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The New Frontier


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If Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox manage to solve the problems of two countries that need each other but don't completely trust each other, the American Century could give way to the Century of the Americas, and the border might as well have disappeared altogether.

A Whole New World

Along the U.S.-Mexican border, where hearts and minds and money and culture merge, the Century of the Americas is born.

Some places the border is a muddy river, too thin to plow, too thick to drink. Other places it's just a line in the sand. Over the years mapmakers redrew it, wars moved it, nature yanked it all around as the course of the Rio Grande shifted. But what would it take to make it disappear altogether? If today is like any other day, this is what is going to come across the line from Mexico: a million barrels of crude oil, 432 tons of bell peppers, 238,000 light bulbs, 166 Volkswagen Beetles, 16,250 toasters, $51 million worth of auto parts, everything from the little plastic knob on the air conditioner to your cell-phone charger. It all comes in trucks and boxcars and little panel vans, and that's just the stuff that Customs can keep track of. There is also the vast shadow market, not just the cocaine and heroin and freshly laundered money, but cut-price Claritin and steroids and banned bug killers and boots made from the flippers of endangered sea turtles.


And then there are the people, more than 800,000 crisscrossing legally every day, some walking, more driving, not to mention the 4,600 or so who hop the fence and get caught a few minutes or hours later. ...

Sometime in the next few years, Mexico will pass Canada as America's top trading partner. Hispanics have overtaken African Americans as the country's largest minority, the swing vote to woo, the sleeping giant to waken. If Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox manage to solve the problems of two countries that need each other but don't completely trust each other, the American Century could give way to the Century of the Americas, and the border might as well have disappeared altogether.

America's 4,000-mile border with Canada is basically defended by a couple of fire trucks, and most Americans think that's about all we need. ...

As for the U.S., we import not just the gizmos and gadgets but also a way of life, thanks to a shadow labor force that lets us eat out once a week because restaurants can hire dishwashers for sub-minimum wage. We depend on the maids and gardeners and carpenters and home-health-care workers whose children will probably become teachers and technicians and surgeons and Senators. If they all put down their tools tomorrow, we wouldn't be arguing about whether we are in a recession...

And yet for all the frontier pioneer spirit, local leaders do draw a line: Why should the whole country benefit from the blessings of free trade, if the border region pays the price? It costs border counties $108 million a year in law enforcement and medical expenses associated with illegal crossings, money most of these poor counties can't afford, to enforce immigration policies over which they have no control. Yes, there is a shortage of truck drivers, but there is also a shortage of judges to hear all the drug and smuggling cases. Arizona ambulance companies face bankruptcy because of all the unreimbursed costs of rescuing illegals from the desert. Schools everywhere down here are poor, overcrowded and growing. Truck traffic is good for your business but bad for your health; many border cities routinely fail to meet federal air quality standards. Border agents get sick from standing on the bridges and inhaling diesel exhaust all day.

Good health care has always been scarce here, but the border boom makes it worse: a third of all tuberculosis cases in the U.S. are concentrated in the four border states. Among the hospitals in El Paso, 50% of the patients are on some kind of public assistance, mainly Medicaid...

For the first time in years, maybe ever, both the U.S. and Mexico have leaders who understand this region, know that in some ways their hemisphere's economic future may depend on whether they can fix what is broken here. Bush met with Fox three times in his first 100 days, blowing away the old once-a-year tradition. Fox dreams of a day when the border is open, and his countrymen no longer flee to survive. As Fox told Ernesto Ruffo, his top aide on the region, "Put holes in the border."

But that's not going to happen until Mexico goes straight, cleans up its justice and banking systems. Even some American borderlanders who cheer integration in public go off the record to talk about what's wrong, admit that they rarely visit the other side or whisper quietly that they haven't felt the same about the place since a friend's car was hijacked a few years ago, and they never saw him again. You can sense the same mysterious half silence no matter where you go; Mexicans call it Article No. 20, as in, which of the $20 is for me? Police and Customs people pay for their government jobs so they can get in on the mordida, the payoff system....

And as lucrative as the drug-smuggling business is, the people-smuggling cartels are prospering as well...

óReported by Hilary Hylton/Laredo, Tim Padgett/El Paso, Julie Rawe/New York, Elaine Rivera/Nogales and Cathy Booth Thomas/McAllen

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