Preface from Why Walls Won’t Work

The US–Mexico borderlands are among the most misunderstood places on earth. The communities along the line are far distant from the centers of political power in each nation’s capital. They are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with hybrid loyalties. Historically, the eastern border counties were among the poorest regions in both countries; those in the center were sparsely populated agricultural and mining districts; and in the more affluent west, the upstart Baja California was always more closely connected to the State of California than to Mexico. Nowadays, border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. They are places of teeming contradiction, extremes of wealth and poverty, and vibrant political and cultural change.

There are also enormous tensions along the borderlands, associated with undocumented immigration and drug wars. Neither of these problems originated in the borderlands. Instead, they came from outside, and borderland communities have limited capacity for self-determination in such matters. At the national level, the US and Mexico seek security and peace through the sacrifices of the small subset of their populations that resides in the border region. They are the people who must endure the exogenously-induced trials, often with scant assistance from their national and local governments beyond unpredictable military and police interventions. Border dwellers have made what adjustments they can, along the way demonstrating a remarkable durability and adaptability based in centuries of co-existence.

Mutual interdependence has always been the hallmark of cross-border lives. Over time, a series of binational “twin cities” sprang up along the line, with identities sufficiently distinct to warrant the collective title of a “third nation,” snugly slotted in the space between the two host countries. The third nation does not divide Mexico and the US but instead acts as a connective membrane uniting them. This way of looking at the border substitutes continuity and coexistence in place of concerns with sovereignty and difference. It is a view that runs directly counter to received wisdom in the US, which regards the border as the last line of national defense against unfettered immigration and runaway global terrorism.

The current fortifications along the border are without historical precedent, and threaten to suffocate the arteries supplying the third nation’s oxygen. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the international boundary, the dividing line remained loosely marked, haphazardly maintained, and casually observed. But in the 1990s, responding to increased waves of undocumented crossings from Mexico, large fences sprouted on the border edges of cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Then, following the attacks of 9/11, the US unilaterally adopted an aggressive program of constructing fortifications along the entire line.

The new walls, fences, and checkpoints rudely interrupted the lives and livelihoods of third nation dwellers. On the US side, the border became a fortress containing an archipelago of law enforcement and justice agencies dedicated to apprehension, detention, prosecution and deportation of undocumented migrants, all bolstered by a new industry of corporate security interests. On the Mexican side, tranquility was usurped from a different source—the federal government’s war against drug cartels. As the numbers of dead catapulted into the tens of thousands, cartel power was consolidated and Mexico seemingly drifted toward becoming a “failed state,” incapable of maintaining order or fulfilling its other obligations.

On December 17, 2002, I began traveling the entire length of the US–Mexico border, on both sides, from Tijuana/San Diego on the Pacific Ocean to Matamoros/Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of 4,000 miles. Assisted by a grant from the National Geographic Society, I voyaged in the footsteps of giants: sixteenth-century Spanish explorers Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado came this way; Generals Santa Anna and Zachary Taylor fought important battles for these lands during the Mexican-American War; and after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the War, William H. Emory and Jose Salazar Ylaguerri undertook the heroic surveys which marked the boundary between Mexico and the United States.

What began as an impulsive journey of discovery was rapidly overtaken by events. I had the good (and bad) fortune to begin before the US undertook the fortification of its southern boundary, so I became an unintentional witness to the border’s closure, an experience that altered my understanding of both countries. My border-long, binational exploration was completed on March 16, 2005, but since then I have continued my visits, right up to the present, adding thousands more miles to my borderland travel log.

The borderlands have enormous significance as the place where immigration tensions and drug wars are enacted. Important as these are, I do not spend much time in this book addressing the nuances of US immigration policy, nor assembling yet another lurid account of Mexico’s cartel-induced violence. As my travels unfolded, I became more focused on the well-being of the third nation and the lessons it was teaching; these insights are the focus of this book.

My story begins by outlining the origin and rise of the third nation from earliest times (chapters 1–6), then assesses how the US borderland fortifications and Mexican drug wars have impacted the third nation (chapters 7–9), and in the final chapter, explains precisely why walls won’t work.

My experiences provide a powerful rejoinder to those who would abandon the Mexican border to the drug cartels, or those in the US who would use the borderlands as a surrogate battlefield against migrants. Despite these interruptions, the third nation endures. It reveals new ways of thinking about the joint future of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos and the United States of America.

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, USA
Mexicali, Baja California, México


Michael Dear

Michael Dear is a professor of City and Regional Planning in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book, Why Walls Won’t Work, details the history and current state of the US-Mexico borderlands, and the dynamic third nation that connects the two nations.

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