Ten years ago, in 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security introduced its Secure Border Initiative (SBI). Today, the Mexico-U.S. wall is a fact of everyday life for millions of people who live in its shadow.
Disagreements persist about how effective the border fortifications have been, but two outcomes are certain: the SBI intervention has massively disrupted community, commerce, and environment along the border zone; and created a bloated “border industrial complex,” consisting of surveillance infrastructures and enforcement personnel that intervene in the lives of US citizens even though they are intended to target undocumented migrants, smugglers, and terrorists.
During the entire SBI decade there has been little or no evidence that the plight of border dwellers is of much concern to federal governments in Washington D.C. and Mexico City, where the legal authority (and responsibility) for immigration, customs, and national security resides.
In the U.S., popular consensus favors comprehensive immigration reform, and Democrats seem ready to support it. Yet Republicans in Congress reject any proposal that fails to prioritize more walls and more boots on the ground. The ensuing political stalemate ensures that major immigration reform in the US is off the table, at least until 2017.
Halfway through President Peña Nieto’s six-year term, Mexico is again caught up in internal crises and scandals that – along with a faltering economy – have taken the sheen off his presidency. Peña Nieto used to complain that border fortifications interrupted the free flow of Mexican exports into the U.S., but frankly, the only time Mexico heeds its northern border is when national economic prosperity is threatened.
Lost in this haze of binational political inertia are the voices of border residents. What do the citizens of the borderland “third nation” want? Based on conversations on both sides of the line, I’ve assembled an action program defined by border people themselves. In a nutshell: they want to get their lives back; to manage their own destinies without interference from outsiders; and to act urgently to help themselves.
Repair the damage
End the occupation. Border communities deeply resent the presence of the “police state” – the multiplicity of law enforcement agencies that permeate their lives. Undoing the occupation requires scaling back on overreach by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Border Industrial Complex, and local police departments conscripted into immigration enforcement. Disruptive practices at interior checkpoints should be eased; and community access to informal crossings and border meeting places should be re-established.
Restore the land. The occupied zones near the line often resemble sites of disaster or unfinished construction projects. The debris includes fences and walls, dams, stadium lighting, surveillance towers, diverted floodwaters, intrusive signage of prohibition, landfills, airborne surveillance, drones, custom-built access roads, staging areas, parking, internal checkpoints, endless vehicular patrols, armed foot patrols, large-scale earth removal, warehousing, and heaps of trash. Responsible agencies should be obliged to clean up the gigantic mess scarring the entire third nation, including the acute environmental damage done by the wall-builders.
- Take down the wall. The single most important symbolic action would be to take down the wall, at least in those zones where surveillance and security are adequate. There is no wall or fence near monument number 1 at El Paso/Ciudad Juárez, and no cross-border exodus has been reported. The double and triple lines of pedestrian and vehicular fences in other places should be pruned. And it is worth remembering that fence installations will never completely cover the line simply because the terrain is too inhospitable to permit construction everywhere.
Promote economic development and community integration
- Invest in economic growth. Expansion and renewal of infrastructure on the U.S. side is not keeping up with developments in Mexico, nor with the needs of local commerce and population growth. Long delays at border crossings hinder prosperity and social interaction. The hardening of the border security zone threatens to divide the twin cities on either side of the line (such as Tijuana-San Diego), contrary to centuries of established interaction. On both sides of the international line, it is time to work with third nation communities to help them realize their joint potential.
Develop heritage tourism. For years, I have been impressed by the natural beauty and amazing history of the border regions. One way to promote community identity and economic growth is to develop the third nation’s heritage industry. For instance, from Tucson south to Nogales and across the border into Mexico, the charms of the fabled Santa Cruz River Valley have been extolled by many, including popular singer Linda Ronstadt and writer Paul Theroux. Heritage and eco-tourism are already popular in the Lower Rio Grande River Valley, Big Bend, and El Paso del Norte region (present-day El Paso and Ciudad Juárez). Many border-adjacent towns have wonderful local museums, including Laredo, Paquimé, Brownsville and Matamoros.
- Encourage local cultural dynamism. Border culture took off decades ago in Tijuana and spread to other cities, including Mexicali and Ciudad Juárez. Today, the TJ culture scene has become an integral part of the city’s post-violence recovery. A transnational community of border artists is changing the ways that residents and outsiders perceive the region. Local architects, city planners, politicians and developers should collaborate to grow creative neighborhoods through innovative zoning and tax concessions, and invite cultural pioneers to reinvent the spaces of the border zone’s twin cities.
Engage the grass-roots and spread awareness of the third nation
- Publicize and promote the third nation. Everyone in the U.S. needs to know the immense importance and achievements of border communities, and their role in national security, economic prosperity, and cultural identity. This task is best undertaken by knowledgeable local activists such as the alliance between Arizona’s Border Community Alliance and its Sonora partner Fundación del Empresario Sonorense, by entertainers and artists such as Lalo Alcaraz, and by university-community alliances such as El Colegio de la Frontera in Matamoros.
- Restore self-determination to borderlanders. Third nation dwellers want what most people want: respect, autonomy, family and friends, peace, and the opportunity to work to make something of their lives. Left to their own devices, local mayors, chambers of commerce, voluntary groups, and families have already developed myriad cross-border alliances in mutual interest. But they should also insist that federal, state, local and binational authorities fulfill their obligations to fix and improve the borderlands.
For me, this eight-point manifesto could become the foundation of a ‘Charter for the Third Nation.’ Created by citizens on both sides of the border, the Charter would confirm their identity, legitimacy, voice and vision. It could be a giant step toward realizing a shared ‘post-border’ world.
Michael Dear is professor in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. A paperback edition of his book, Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide, has just been published by Oxford University Press.