Border: from frontier to barrier to a line on a map

Borders in North America have always been ambiguous lines—whether on a map or on the ground. Throughout the first 120 years of the United States’ independent history, borders were the edge of a moving frontier, a kind of marker for where to start moving forward again.

For the next eighty years they were midway lines in borderland areas defining trade, culture, and language. In the last several decades, and especially since 9/11, US borders have become protective barriers whose imperfections haunt public policy and whose character poisons political culture.

Both Mexico and Canada have lived with these ambiguous American lines. The celebrated War of Independence and the awkward War of 1812 threatened to redraw the northern border with Canada. In the expansive 1840s, some US interests were manifestly more interested in the northwest than the southwest. Alternative maps of the period show the fantasy project of extending the US to include all of Vancouver Island, a great deal of British Columbia, and even beyond.

The US in its salad days was as pragmatic as it was expansive, and the southwest came to be seen as the greater prize—and Mexico as the weaker point of resistance. The 49th parallel border was agreed to with the British, and then Texas, California, and everything in between was secured from a defeated Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Canada’s complex historical relationship with Great Britain served it well during the long period of US expansion: Mexico had no such patron. The loss of the northern territories (now the American southwest) was like a painful wound for Mexico, and the new border like a deep scar.

There is a mocking notion, cultivated particularly among many US political types, that the Mexicans "just can’t forget" the Mexican-American War, and that it makes them look back and not forward.

Actually, I think that Mexicans (ordinary and elite) try not to forget the Mexican-American War just so they can continue to look forward clearly and without illusions.

Similarly, any trip through the American south and mid-Atlantic region will turn up battleground tours and reenactments so elaborate that visiting Mexicans, Canadians, and Europeans shake their heads in amazement at how the Civil War—or the War Between the States, or the War of the Southern Secession—still has a hold on the American historical imagination.

The border that most immigrants arriving in the US crossed from 1820 to 1970 was the Atlantic Ocean, a great natural border and a very different matter than a line on a map. The five largest groups of immigrants arrived on that route from Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Austria-Hungary.

The sixth largest group came from Canada, mostly across the land border. Interestingly, in that early 150-year period more than twice as many Canadians crossed the northern border as immigrants to the US than did Mexicans crossing the southern border. The great period of emigration from Mexico began in 1970.

The modern Mexican immigration began in a more benign international context of increasing North American integration with a “globalist character,” palpable long before globalism became a common term. The border crossing turned difficult in the 1980s, dangerous in the 1990s, and downright fatal in this post 9/11 age of terrorism.

How do ordinary people see borders? Qualitative research over the past twenty years gives us a good feel, though admittedly many of the images people describe seem to come as much from remembered films as remembered travels.

For the tourist, the border experience is somewhere between high adventure and lowlevel annoyance, depending on the graciousness of the crossing. For the student and young traveler, the border confirms a leaving of home that is crucial to finding an identity of one’s own. For the legal worker, the border is a shift in opportunities.

For the illegal worker, the border is a frightening rite of passage that leaves its mark for the rest of one’s life. For everyone, the border becomes a space in their imagination.

My imagination cannot shake the images of Robert Frost in “Mending Wall.” When he hears his neighbor say that “good fences make good neighbors” in springtime, he poses the question: “Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder Why do they make good neighbors?”

Then, he examines the fundamental mystery of the question:

“Something there is that does not love a wall, That wants it down…”

Looking back over the long haul of human history we know that borders do not exist forever, or even for very long in relative terms. What does last is the restlessness of people, the long, long migration of us all.

Ever since we as a species came out of Africa, we have been crossing and re-crossing many thousands of natural boundaries and national borders. And we will keep on doing so, as many readers of Inside México can attest from their own life experience.

Dan Lund is the president of the MUND Group, a Mexico City-based public opinion and market research firm. Their website is