Skip to content
Quick Start for:

INTRODUCTION
Bordering the Future

The line is defined by the Rio Grande--known as the Río Bravo in Mexico--although the river is almost a phantom presence where it slows to a trickle. In the cities, the border hardens into steel walls and concrete; in the open country, it is little more than strands of brittle barbed wire strung through squat mesquite. Nothing much marks it at all along part of the way, as if the most dramatic international boundary on earth--which meanders for 1,254 miles on a path from El Paso-Ciudad Juarez to Brownsville-Matamoros--were only a legalism scribbled across a piece of paper (see Drawing the Line).1

  Sidebar:
Drawing the Line
Yet, this sometimes vague, sometimes stark line cleaves the continent. And the resulting Border region is expanding both northward and southward, as a binational, bicultural, and bilingual "state," a "subculture" within itself (see Common Ground on the Chamizal).

  Sidebar:
Common Ground on the Chamizal
This great land has a population pushing the 10-million mark, an annual economy of more than $88 billion, a language sometimes all its own, and a heritage unlike any other in the world. Here, businesses increasingly look toward one another for trade across the line. Here, families reside on each side simultaneously, without feeling especially divided. The desert is just as dry, the horizon just as long, the weather just as unpredictable no matter where one stands. Here, daily life takes on a quality that is different from the life in either country the region is said to divide.

In fact, a central tenet of this report is that the traditional power of the border to separate poor from rich, weak from strong, or north from south has weakened. The outward signs are everywhere.

In Houston, a Parisian restaurant hawks its crepes as "French enchiladas."

On a main drag in Saltillo, Coahuila, travelers can pull into "Pollo Frito Kentucky" for a bucket of chicken. Down the block, a used-car salesman's sign informs passersby that he buys and sells "carros," even if the word isn't really Spanish. In Sabinas Hidalgo, a town now mainly bypassed by a high-speed toll road between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, the pay phone on the main square has only recently been adjusted to accept pesos instead of dimes.

There are newcomers on the Texas side who speak no English, read no Texas newspapers, watch no Texas television. On the Mexican side, consumer tastes, social trends, and political attitudes increasingly reflect those of the land to the north. An old man with a tin cup on a Ciudad Juarez sidewalk elicits tips with his ocarina rendition of Madonna's "Like a Virgin," while political candidates in the central state of Guanajuato tout their plans for making public works more efficient, cutting state bureaucracies, and undertaking performance reviews modeled after the Texas Comptroller's work. A renowned scholar has commented that two crucial elements characterize the region. The first is that internationality is a commonplace, day-to-day routine; the other, that the economies and societies on either side are inextricably and constantly interactive.2

Ask someone on an El Paso street for directions to a good hardware store, and you may wind up a few blocks down and a couple over--in the middle of Juarez, the fact that an arching international bridge lies along the way never having occurred to the helpful director. Stop a Piedras Negras woman to inquire where she works, and chances are the answer will be "across the way"--in Eagle Pass, where half her family lives permanently as U.S. citizens and the other half shows up each morning to work.

Such is the ambiguity pervading life along the line, where a unique population strains under the dual weight of its parent cultures. So it is that residents may hail from San Antonio or the tiniest village in northern Mexico, and yet be more alike than different. One writer has suggested that the individuals who routinely cross this U.S.-Mexico border, the many who give the region its sense of ceaseless yet timeless movement, are among the authentic North Americans of this age:

Peasants keep crossing the border. The diplomats keep signing the documents. But has anyone ever met a North American? Oh, I know. You know Mexicans. And you know Canadians. But has anyone ever met a North American?

I have.

Let me tell you about him, this North American. He's a Mixteco Indian who lives in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He is trilingual. His primary language is the language of the tribe. He also speaks Spanish, the language of Cortes, as a second language. Also, he has a working knowledge of U.S. English.

