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A New, Improved U.S.-Mexican Border?
‘Smart Border’ to ‘Weed Out’ Terrorists, Offers Frequent-Crosser Plan
Among the binational accords announced by the U.S. and Mexican presidents at their most recent summit March 22, the “Smart Border” plan represents the only scrap of agreement on boundary crossings left after U.S. priorities shifted way from immigration reform in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But, even as the plan’s
implementation remains a challenge for Washington, U.S. officials also
are faced with economic and electoral pressures for getting back to the
migration agenda.
by Jonathan Treat | March 28, 2002

U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox recently
announced an agreement to create a new, technologically advanced border
to assure tighter security while helping speed transit for people and
Following their talks March 22 in Monterrey, Mexico, they unveiled what
they are calling the “Smart Border” plan. Similar to one signed
by the United States and Canada in December, the plan provides for laser-scan
identification cards for frequent border crossers, X-ray facilities, shared
computer databases, and special express lanes for pre-inspected shipments.
As Bush put it, the new agreement is designed to “weed out”
terrorists while facilitating legal commerce.
“We will build a border that protects our societies against those
who would do us harm, [one] that truly serves the human and economic needs
of our dynamic relationship,” Bush and Fox proclaimed in a joint
statement. “We share a vision of a modern border that speeds the
legitimate flow of people and commerce, and filters out all that threatens
our safety and prosperity.”
Fostering Trade While Battening Down the Hatches
Much of the plan is an attempt to reduce delays and eliminate bottlenecks
along the border, which have increased since post-Sept. 11 security measures
dramatically slowed commerce between the United States and Mexico.
“Smart Border” takes into account the fact that Mexico is the
United States’ second-largest trading partner after Canada, while the
United States is Mexico’s largest. It aims to protect the growth trend
in trade between the two countries, which has tripled to $650 million
per day since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
in 1993.
Some of the plan’s specific improvements to the U.S.-Mexico border-crossing
infrastructure and management system include:

High-tech migration databases and tracking equipment to pre-screen
many of the people who account for the 300 million crossings of the
southern border that the United States registers annually. The pre-screening
ostensibly is to allow frequent border crossers quicker passage. It
builds on a U.S. program that last year issued 5 million new laser-readable
identification cards to Mexicans who regularly cross the border, by
increasing the number of laser scanners at binational checkpoints. New
fast-lanes for verified, low-risk travelers will be designated at border
crossings with heavy traffic.
Expansion of a sophisticated system of x-ray machines at border crossings
to examine contents of truck shipments and detect hidden compartments
in trucks.
Pre-inspection and certification of truck contents at the point of
embarcation. The U.S. government will pre-certify roughly 500 Mexican
companies involved in high-volume exports to the United States. Those
companies are to pack containers with goods at their plants, then electronically
seal the containers. The trucks hauling them are to receive fast-lane
clearance at border crossings but still be subject to random inspections.
Stepped-up sharing of intelligence information between migration and
law enforcement officials in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
The plan includes the creation of a common list of countries whose citizens
must obtain visas before visiting any of the three countries, and it
calls for harmonizing the criteria for visa approval. One goal is to
make it impossible for anyone denied a visa in one of the three countries
to receive a visa from either of the other two.

