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U.S. Senators visit U.S.-Mexico border: Guess what they saw

Michael Dear, emeritus professor, city and regional planning | April 1, 2013

Four U.S. Senators came to visit the Arizona border. Hosted by John McCain, Republican of Arizona, they were members of the so-called ‘Gang of 8’ — a bipartisan group currently drafting proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.

During their visit, the senators reportedly witnessed a migrant trying to scale the border wall before being apprehended by authorities. Such drama! (And such a coincidence…)

But being on the line does provoke fresh insights.  “You can read and you can study and you can talk but until you see things it doesn’t become reality,” said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who was touring the border for the first time.

McCain also touted the value of first-hand experience: “I wish every member of the United States Senate and Congress could see the border,” although he promptly put his own spin on what the Gang was witnessing: “Only when you can see the expanse, the difficulties and the challenges of the border, can you really appreciate the need for our border security.”

Arizona Republican Jeff Flake added his opinion that, beyond security, any reform should foster economic ties between both nations.

It’s this last kind of insight — the borderlands are inhabited by people who live closely integrated, cross-border lives — that is the most significant idea which the Gang of 8 should take back to Washington DC.

Many of my friends who live on both sides of the international boundary line call themselves ‘transborder’ citizens, often asserting that they forget which side of the line they’re on.

I call this place a ‘third nation,’ snugly settled in the spaces between our two nations.

I’m thinking of one San Diego woman who goes to the Mexican side at least once a week in order to visit family, eat out, catch a movie, get a haircut, go to church, or see friends. The lives of people who frequently cross the line are rooted in both sides of the border.

For instance, daily cross-border commutes are a fact of life at the Tijuana-San Diego region. Residents of Tijuana, aka tijuanenses, work in the US to take advantage of jobs and higher wages, while Anglos from the US have moved to the other side because rents are cheaper. (This is not unusual. In the 1980s, I knew many veterans, living in trailer parks on the beaches south of Ensenada, who had moved there to stretch their pensions.)

Aside from money matters, cross-border ties are also deeply rooted in shared cultures, language and history. Residents refer to San Diego and Tijuana as “ciudades hermanas” (sister cities), even though the gap between the two nations in terms of material wealth, living standards, and attitudes remains large.

More importantly, Tijuana and San Diego are viewed as distinct from their respective host nations because their close relationship is positive, unlike the tension that causes their nations to build walls between them.

An elderly Anglo man crossing over to fill a prescription in Tijuana said that San Diego was different from the rest of the US precisely because of its connections with Tijuana. To him, the towns that had grown up between Tijuana and San Diego — including San Ysidro, Chula Vista, and National City — look like Tijuana to such a degree that they “could be in Mexico.” San Ysidro, the principal border crossing, is neither American nor Mexican but somewhere in between, he claimed, a product of both nations. Outside the farmacia, he concluded that identities were not cleanly divided by the borderline: Tijuana is not fully Mexican, nor is San Diego fully American; but each city could only be understood in the context of its relationship with the other.

In a recent New York Times article, Fernanda Santos pointed out that communities on both sides of the border are “bound together in ways that defy traditional notions of home, country and citizenship.”

No matter what we call this shared space between Mexico and the US, cross-border communities stand out as different from others in their respective nations. They are self-conscious about living in the spaces between two nations, and they understand that a shared identity is produced through interaction across the line.

Today, borderlanders on both sides live in some of the fastest-growing regions in our two nations, both demographically and economically.  As the US debates immigration reform, it is vitally important to remember how much the prosperity of both countries depends on the well-being of our borderland “third nation.”


This blog was originally published April 1, 2013 in the Huffington Post.

Michael Dear’s new book, Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide, is available on

Comments to “U.S. Senators visit U.S.-Mexico border: Guess what they saw

  1. Way to go, Professor Dear! And best wishes from a lot farther south, nearly astride a lower-echelon border–that between the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca. And then there´s the inner frontier, whose construction and simultaneous dismantling are a constant subject for reflexion.

  2. The question to be answered doesn’t turn around the personal relationships and lifestyles that have arisen at the border, because U.S. citizenship carries entitlements and privileges that effect all states. The question we have to ask ourselves as a nation is “Does everyone on earth have a birthright entitlement to U.S. citizenship?” If the answer is “yes”, then God help us. If the answer is “no”, then the next question is “How do we prevent non-citizens from gaining traction in the U.S. as pseudo-citizens, here in violotion of our laws, so that the next time immigration reform is debated in Congress we aren’t again rationalizing how we are going to allow another wave of these non-citizens to enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship?”

    People who muddy these clear waters do so because their end solution, which supports a “yes” answer to the first question posed above, is what drives the creation of their arguments. They have no respect for the value of citizenship, and constantly seek to redefine it to suit their sympathies or their sense of equity.

    There should be no problem with people going back and forth across the border, so long as they live in their country of citizenship and merely work or visit in the other country. I would hate to see Congress put a damper on this lifestyle with overly zealous restrictions on movement.

    That said, it is a bogus argument to say that “Since we citizens let them work here, live here, and bear children here, it is too late to ask them to return to their country of citizenship.” Because every day spent here working, living and procreating, these non-citizens knew that they were here in violation of our laws (even if it is recognized they are mostly “model citizens” in their day to day living).

    All laws matter – you can’t get out of a speeding ticket because you correctly stopped at the red light.

  3. Michael

    Excellent topic for our Speaker Series at the Berkeley Tennis Club.
    Please contact me about a talk and book signing?

    Ken Stutz
    510 601-1315

  4. For describing life in Tijuana, the term “transborder” achieved currency in the twenty-first century. Our more traditional term, going back many generations, is “fronterizo”.

    The etymologies of the two words might belie the speaker’s dominant culture — transborder people being predominantly gringo and fronterizos being predominantly Mexican — so it’s worth pointing out that Robert L. Jones, a bilingual poet of two generations ago, identified himself as fronterizo. Mr Jones died at a time when Kinko’s was the height of self-publishing and Tijuana was known for good food without Baja-Med pretentions; perhaps, if he were alive today, he would be watching his personal brand as closely as does Julieta Venegas and so insist on being transborder because that sounds more chic.

    By the way, thank you for the reference to Senator Flake of Arizona. By avoiding obvious names, such as Arpaio and Brewer, its April Fools humor was refreshingly subtle.

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