He knows thousands of miles of dirt roads and freeways. He commutes between two civilizations. He is preyed upon by Mexican police who want to "shake him down" because he has hidden U.S. dollars in his shoes. He is pursued as an "illegal" by the U.S. border patrol. He lives in a 16th century village where his wife watches Venezuelan soap operas. There is a picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe over his bed. He works near Stockton, California, where there is no Virgin Mary but the other Madonna--the rock star.

This Mexican peasant knows two currencies. But he is as illegal on one side of the border as he is an embarrassment to his government on the other side of the line. He is the first North American.3


The Border in Texas

For all of its special, even hidden, mysteries, the vast Border region could be poised to become Texas' biggest asset. Many experts believe that developments like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have already served as catalysts for the creation of a region that spans the current boundaries, "a region neither here nor there," in which the full range of common infrastructure--economic, public, educational, cultural--is both compatible and cooperative.4 In this view, the border is not a "scar."5 It's a unifying line that sparks a community with its own energy, direction, and future.

More than half the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico is in the Lone Star State, and it's by far the most populated, productive, and intertwined half. Texas' unique geography sets it astride the world's leading line between an industrialized power and an emerging one. In important, day-to-day ways, Texas and the four northern Mexican states that share its border--Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas--have a far larger stake in one another's economic prosperity than in the rest of their respective nations. Business and society in northern Mexico are often more closely tied to Texas than to their own distant capital in Mexico City, and a rancher in Uvalde or an entrepreneur in Kingsville might be forgiven if he lends more importance to what happens in Monclova and Reynosa than on Capitol Hill. Decisions reached on one side of the border quickly affect life on the other.

In the past, border business was regarded as a fringe economy, having little to do with the overall binational economic relationship between Texas and Mexico. No longer. Business along the international boundary and throughout the broader Border region probably represents the shape of things to come in Texas--and even throughout the nations that share the line. Goods once available only in Border stores are now sold in supermarkets far outside the region, from Lubbock to Longview. Investment once restricted to Mexico's northern border is penetrating south toward Mexico City and beyond. The challenges and opportunities of global production are gaining recognition across each nation, not just along each nation's border.

Economic promise isn't the only phenomenon that binds the region. Brewster County and Chihuahua have always been far less foreign to each other than either is to New York or Guadalajara. The same is increasingly true of Galveston and Tampico, Abilene and Aguascalientes, Odessa and Torreon. The borderlands are pushing northward and southward simultaneously, fastened together into a single, expansive economic empire.

This region isn't always what it appears to be, either. Even where it begins and ends is a matter of opinion. Some argue that it stretches into parts of Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, and Miami, or that traces of it can be found in North Denver, East Los Angeles, Oakland, or San Francisco's Mission District--approximately the same outposts that once marked the height of Spanish expansion north from Zacatecas during the 17th and 18th centuries. On the Mexican side, the Monterrey suburb of Garza Garcia is usually described as being more "American" than many Texas towns, while whole sections of cities as far from the actual border itself as San Luis Potosi, Queretaro, and Celaya have embraced the outward influences of the Lone Star State.

Wherever mapmakers choose to draw the line--and that line can shift according to the issue at hand--the Texas-Mexico border has come to resemble a fault line between two tectonic plates, where the economic power originating far from their common epicenter gathers. And regardless of one's preference or perspective, that power can no longer be ignored--because it is now a force bordering the future.6


Defining the Border

A word about what we mean by the Border region: forty-three Texas counties seem to fit our definition, although legitimate debate against including some or for including others is certainly possible. We believe the Texas side of the region snakes in a southeasterly line beginning at the New Mexico state line in Anthony and running through El Paso all the way to San Antonio along Interstate 10, then down Interstate 37 to the north side of Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf (see Map 1.1).

Comptroller staff designed economic and demographic models based in most cases on the 43 counties, which helped create the forecasts and analyses contained in this report. This report marks the first time the Border region has been so clearly defined and examined.

