Mexico’s Virtual Border

Does a border still exist between the United States and Mexico?

July 17, 2000

Does a border still exist between the United States and Mexico?

Sure, there is a line on the Rand-McNally road atlas and there is a substantial budget to patrol that line. But it performs few other functions national borders are meant to perform. Certainly it has not prevented the inflow of goods and people, legal or otherwise. Some 20 million Mexicans now live in the United States — a number equal to 20% of Mexico’s population.

While some 90% of Mexico’s trade goes to this country, around 70% of illegal drug inflows also gets here from there. The dollar is already a legal tender on both sides of the border. And with the boom in border area manufacturing, Mexican wages are increasingly indexed to the greenback. Mexicans have long known the border is a fiction, and they do a very perfunctory job of patrolling it.

Now, Vincente Fox, Mexico’s newly elected president, wants to get rid of it altogether by creating a EU-style economic union with his giant Northern neighbor. This is unlikely to go down well on the Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers habitually have nightmare visions of hordes of Mexicans swarming over the Rio Grande.

They should think again. The history of the European Union shows that when a rich and a poor country join hands, they both become better off, rather than settling at some median level. This has held true even for the botched reunification of East and West Germany.

The Finns and the Swedes, when they joined the EU in the mid-1990s, feared that poor Greeks, Spaniards and southern Italians would flood into their countries, since they would have the right to live and work there without a permit.

The reality has been quite different. Southern Europeans have preferred to stay at home, awaiting the arrival of prosperity rather than seeking their fortunes in more prosperous foreign lands. With an economic boom in Scandinavia, Finland and Sweden are suffering from a shortage of low-skilled and service labor.

This is where the real danger of an economic union with Mexico lies. If Mexicans begin to share in the American prosperity and choose to stay in Mexico, who will do the gardening work for all those movie stars and dot-com millionaires in California?