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.

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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. The ones who make it are on their way to jobs as meat-packers in Iowa and carpetmakers in Georgia and gardeners in Pennsylvania. They want to come here so badly, they will risk the scorpions and the rattlesnakes, the surveillance cameras and underground sensors; they will fold into hidden compartments in the dashboard of a car or in the belly of a tanker truck. They know they can get a job no one else wants, save some money, send some home, maybe find a way to bring their families—because someday, this border may not look anything like what it does now: a barbed-wire paradox, half pried open, half bolted closed.

So how much has to cross a border before it might as well not be there at all? There is no Customs station for customs—for ideas and tastes, stories and songs, values, instincts, attitudes, and none of that stops in El Paso or San Diego anymore. The Old World fades away—salsa is more popular than ketchup; Salma Hayek is bigger than Madonna—and the border is everywhere. One day soon it may seem a little backward not to speak some Spanish, even the hybrid Spanglish of the Southwest: "Como se llama your dog?" Signs appear in the store windows in Garden City, Kans., that say, se habla español, and you can buy extremely fresh mangoes at bodegas all over that town. Dalton, Ga. (pop. 27,900), has three Spanish-language newspapers. Says longtime resident Edwin Mitchell, 77: "We're a border community—1,000 miles away from the border." Already, we are living in a whole new world.

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. The southern border is half as long, has the equivalent of an army division patrolling it, and many Americans say it should be buttoned down even tighter. At the beginning of a new century, there may be no country on earth with as much potential as Mexico to destabilize the U.S.—and to preserve its standard of living. No wonder people can't decide how much the border should be a barrier, how much a bridge.

From the moment you set foot in the boomtowns of the Rio Grande Valley, you sense you are watching the gold rush, headlong and free spirited and corrupt and ingenious. Stand on a corner some morning in Laredo, and watch the first of 8,000 trucks a day hauling the global economy north and south, 18-wheelers full of bulldozer claws and baby cribs, all passing through a town that once didn't bother to pave the streets. Now it can't pour concrete fast enough. The banks are open 7 to 7, seven days a week; the pager shops are everywhere. Every road is being widened, the road shoulders littered with pieces of blown-out tires.

Locals say you are not really a borderlander until your windshield has been broken at least once, from all the rocks flying out from under the big rigs. Much of the border is still desperately poor—McAllen, Texas, at the heart of the fourth fastest growing metro area in the U.S., is America's poorest city, the Commerce Department announced last month, with average per-capita income of $13,339 a year. But people on both sides are helping one another do the deals, cut the corners, take a region that was forever left behind and turn it into the New Frontier. The nafta prospectors saw in the opening of the border a chance to make a killing, take factories that would otherwise head to Malaysia and plunk them down right across the border, where the average Mexican worker earns slightly more in a day than an American makes in an hour, and where the highways run all the way to Canada.

That means that both countries are growing more dependent on this relationship every day. Mexicans all across the interior follow the North Star, chasing the jobs. There are now four or five cities the size of Cleveland sitting right next door, and 25 years from now as much as 40% of the entire Mexican population may be living on the border. The region is Mexico's economic engine, a huge commercial classroom where the unskilled workers who were making gauze eye patches in 1980 now make atms and modems and the most popular Sony color TV sold in the U.S.

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.

It's often said that the border is its own country, "amexica," neither Mexican nor American. "The border is not where the U.S. stops and Mexico begins," says Laredo mayor Betty Flores. "It's where the U.S. blends into Mexico." Both sides regard their sovereign governments as distant and dysfunctional. They are proud of their ability to take care of themselves, solve their problems faster and cheaper than any faraway bureaucrat. The Brownsville fire trucks answer sirens on the other side; in Tijuana, health clinics send shuttle buses every morning to meet people coming over for everything from dentistry to dialysis. The school district in Mission, Texas, among the state's poorest, sends its old furniture over the border to help Mexican schools that are lucky to have roofs, much less desks and chairs. El Paso is redesigning the kilns of Juarez brickmakers to cut the soot from burning old tires; the twin cities have signed more treaties than their national governments can keep track of, much less ratify. "The only way the cities in this region can make it," says Juarez mayor Gustavo Elizondo, "is to forget that a line and a river exist here."