On the Mexican side, our definition of the Border starts in Juarez and runs due south along Federal Highway 45, through the city of Chihuahua and on toward the junction with Federal Highway 49. It then slices across the northeast corner of Durango state to Torreon, where it picks up Federal Highway 40 running due east to Saltillo. From there, the line turns slightly northeast, hitting Monterrey and Reynosa before following the Rio Grande out into the Gulf east of Matamoros.

Throughout this report we have attempted to include as much information about the Mexican side of the Border region as possible. Unfortunately, data sources about Mexican trends and conditions are somewhat limited on two counts. First, although Mexico's national system of economic accounts and demographic data tends to be as comprehensive as that found in the U.S., state and sub-state level data series are not as widely available for Mexico's regions as they are for U.S. local areas. Second, in some cases definitional differences of even some basic data series between the U.S. and Mexico makes comparisons difficult, if not misleading.

For example, wage rates in Mexico may reflect a traditional Christmas bonus paid to workers in that country--a practice much less prevalent in the U.S. Or, wage rates may include a housing subsidy paid by many Mexican companies on behalf of workers. Even the concept of unemployment varies considerably from country to country. Mexico's definition of the age a person must attain before being included in the workforce has not only differed over time, but varies considerably from that in the U.S. Moreover, workers looking for employment who would be considered unemployed in the U.S., are considered employed in some Mexican statistics. In the end, while it certainly would have been preferable to include more U.S.-Mexico comparisons in this report, use of these was limited to instances in which appropriate data were available.

Most of the Texas side of this binational region encompasses the state's traditional economic planning zones--although, again, we accept the notion that the presence in this report of certain counties, or even parts of counties, may be open to discussion. As for the Mexican side, none of the four states bordering Texas is included in its entirety.

As with all borders, however, a line must eventually be drawn where no natural boundary exists, no matter how arbitrary it may seem in one spot or another or how many minor disagreements hover at its margins.


South of Interstate 10

If the Texas Border region were a state unto itself, its governor might be calling out the National Guard, or petitioning Congress and the White House for emergency relief. Certainly, the region is rich in potential. But statistics show that Border residents, on average, are worse off than their fellow Americans. Too many are too poor, too many cannot find good-paying jobs, and too few are adequately educated--and that is just the beginning of a by-the-numbers litany that distinguishes Texas south of Interstate Highway 10.

The Comptroller's review team compared the Border region to Texas and the rest of the U.S. by applying more than 50 different indicators of health and prosperity. The detailed Border-as-a-state results serve as a stunning reminder of the Border region's challenges (see Where We Stand). If nothing else, this way of looking at the Border underscores how much the region trails the rest of the U.S., highlighting key areas that deserve attention. The numbers also helped the Comptroller focus on vital economic factors that must be addressed before the region emerges as a player in the international economy of the new century.

Based solely on the comparisons, it's fair to ask why any worker would choose to live in a "state" lacking the basic ingredients of the good life. Yet, the "governor" of this border state could certainly claim some bright spots. This imaginary state leads the nation in the percent of residents who speak Spanish, and its low infant mortality rates and low divorce rates appear to underscore strong family values. But the governor also would have to defend the region's No. 1 rankings for its poverty rate, percentage of impoverished schoolchildren, unemployment rate, and share of adults lacking a high school degree.

In addition, the region ranks dead last in the U.S. in per-capita personal income, and nearly last among all the states in average annual pay.

Other economic comparisons are also discouraging. In 1995, for instance, the 20 Texas counties with the lowest per-capita income were all Border counties; not a single Border county ranked in the top 20 counties with highest per-capita income. Put another way, the Border region is home to more poor residents than there are poor residents in at least 10 other states and the District of Columbia combined.

The region's health care needs are daunting. Its high birth rate of 21 live births per 1,000 population in 1996 is tempered by a state assessment that only 61 percent of babies born in the Border region received adequate prenatal care in 1995, compared to 72 percent of babies in non-Border counties. Many Border residents, up to a high of 44 percent of McAllen-Edinburg residents, lack any kind of medical insurance, compared to 23 percent of residents across Texas. The federal government considers nearly four in five Border counties as health professional shortage areas, because of a scarcity of hospital beds, physicians, and other health care personnel. Border residents can count on only 14 physicians and 33 hospital beds per 100,000 population, while other Texas residents draw upon 161 physicians and 403 beds, respectively.

