Monday, June 12, 2006

Crossing the Rio Grande

I spent this weekend down on the Texas/Mexico border enjoying a little getaway with my wife. This was hardly the first time I’ve been to the border but it was my first visit since immigration became this year’s biggest political issue. As such, I couldn’t help but notice a stark difference between the way the border actually works and the way some Americans seem to want it to work.

I was in Eagle Pass, Texas, a small city of about 22,000. Across the border was Piedras Negras, a much larger city of about 130,000. Upon walking across into Piedras Negras, the first thing I noticed was that the city is not a typical border town. There were no tourist shops selling Mexican goods or liquor stores selling cheap booze. Instead there were beautiful plazas, public art installations and European-styled streets with boutique stores.

Eagle Pass, on the other hand, was chock-full of cheap little shops, run-down duty-free stores and signs proclaiming “Aceptamos Pesos.” You see, on this stretch of the border, Mexicans stream into the U.S. not to find work but to shop for cheap American goods.

Previously, my border crossings had been into tourist-heavy cities like Matamoros and Nuevo Progresso. So I was actually a little surprised to see a place where the American side courts the money and the Mexican side possesses the superior wealth. It’s just not what you’d expect. And it made me realize a basic truth I already knew but never really considered in practical terms:

Borders are false divides.

The gates and guards may slow down the travel of people but commerce and culture flows across the Rio Grande with little resistance. Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras are sister cities with practically as much interchange and cooperation as happens between San Francisco and Oakland or Minneapolis and St. Paul. And that is true for all the border cities. Culture and commerce respect no political divides.

There are those in the immigration debate who worry our American culture is threatened by the influx of Mexican and other Hispanic peoples. But I don’t think anything short of completely sealing off the border will stop the cultural mingling. As long as people, any people, are free to go back-and-forth across the border, our cultural interchange and adaptation will occur. That’s the reality of borders. They can’t contain culture.

The sooner we recognize that fact the sooner we can focus on the resolvable issues in the immigration debate. It’s about jobs and economics. Not culture.

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