Good Neighbours, Good Fences? The US-Mexican Border

The 3,218.68-kilometre border between Mexico and the United States is the only global dividing line between a First and Third World country. $1 billion in trade cross it every day, as do millions of American and Mexican citizens, both ways.

To someone standing at San Ysidro, the busiest port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, that line at which one country ends and the other begins looks blurry. Children are walking to school in one direction, adults heading to work in the other. Shoppers head either North for the upscale mall or South for their discounted medicine. A craving for fast food is swiftly satisfied with a quick drive up and a drive-thru, and a stressful week just as easily forgotten once down at the beach house in Baja.

40,000 cars, 25,000 pedestrians, a common airport and a skybridge; this is the “CaliBaja Bi-National Mega-Region,” an integrated, border-spanning economic zone of more than 6.5 million people. As of 2013, its GDP was $214.3 billion, employing a total of 3 million Mexican and American citizens. It boasts “large scale industrial development; diverse, advanced manufacturing clusters; significant renewable energy resources in geothermal, solar, wind and biofuels; over 90 colleges and universities and over 80 research institutes; and robust goods movement corridors including six border crossings, five interstate freeways, five international airports, two specialized maritime port facilities, and rail links.”

The initiative has united more than two hundred businesses, civic and government leaders from both sides to prove that free trade works, and that the region has even greater potential when viewed not as two separate economies, but as a combined bi-national one.

Globalization has opened the world and redefined our understanding of borders. People and economies are now intricately connected by technology, trade, communications, and simpler regulations. But while some are kicking the doors further open, others are struggling to slam them shut. Standing on the Mexican-US border, one foot on either side, this is what the view looks like from an economic perspective:

Borders offer opportunities for exponential economic growth, competitiveness, and direct and indirect prosperity to adjacent communities, but with those the alteration of demographics and the import-export of violence, crime, and other illicit economies.

The pros:

  • S.-Mexico trade surpasses $1 billion every day, with the vast majority of bilateral commerce crossing the border by land.
  • Millions of jobs and livelihoods on either side depend on this trade and on efficient cross-border commerce facilitation.
  • Key industries vital to both economies also depend on the production-sharing model of US-Mexico trade.
  • Growth in one economy benefits the other too, as it increases purchasing power and boots consumption and tourism.
  • Border communities are thriving thanks to the economic growth and cooperation the border trade generates.

The cons:

  • Between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, where they are forced into prostitution, domestic servitude, unfair and undocumented labour, or crime. Most enter the country through the border with Mexico.
  • Cartels and independent smugglers move marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs North of the border, increasing addiction and addiction-related mortality in America.
  • Reciprocally, the drug trade transfers cash and weapons South of the border, fuelling conflict and violence in Mexico.

With potential comes risk, and fear of porous borders is reasonable; it highlights the changes they bring to two societies and their possibly detrimental implications. But a fence, a wall, a closed door is neither possible nor effective; isolation only breeds more mistrust and insecurity, and drives illicit economies further underground.

A border can be open and secure, but for that cooperation is crucial. The US and Mexico already have a number of joint state and local mechanisms in place to manage sovereignty, transportation, resource, environment, and public health issues that affect them both. More is surely needed, but as places like San Ysidro have proven, less fences will, on the long run, make better, more prosperous neighbours.


Note – A wall already exists along certain parts of the U.S.-Mexico border; a discontinuous stretch of barriers that, combined, cover nearly a third of the frontier. These walls, fences, and roadblocks have a profound effect on the communities they divide, such as in Nogales, Arizona-Mexico.