Bush said $5 billion of the $27 billion emergency funding request he
sent Congress this month was to use for security improvements along borders
and at airports.
More than half of the remaining $22 billion would go to war efforts in
Afghanistan and elsewhere, and $5.5 billion would go to projects for New
York’s recovery from the Sept. 11 attacks. The remaining money requested
is slated for aiding other countries in their fight against terrorism
and to provide relief for workers displaced by the economic downturn.
U.S. Homeland Security Chief Takes Charge of the Border
The principal architect of the new border security agreement between
the United States and Mexico is U.S. Homeland Security Director Thomas
J. Ridge.
Bush appointed Ridge to direct the new department he created after the
Sept. 11 terror attacks. Ridge has since become a key player in recent
negotiations on new border policies, holding high-level meetings with
Canada and Mexico to reconcile the disparate goals of augmenting border
security and increasing efficiency at border crossings.
In early March, Ridge traveled to Mexico, accompanied by a high-level
delegation that included Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS)
Commissioner James Ziglar and U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner,
to hammer out details for an overhaul of border policies in anticipation
of the Bush-Fox summit in Monterrey.
Meeting with Fox, Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel, and Mexican
Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, the Ridge delegation worked on
details for the “Smart Border” accord.
One of the most critical issues Ridge raised in those meetings was the
need to improve border inspection capacity and facilitate quicker crossings.
The delegations were mindful that bottlenecks at border crossings since
Sept. 11 have had devastating effects on border economies. Bush has been
under pressure from U.S. business interests who’ve been hurt by lengthy
delays and inspections at border checkpoints. Meanwhile, in Mexico, which
sends 85% percent of its exports to the United States, the clogged border
crossings have seriously hampered trade.
But the question of border militarization has been no less sensitive
for pressure groups and negotiators.
U.S. Defense Buildup on the Border Irks Mexicans
In February, even before making his emergency funding request, Bush had
proposed a $2.1 billion increase in spending for border security, for
a total of $10.9 billion in fiscal year 2003. That proposal, expected
to be well-received in Congress, includes funding for additional Border
Patrol and Customs agents to speed up inspections and the creation of
a new entry-exit system to track U.S.-Mexican border crossers.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress approved the hiring of additional
personnel to beef up border security. This month roughly 1,600 National
Guard troops were deployed to increase security until those new agents
and inspectors are hired. About 950 of them were assigned to the Mexico
Mexicans are wary of the growing militarization of the border. An editorial
in the national daily La Jornada newspaper said that the United
States might find benefits in a “regional triangle of security”
with its neighbors, but that could be “clearly injurious to our country’s
The editorial points out that the United States has a long list of enemies,
while Mexico has few, and that the “very act of making common cause
with its neighbor on security matters could unnecessarily put our country
in the crosshairs of those who, with or without just cause, and with legitimate
or condemnable means like terrorism, struggle to affect Washington’s interests
outside and inside U.S. territory.” [1]
For his part, Ridge recently stressed that the use of the troops along
the borders is temporary. “Among allies and friends, you don’t have
militarized borders,” he said. [2]
Ridge Makes Waves in Washington
While Ridge has met with success in Canada and Mexico, he has encountered
some opposition at home, particularly to his proposal for incorporating
the various U.S. agencies that deal with border issues into a single body.
That idea has touched a raw nerve among the departments that would be
affected by such a change, including Treasury, Justice, and Transportation,
which aren’t anxious to cede their powers.
Some agency officials have criticized Ridge for trying to push through
his proposal without presidential approval.
Ridge has responded by alleging there is no “direct line of accountability”
for agencies charged with protecting U.S. borders. He’s suggested that
turf wars may be preventing the implementation of much-needed reforms
to improve the nation’s security coordination. [3]
Ridge says he wants to bring continuity, consistency, and a coherent
agenda to U.S. border policy by integrating the agencies’ work.
“When you come into the United States,” he said, “multiple
faces of the federal government meet you. And I think we ought to have
one face at the border. Somebody ought to be accountable for what we do
or don’t do at the border. Right now it’s diffused.”
He added, “I might have to break some china” to get Customs,
the INS, the Border Patrol, and the State Department to work together.
Ridge soon will be making recommendations to Bush on the issue of consolidation
of agencies.
Observers say the question now is whether Ridge will recommend full consolidation
in spite of strong opposition, or suggest a compromise that can be embraced
by agency heads and others on Capitol Hill.
He appears to be weighing the decision. “I’m still of the mind that
if we were designing a new approach to America’s borders, we wouldn’t
have over a dozen Cabinet departments involved and 30 or 40 agencies involved,”
Ridge said in a recent interview. “But that’s just not the world.
We’ve got people and organizations that have histories and cultural and
technological connections” to border issues, he conceded. [5]
Migration Policy Reform Takes a Back Seat …
Some Mexican officials who met with Ridge recently, including Creel,
reported progress on border issues and were positive about the new developments.
But while concurring that security issues are important components of
revamped border policy, Mexico’s Castañeda implied that the safety
of the United States is not the only issue to be addressed.
“We have to find a way to co-manage our border. This includes security
but is not limited to security,” Castañeda said. [6]
Presumably Castañeda was referring to the need for immigration
reform, a topic that was conspicuously absent from the border accord announced
by Bush and Fox.
Some immigration experts thought Bush and Fox would announce at least
some changes in U.S. immigration policy toward Mexico, such as an expanded
guest-worker program allowing more Mexicans to legally cross the border
