially low 17 cents a gallon in the hope that this will spur development. But the government is not only losing enormous sums of money through these subsidies, it is losing hundreds of millions of gallons of diesel fuel as well. The wholesale smuggling of the fuel into the US, where it can be sold at a 700 percent profit to American truck drivers and owners of diesel-powered automobiles, is now creating shortages of fuel for farmers and truckers in northern Mexico.

Even if things go smoothly, the better part of a generation will surely pass before any effect is felt by many of Mexico’s poorest citizens. For them, the only practical hope will continue to lie beyond the border, which will continue to perform as an economic safety valve as well as the world’s most efficient transmitter of foreign aid. The Mexican government may refuse direct aid from the US but it is happy to gain the foreign exchange, by some estimates as much as $10 billion a year, that is sent by Mexican workers in this country to their families at home, Mexico has never been among those who have urged the US to tighten up its enforcement of the border.

Some optimistic observers may be able to envision an eventual political and economic equilibrium throughout the hemisphere that in the long run will obviate the migratory pressures and with them the need for controlled borders. But as Keynes once pointed out, in the long run we will all be dead. For the moment, it is permissible to view the dilemma of the border as one of those problems that have no good solution.

This Issue

October 22, 1981