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. Just about the only patients paying full freight, up front, are rich Mexicans who cross over to see a specialist. "Border towns have a double burden of disease," says Russell Bennett, chief of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission: "those of emerging nations, like diarrhea, as well as [First World] diseases like stress and diabetes."

The poor on both sides are united by a struggle just to survive what most Americans can barely imagine. In the rural El Paso outpost of Revolución, mothers cross into Juarez to buy methyl parathion, a pesticide so lethal it is banned in the U.S.; they sprinkle it around their shanties, and it kills the roaches and tarantulas for a year. But their children play in that dust and dirt, and when they get sick, their parents take them to Juarez doctors, who are cheaper and stay open into the night. If the children die, they are buried across the border; it costs about $150, instead of the $2,000 for an American grave.

Local officials are forever pestering the feds for help: If you don't build another bridge and put more Customs people on the ones we have, how can we solve our pollution problem, with 15-year-old cars idling in lines that stretch for miles? How can you order us to educate any child who appears on our school doorstep but not give us the money to do it? Where are we going to find enough water? The congressional Hispanic caucus wants $1 billion in spending on roads and bridges and Customs officers; El Paso state senator Eliot Shapleigh and other Texas lawmakers have called for a Marshall Plan for the border; El Paso Congressman Sylvestre Reyes wants Bush to appoint a border czar who could cut through the red tape and make things happen.

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. Midwives in Brownsville, Texas, sold thousands of birth certificates to be used as proof of U.S. citizenship. The Arellano Felíx brothers, the Tijuana drug kingpins known for torturing, carving up and roasting their rivals, are paying $4 million a month in bribes in Baja California alone, just as the cost of doing business. The $4 million reward for their capture is one of the highest the U.S. has ever offered, and something of a bad joke under the circumstances. There hasn't been a single nibble in four years. What good is the money if you're dead?

And as lucrative as the drug-smuggling business is, the people-smuggling cartels are prospering as well. The more the U.S. cracks down on illegal immigration, the more expensive crossing becomes. The border patrol has a mission impossible: no matter how many surveillance cameras and motion detectors it installs, still the immigrants come. It's harder to cross and easier to die trying. In some ways it's the lucky ones, say the border agents, who get caught. "Everything out here will either bite you, burn you or arrest you," says the Rev. Robin Hoover, of the First Christian Church in Tucson, Ariz. The Mexican government is considering handing out survival kits, complete with snake-bite antidotes and rehydration tablets, for people intending to set out across the desert—a plan U.S. officials think amounts to an official blessing for breaking American law.

Up and down the border, everyone skirts the fence in his own way. A professor in south Texas says he pays someone $50 a month to smuggle his mom over in a boat for Sunday dinners. He doesn't worry, though, because a federal agent down the street does the same for his housekeeper. "Trying to stop this migration is like trying to stop a wave with a Dixie cup," says Raul Berrios, whose wife Karen runs the popular Renaissance Cafe in Bisbee, Ariz. "It's going to be impossible." There is a whisper network in Bisbee, of codes and messages telling weary crossers where they can stay, safely hidden from the border patrol.

Sometimes nature lends a hand. Highway 4 through Brownsville ends with a stop sign that needs to be taken seriously. The asphalt turns into beach and leads straight into the sea. But turn right, and you can drive down the beach like the old days at Daytona, on fine, hard-packed sand, hugging the Gulf of Mexico. It's a place to appreciate a pristine view: no condos, no concession stands, no concessions at all to anything except the fact that the border begins where the Rio Grande pours into the sea, and so it has to be guarded carefully.

For the first time in 500 years, the river is so low that it just dries up altogether about 50 ft. from its destination and turns into a salt flat. Two alien weeds, hydrilla and hyacinth—border officials don't know how they got there—are growing so fast they have blocked the flow of the river. Fighting them would require approval from both sides, which is practically impossible to get. And so here, all that is left of the border are four metal stakes in the sand, tied with orange ribbons whipping in the gulf breeze.The border patrol has had to make a little sand berm to keep the smugglers from just driving across. The Mexicans, in their window-darkened Pontiacs, drive right up to the very sticks themselves, and the border patrolmen in their Suburbans get out their binoculars, look across the beach and wait to be relieved at midnight.

Just at the moment when, all up and down the river, cities are arguing about where and whether to build more bridges, haggling over diplomatic papers and environmental clearances and political payoffs, all in order to build another truck bridge over a creek—here, nature just went ahead and did it, all on its own.

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

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