Skip to main content

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