In the California border town of San Ysidro, backers of a proposed development called Las Americas envision an open-air mall surrounded by housing, a library/cultural center, art galleries, and a privately funded port-of-entry bridge connecting the town with Tijuana, Mexico. For some, Las Americas offers a glimpse of what the U.S.-Mexico border region could be.
“This becomes the physical manifestation of what NAFTA is,” says C. Samuel Marasco, the developer behind the project. “We will convert the border from our back door to our front door.”
It’s that kind of investment that trade proponents envisioned when they sought the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s. And while the vision is still hoped for, the reality is very different. Congestion and chaos reign when it comes to border life. Living conditions along most of the nearly 2,000-mile border are more akin to developing-world poverty than suburbia in the United States.
While it was being negotiated, NAFTA was at times portrayed as a down payment toward the infrastructure needs of the U.S.-Mexico border region. The payment never arrived in any meaningful sense, however, and the September 11 terrorist attacks have since changed U.S. priorities for the foreseeable future. Instead of billions of dollars for improving the quality of life along the border, billions will be spent on homeland security. Instead of new wastewater treatment plants, the twin cities are more likely to get more Border Patrol and Customs agents using the latest high-tech applications for filtering out unwanted people and goods.
“Before 9-11, there was a potential synergy between Fox and Bush,” says Michael Acosta, associate director of the Institute for Policy and Economic Development at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Since then, not much has happened.”
It’s not that border advocates aren’t trying. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) recently introduced legislation to create a Border Authority that would oversee and act on the major border issues. But their bill has been overshadowed by President Bush’s $37 million plan to create a Homeland Security Agency. The proposal, which has strong support in Congress, would place all border enforcement officials under one agency.
Already, the stepped-up security measures since September 11 have choked off traffic coming into the United States, putting a squeeze on border merchants on both sides of the border and hurting local economies that depend on foreign visitors.
Yet despite the uncertainties, the movement of goods and services between the United States and Mexico has grown steadily, and at times spectacularly. Its value approaches $1 billion a day – not as much as the nearly $2 billion in trade between the United States and Canada, but more than that for all other Latin American countries combined.
Mexico now exports nearly $160 billion in goods and services annually, and its biggest export market is the United States. At the same time, it has opened itself up to a plethora of U.S. companies, which have found a willing consumer market. It’s not unusual for Mexicans to eat a hot dog from an AM PM market or sip a Starbuck’s coffee.
“When NAFTA was being negotiated, we were preparing for a deluge of products from Mexico,” says Bill Sykes, president of Sykes Co., a distributor of Mexican fruits and vegetables based in Nogales, Arizona. “Because of relaxed import duties, we thought we’d get tons of products. But it went the other way. American products started showing up all over Mexico.”
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