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Down on the border, ‘la linea’ isn't so clear

On Thursday and Friday, when President Bush meets in Cancun with President Vicente Fox, there will be no topic more pressing than the border — "La Linea," as Mexicans call it — a barrier that dominates a relationship marked both by enormous potential and overwhelming problems.
President Bush arrives in Cancun, Mexico, on Wednesday night.
President Bush arrives in Cancun, Mexico, on Wednesday night.Gregory Bull / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Troops. Barricades. Guns.

On the border, this is the vocabulary of U.S.-Mexico relations. Here at one of the busiest crossing points, dingy metal walls separate the United States from Mexico, rich from poor. The walls are spray-painted with crude images of American border patrol agents, their pistols leveled at brown-skinned men.

Even as differences over immigration and border security -- roiled this week by congressional debates and massive protests by Latinos across the United States -- threaten to dredge a deeper divide between the nations, it is clear that they are increasingly knit by an exchange of business, ideas and, above all, human beings.

On Thursday and Friday, when President Bush meets in Cancun with President Vicente Fox, there will be no topic more pressing than the border -- "La Linea," as Mexicans call it -- a barrier that dominates a relationship marked both by enormous potential and overwhelming problems. Bush arrived in Cancun Wednesday night.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will also participate in the talks at the coastal resort, the second session since the formation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, intended to foster cooperation among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Mistrust remains strong
Historic feelings of mistrust remain strong on the Mexican side of the border with the United States. Business is booming, but so is crime, and the rapid but lopsided economic development of the region has highlighted the persistent differences in living standards between the two countries.

In 2005, the United States imported a record $170 billion in goods from Mexico and exported $120 billion to its southern neighbor, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Twelve years after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, American business people tap into high-speed, Wi-Fi networks in the lobbies of U.S.-style hotels in border towns such as Nogales.

But out in the remote deserts, the border sizzles with a different kind of activity. An all-time high of 1.17 million people, the great majority of them Mexican migrants, were arrested by U.S. agents for illegal border crossing between October 2004 and October 2005. A record 473 people died while trying to cross, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Uncounted hundreds of thousands more make it into the United States illegally and blend into a nationwide pool of surreptitious, cheap labor. They work on cleanup crews in Houston, construction sites in Virginia and onion fields in California, ever one step ahead of deportation.

Conduit for illegal drugs
At the same time, Mexico remains a major conduit for illegal drugs, turning border towns such as Nuevo Laredo and Juarez into virtual shooting galleries and further complicating relations with the United States.

In the 700-mile corridor between El Paso and Nuevo Laredo, U.S. drug enforcement agents seized 1,220 kilos of cocaine in 2005, up from 700 kilos four years earlier. The amount of methamphetamine confiscated between the Texas border cities of Laredo and Brownsville nearly tripled in those years, to 354 kilos, while marijuana seizures in the Phoenix border-crossing area more than doubled, to 285,000 kilos.

The torrent of drugs and migrants across the Arizona border -- an especially hazardous trip because of the dangers of dehydration in the vast desert -- has turned that state into a flash point for confrontation.

Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) issued an executive order this month allowing her to dispatch more National Guard troops to the border, even as she stated that "we are not at war with Mexico." The state legislature has tried to take steps of its own to marshal troops, and the volunteer Minuteman Civil Defense Corps launched citizen border patrols.

'We'll see who gets bored first'
Outside Nogales, a city of 20,000 where the main roads funnel north to the Arizona border, the cycle of attempted crossings, arrests, deportations and more attempts revolves like a surreal game.

One recent afternoon, Abram Gutierrez, a 23-year-old migrant with chipped fingernails and a dirty sweat shirt, devoured a bowl of instant noodles outside the building housing Grupo Beta, a humanitarian aid program funded by the Mexican government. Hours before, he had been caught in Arizona and taken back to Nogales. Now he was plotting a second try -- and a third and fourth, if need be.

"We'll see who gets bored first," Gutierrez said, laughing. His friend, Lasaroa Damian, 27, said Bush and Fox should realize that migrants "are like cats" who find another way into a house after the front door is closed.

In the United States, debate over illegal immigration has become super-heated with election-year politics. The House of Representatives passed a bill in December that would make it a felony for a person to be in the United States illegally, and some members have proposed building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

Now the divisive issue has moved to the Senate, where this week the Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would create a large temporary-worker program and allow an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to apply for work visas after paying fines. But Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has proposed stiffening penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants, and many conservatives strongly oppose any amnesty.

The Fox government took out full-page ads last week in several major U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Post, urging an immigration pact that would allow assimilation of undocumented workers living in the United States. "We are your friends and neighbors. Let's work together," the ads read.

"Mexico and the U.S., I think, are becoming more aware that they are interdependent, and perhaps neither of the countries feels entirely comfortable with that interdependence," Geronimo Gutierrez, Mexico's undersecretary for North American affairs, said in an interview. "The relationship is at a fairly complex moment of catharsis."

'Ranchero diplomacy' was not to be
But Fox, who cannot run for reelection and will leave office in December, has responded angrily to U.S. proposals to tighten the border. In a recent speech, he predicted that by 2010, the United States would "beg" Mexico for workers in vain, suggesting that by then the Mexican economy would generate enough jobs to sustain its 100 million-plus people.

"The rhetoric is more strident. The politics is driving this," Michael Shifter, director of the nonprofit Inter-American Dialogue, said by phone from Washington. "The U.S. and Mexico have a knack for bringing out the worst in each other."

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. When Fox was elected in 2000, many here and in the United States predicted an era of what was dubbed "ranchero diplomacy," with the two leaders bonding at Bush's Texas ranch and Fox's hacienda. On Sept. 5, 2001, Bush declared that Mexico represented the most important international relationship for the United States.

Six days later, terrorists smashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the U.S. focus shifted to the Middle East and South Asia. Mexico later alienated the United States by not supporting the war in Iraq.

Mexicans weren't entirely surprised to see their relationship drop from the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. But Shifter said that "the question Mexicans raise is, did it have to completely disappear?"

A disappearance of another sort, beyond the vigilant gaze of border patrol agents, is exactly what Abram Gutierrez wants. For him, the other side of the border represents " el color verde " -- the color green, the color of money. Sitting in the hot Nogales sun last week, he vowed to make it across this time, whether by "holes or tunnels or the desert."

Francisco Loureiro, who runs a shelter in Nogales that has housed 600,000 migrants in 24 years, recognizes Gutierrez's determination. It is a quality, he said, that he has seen over and over in the men who pass through his shelter.

Loureiro says the only solution is a broad guest-worker program, something the Bush administration recently proposed. But he said his expectations are low for the upcoming meeting between the U.S. and Mexican leaders.

"Every time they talk, I have hope," he said. "But things are getting worse."

When the sun drops, Loureiro's little shelter will be full, as it is every night. When Gutierrez disappears, he knows, thousands more will follow.