"The border is not where the U.S. stops and Mexico begins. It's where the U.S. blends into Mexico."
In June 2001, TIME used this statement, by then-Mayor of Laredo Betty Flores, to illustrate the main idea of its special magazine issue: “The border is its own country, neither Mexican nor American.” It called it Amexica, a name already common in the region.
For the magazine's editors, the term was very appropriate. “Both sides regard their sovereign governments as distant and dysfunctional,” Nancy Gibbs wrote in the issue’s main article. “They are proud of their ability to take care of themselves, solve their problems faster and cheaper than any faraway bureaucracy.”
That same month, results emerged – independently – from the first major survey of people along the border about the issues that matter to them most. Conducted by the University of Tamaulipas, in collaboration with the Tomás Rivera Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, the survey reflected the opinions of the inhabitants of the 20 major urban centers on both sides of the border (10 on each side).
The results confirmed the social, economic and security concerns common along the border. But above all, it showed the way in which communities near the border are mutually dependent on one another: 62% of Mexicans and 66% of Americans surveyed supported their neighbors crossing the border to work. And by a wide margin (90% and 60%), they expressed a desire to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994 (NAFTA) to expand the free flow of labor between the two countries.
Those were optimistic times, according to Peter Katel, one of the authors of the TIME report. “The ‘Amexica’ cover package came out during a brief golden moment in U.S.-Mexico relations. Two new presidents each knew a fair amount about the other’s country. The world seemed to be at peace, and George W. Bush could pay attention to Mexico. There, newly empowered voters had ousted the PRI and elected Vicente Fox,” he said.
According to Katel, the TIME report also included some exaggeration often favored by news magazines: “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,” read the story by Gibbs.
But generally speaking, Katel thinks the report's findings remain valid.
To verify this, the Cronkite News program of Arizona State University, together with Univision and the Dallas Morning News conducted a new survey in 14 of the 20 locations surveyed 15 years ago (the number was reduced because the proximity of some of the cities included in the 2001 survey made some answers redundant).
The results of the survey conducted by Basecile and Associates (the same Austin firm that conducted the 2001 poll) confirm the similarities between and interdependence of the inhabitants of cities on either side of the border, their distance from power centers, and the clear differences between the country’s security policies.
Much has happened in the space between the two countries over the last 15 years. Dreams for the border were all but ruined by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The post-NAFTA explosion of assembly plants generated great social tension; the Mexican government’s drug policy exacerbated cartel violence; a Central American crisis changed the nature and routes of migration; the Border Patrol doubled its troops, expanding a fence for many miles; wars in the Middle East escalated terrorism, and xenophobia and hate became embedded in American politics.
“Fifteen years ago [when the TIME report about Amexica was published], there were a few things that we – or, at least, I – didn’t see coming,” Katel says. “For one thing, a major-party U.S. presidential candidate vowing to build a huge U.S.-Mexico wall. For another, an era of continuous war and terrorism that would help scare plenty of Americans into thinking a wall would be a good idea.”
But the essence of the conversation remains the same. Although concerned about security, border cities largely reject the idea of a wall, which they see as a divisive way to prevent both sides from taking advantage of what lies beyond it. Already , crossings have become complicated. Passing freely from one side to another is essential for those surveyed: 85% of Mexicans and 76% of Americans support their neighbors crossing the border to work.
This interaction has also allowed the flourishing of cultural activities, such as those seen today in Tijuana or Juarez. Reduced crime rates in what were once two of the most violent cities in the world (through highly controversial security policies) have allowed for cultural and economic rebirth.
The survey fully confirms what TIME intuited with its Amexica story: It is a diverse territorial space, populated by people who share many common interests and have managed to progress largely without interference by their respective governments.
This reality led Univision News to create a special section on our website dedicated to the region. In addition to our reporters, the site will depend on perspectives from institutions that have spent years contributing to the thinking and progress on border issues: Cronkite News, of Arizona State University; Borderzine, of the University of Texas at El Paso; the Mexico Center at Rice University in Houston; the Border Security program at the University of Texas at Brownsville (all of whom have worked with us on this section), and the think tanks and schools that want to expand their reach through our pages.