to work in the United States.
Although proposals for liberalizing U.S. immigration policy toward Mexico
were shelved due to security concerns after Sept. 11, in recent months
the topic has re-emerged.
In January, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed the Bush
administration’s determination to “get back to this very important
issue of regularizing the movement of Mexicans back and forth … . We
haven’t given up,” Powell said, and called the terror attacks “a
detour, a diversion.” [7]
Also in January, Ziglar, who later accompanied Ridge on the March trip
to Mexico, said that the problem of millions of illegal immigrants can
only be resolved through a deal with Mexico.
Ridge, along with other administration officials, has acknowledged the
importance of addressing the issue of Mexican migration to the United
States. His high-level delegation to Mexico was “keen on trying to
give both presidents at least a partial answer to the larger problem”
in time for consideration during the most recent Bush-Fox meetings. [8]
Obviously that didn’t happen. What’s more, on March 22, while Bush and
Fox were meeting in Monterrey, the U.S. Congress postponed a decision
on competing border-security bills, one of which calls for allowing immigrants
with outdated visas to stay in the United States while their applications
for residency are being processed.
Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a proponent of more liberal immigration
policies with Mexico, said on March 26 that he will not raise the issue
again until after April 8, when Congress’ spring recess ends.
Before the terror attacks, Mexico had been hoping for an amnesty that
would legalize the status of millions of Mexicans living and working in
the United States without papers. The Bush administration appeared to
be giving serious consideration to that possibility, but the political
and economic climate changed dramatically after Sept. 11.
The recession, security concerns, and a shift in foreign policy agendas
make it unlikely that the U.S. public opinion would support an amnesty
program, experts suggest. Indeed, polls indicate that most U.S. respondents
favor stricter immigration controls, not more liberal ones–in spite of
the fact that none of the alleged perpetrators of the attacks has been
accused of entering the United States through either Mexico or Canada.
As a result, Mexico has softened its rhetoric on the need for immediate,
sweeping immigration reform. Castañeda, who once insisted on “the
whole enchilada” in terms of changes in U.S. migration policy–calling
for amnesty for more than 3 million Mexicans illegally residing in the
United States and an expanded guest worker program based on temporary
visas–has signaled a willingness to settle for less, given the circumstances.
… But Bound for an Overhaul
Although Bush and Fox didn’t announce any changes in migration policy
during their recent summit, inescapable political, demographic, and economic
realities favor a major overhaul of U.S. immigration policy in the long
Some analysts say that both major U.S. political parties are lobbying
for a migration agreement because it could add up to crucial votes in
this year’s midterm election.
“The United States’ economy is still tied to Mexican immigration
and the work of 3.5 million to 4 million Mexicans of questionable status,”
said Rafael Fernández de Castro, migration expert at the Autonomous
Technical Institute in Mexico City.
“Mexico has very wisely taken the initiative to awaken Mexican groups
in the United States and Latinos in general. The Democrats see
this coming and are pushing hard for an accord, so this in turn should
push Bush to renew his efforts.” [9]
Ziglar has expressed an equally pragmatic view. “If we could find
a way to move a substantial portion of the current illegal flow from Mexico
into legal channels via some kind of temporary-worker program and combine
that with new cooperative law-enforcement arrangements with Mexico, we
could benefit the U.S. economy, [and] we could substantially reduce illegal
immigration,” he said. [10]
The economic component is critical.
Half of the 500,000 Mexican workers in mostly U.S.-owned manufacturing
plants have been fired as a result of the economic downturn, and they
are looking for work.
The administration believes, as do many immigration advocates, that foreign
labor is crucial to the U.S. economy. A Bureau of Labor Statistics projection
says the United States is facing a shortage of 6 million workers by 2008,
most of them in retail businesses, restaurants, hotels, construction,
and manufacturing.
Ziglar notes that if illegal workers in the United States suddenly vanish,
“we’re going to have a bunch of economies that are going to die on
us, because [these employees] provide essential labor to our economy.
This is an issue we’ve got to deal with, primarily with our friends in
Mexico,” he said. [11]
The important issue of border security and the related issue of international
commerce have eclipsed Mexico’s desire for changes in U.S. immigration
policy. However, the issue is unlikely to stay in the shadows for long.
The new “Smart Border” plan underscores a paradox of NAFTA
that eventually must be addressed. It encourages a border wide open to
goods and commerce yet fortified against people, not just potential terrorists,
but ordinary people who seek jobs, as well.
Jonathan Treat, a journalist and independent documentary filmmaker
with extensive experience in Mexico and Central America, writes regularly
for the IRC’s America’s Program. Based in Oaxaca, Mexico, Treat also coordinates
educational study tours and volunteer opportunities in the region for
U.S. students.
[1] Tessie Borden, Arizona Republic Mexico City Bureau, March
5, 2002.
[2] Bill Miller, Washington Post , March 1, 2002.
[3] Eric Pianin and Bill Miller, Washington Post , March 12, 2002.
[4] Tim Weiner, New York Times , March 6, 2002.
[5] Marcus Stern, Copley News Service, March 3, 2002.
[6] Tim Weiner, New York Times , March 6, 2002.
[7] Laurie Goering, Chicago Tribune , January 10, 2002.
[8] G. Robert Hillman, Dallas Morning News , March 1, 2002.
[9] Alfredo Corchado and Ricardo Sandoval, Dallas Morning News ,
January10, 2002.
[10] August Gribbin, Washington Times , February 15, 2002.
[11] Peter Slevin and Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post , January11,

de los mismo?” | Americas Program, March 21, 2002
Support for Immigration Pact May Have Evaporated, but in Mexico, Migration
Pressures are on the Rise” | Americas Program, February 1, 2001

Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Jonathan Treat, “A New, Improved U.S.-Mexican Border?,” Americas
Program Commentary (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center,
March 28, 2002).
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