Good fences and good neighbours
C O L U M B U S , N E W M E X I C O , A N D P A L O M A S , M E X I C O ALONG
New Mexico's portion of the border with Mexico, a town like Columbus is rather typical. Around it lie mountains, cacti, huge ranches and the occasional tracks of antelope seeking water. The pitiless emptiness may be the reason why border folk have been such model neighbours.
Border towns have long made agreements with their counterparts across the frontier, on matters such as firefighting and public transport. In New Mexico, even the predominantly Anglo ranchers have forged close ties with cattlemen across the border; they speak, as one long-time resident puts it, "the common language of cattle". In Columbus (whose partner across the border is Palomas), old-timers recall that border officials used to leave the gates loose at night, just in case someone got stuck on the wrong side after hours. Schoolchildren probably did best out of this co-operation. About 50 years ago, Phoebe Watson, a local teacher, began enrolling Mexican children in her school. (As she says now, "Who could tell the difference?") Hundreds, perhaps thousands, avoided Chihuahua's overcrowded and underfinanced schools and got an American education. But that programme ended last year, when Congress barred the education of foreign schoolchildren in America. The targets of the law were wealthy, non-resident Asian families who enrolled their children in schools in California. But Miss Watson's pupils were caught in the dragnet. Carlos Viramontes, the local schools superintendent, says that "our community has always felt that this was the right thing to do, because we saw it as basically one community."
Many things are hurting the once-humane border relationship. One is population growth. Over the past decade, Palomas has grown dramatically&emdash;largely because of the North American Free-Trade Agreement [NFTA]&emdash;from about 900 residents to 9,000. Locals say that some of the newcomers, especially the ones who built the gated houses lining its muddy streets, are involved in the drug trade: fear, they complain, is straining the area's former pastoral quiet.
On the Columbus side, some Anglos are leaving; some Mexican-Americans, worried about their standing in America, are demanding tighter immigration controls. Drug corruption and political upheaval in Chihuahua make cross-border business relations even less orderly than before. And border agencies are less friendly. Residents say that fewer American officers know Spanish or try to understand their Mexican counterparts, as so many of their predecessors did. "They're taking all the fools out of Alaska or Washington and sending them to the border because it's a hot place for a promotion," said one. Because locals believe that sealing such a vast, empty border is unfeasible, they want to restore the old connections before it is too late. Mr Viramontes says he is trying to establish more teacher exchanges and (if he can get the money) electronic hook-ups to teach English and Spanish across the border. Their governments may be obliging them to be more suspicious towards each other, but these border-dwellers prefer to remain friends.
Source: The Economist, 28 February 1998, p. 28.