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The Changing Frontline of the Mexican-American Border: A New Community “MexAmerica”

Shinji Yamasaki
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

The United States lies just north of the Mexican border city of Tijuana, where a fence divides the two countries. This fence was not only built on land, but it extends into the ocean, preventing immigrants from swimming across the border. The view from Mexico is reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Modern buildings in San Diego stand in the distance, and people there can easily enter Mexico. Due to the fence’s presence, the two cities, Tijuana and San Diego, seem as if they have their backs turned on each other though they both face the Pacific Ocean. After careful observation of the fence, one may notice that separated couples and family members communicate with one another through the space between the fence’s iron pipes and wire mesh. This can somewhat be interpreted as an expression of American kindness. The United States built this barrier as a way to screen immigrants but did not go as far as depriving them of the opportunity to stay connected with their family members who were left behind. Nevertheless, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate this year, boasts that if he is elected President, he will construct a wall as thick as the Great Wall of China where not a single Mexican would be able to cross the border. I presume that this is part of Trump’s demagoguery for his campaign, but if he is serious about this proposal, it will end all interactions between the United States and Mexico. This will cause the deterioration of the political, economic, social, and cultural relationships between the two countries that have been established since the early 19th century despite its vicissitudes.

America's fence extending out to the ocean, resisting immigrants from crossing the border

It was after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) in which Mexico sustained a crushing defeat and the Mexican-American border was first defined. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost some two million square kilometers of their vast territory, which stretched from Texas to California, but the people living in those lands were granted American citizenship by the U.S. government. However, new immigrants from other countries moved towards the West Coast and grew powerful, taking away the rights of the Mexicans. As a result, many Mexican landowners lost their ancestral land.

Later, pairs of neighboring cities like Tijuana and San Diego emerged along the Mexican-American border. These cities, known as twin cities, from the west to east include: Tijuana and San Diego, Nogales and Tucson, Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, Reynosa and McAllen, and Matamoros and Brownsville. They face each other along the border, and Mexicans and Americans have crossed the border mainly through these twin cities. This cross-border relationship between the twin cities is based on supply and demand to some extent. Large American farms were shorthanded of laborers willing to work for low wages. Meanwhile, employment rate remained low in Mexico, and the employment opportunities north of the border were more than what unemployed Mexicans could hope for, thus creating migration’s push-pull factors.

Separated family members in the north and south talking through iron pipes and wire mesh

Many Americans were sent into battle and mobilized to work at munitions factories during World War II, making labor shortage a serious issue. To overcome this situation, the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed on the Bracero Program, where approximately 4.5 million Mexicans were granted working visas and worked in American farms until 1964. Due to the steady balance of supply and demand at a reasonable level, illegal immigrants were not a pressing concern at the time. However, circumstances changed in 1965 with a growing movement in American society to restrict the number of new immigrants. The revised immigration act set a quota to the number of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere to 120,000 per year. Another restriction was added in 1976, limiting the number to 20,000 per country. Foreigners had crossed the border without a visa since the early 20th century, but their existence came to the forefront only after the initiation of these new acts. Mass media then favorably wrote reports on "wetbacks" who tried to cross the border by swimming across the Rio Grande River. The immigration act has been revised subsequently several times, but the problem of illegal immigration remains unsolved to this day.

Today, the number of Mexicans who attempts to cross the border is decreasing because the Mexican economy has been improving. Moreover, data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the National Institute of Migration in Mexico, and migration surveys by experts reveal that many factors have discouraged Mexicans from trying to cross the border and remain close to border towns in the north such as Tijuana instead. Some of these factors include the downturn of the American economy, tighter surveillance by border patrol, the danger posed by drug cartels controlling the border area, the exploitation by immigrant smugglers called "coyotes" and so on.

People and cars heading towards the north of the border

The author pays attention in particular to a community known as "MexAmerica," which has emerged in the Mexican-American border area. It is an economic and cultural zone, covering the four American states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and six Mexican states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. In this border area, a culture where people eat tacos and drink tequila while listening to Latin music in Spanish is evidently developing. Notably, since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, economic integration in the zone has progressed rapidly, bolstering the presence of MexAmerica with each passing day. American researcher Alejandro Portes and other scholars have pointed out that Hispanics from Mexico and Central America form their own communities and do not speak English or integrate into the mainstream American society. They value the economic and cultural exchanges with their native country and retain the identity of their homeland, and it is this very nature that a new mutual community of MexAmerica has become established. In this community, members can speak Spanish freely, and nobody is there to complain about Mexicans immersing themselves in their own culture. Globalization has been in progress for some time now, but as an alternative, a society where people are perfectly happy to stay within their comfort zones should be accepted. The way people live in MexAmerica perhaps suggests that happiness lies within the preservation and inheritance of one’s own culture for future generations.

Shinji Yamasaki
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

[Profile]
Shinji Yamasaki graduated from Waseda University. He earned his master's degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and then returned to Waseda University to complete his Ph.D. in political science. He is currently belongs to the Faculty of Political Science and Economics.

[Field of expertise]
Nationalism in Latin America and the movements of indigenous people

[Major publications]
Mekisiko Senjyumin no Hanran—Yaburesarishi Monotachi no Kiroku (Revolts by Indigenous People in Mexico—Chronicles of the Defeated), Raten Amerika Sekai no Kotoba to Bunka (Languages and Cultures in Latin America) (written and edited), Mekisiko Minzoku no Hokori to Tatakai (Mexico: The Pride of People and Their Fight), and Supein no Seiji (Politics in Spain) (co-authored)