The Border region even ranks last in the U.S. in the proportion of households with a telephone.


Forces of Change

In 1994, the Comptroller published Forces of Change: Shaping the Future of Texas. This unprecedented study of the major issues likely to affect Texas over the next generation identified the predominant patterns and trends, then provided both a current backdrop and an informed speculation of what changes Texas might expect the future to bring by the year 2025. It also made the case for devising a plan to shape those changes into opportunities for all Texans.

Now, under the Forces of Change rubric, the Comptroller has focused on the Border region. The first step was to establish a baseline projection of the area's economy and its demographics, using the best available information and a thorough understanding of how state, national, and global economies might fare over the next generation. This forecast represents one look at the possibilities for tomorrow--what might happen if trends continue. It isn't a fixed future by any means, because even the best forecasts can be thrown off the mark or overrun by unforeseen circumstances, from new technologies to prolonged currency crises to natural disasters and even wars.

With that in mind, Bordering the Future presents a reasonable version of forthcoming events and responsible public policies--some short-term, some that take a longer view--to help Texas and Mexico shape those events to common advantage.

We've also identified the major economic and social issues likely to be in play throughout the borderlands over the next 25 years or so, and studied them in detail (see Focusing on the Border Region). The reader will note that some of these issues are universal in their effects, while others are unique to the Border. Some--illegal immigration or drug trafficking, for example--tend to capture the most headlines, but present few new options for state or local solutions because they are governed by federal policies. Others seem to demand regional strategies that go beyond national efforts into the international arena.

  Sidebar:
Focusing on the Border Region
But all of them resonate with a particular urgency in a region that will likely be the economic foundation of the future in South and West Texas and Northern Mexico.


Growth Without Prosperity?

By every economic indicator, the Texas Border region has been growing rapidly since at least the early 1980s. But growth has not always meant prosperity. For instance, the Comptroller's baseline forecast of the Border economy suggests that real earnings per capita will more than double by 2020. The same forecast suggests that, barring unforeseen changes, the region's standing relative to the rest of the state will still deteriorate during this period.

This report concludes that residents of the Border region must develop higher skills needed for jobs that pay higher wages. Our analysis also finds that jobs will need to continue to multiply on the Mexican side of the border, with the addition of factories and associated transportation, water, and other infrastructure. Northern Mexico's maquiladoras--factories lining the border that depend on low-cost Mexican labor to finish goods for foreign markets--will likely endure as economic magnets. But they must also expand and add jobs to absorb rapid population growth and in-migration from other parts of Mexico. Alternatively, an influx of laborers seeking opportunities in the U.S. could wash out prospective wage gains on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Without these two related forces--improvements in U.S. workers' skills and a continued boom in northern Mexico--along the Texas border, workers could face continuing poverty and end up trapped in a no-win "race to the bottom" against workers in northern Mexico.

The forecast's details are spelled out in "Growth Without Prosperity." But it makes sense here to briefly cover the forces that have shaped the region's economy to date, and how those forces will likely play out through 2020. That discussion naturally starts with U.S.-Mexico trade.

U.S.-Mexico trade has carried on for as long as neighbors hailed one another across the muddy border river. But trade began to gallop only after World War II, surging to annual double-digit percentage increases by 1997. Trade between the two countries grew 13.1 percent per year from 1994 to 1997 (after NAFTA), compared to an annual rate of nearly 11 percent from 1990 to 1994.

The need for dependable, low-wage farm workers in the U.S. has driven much of the early migration from Mexico to Texas. The bracero seasonal worker program was replaced in 1965 by a Border Industrialization Program, which cultivated maquiladoras. From the mid-1970s to the end of 1997, maquila employment grew an average of nearly 12 percent per year.

The Comptroller's review team took a look at how the Border economy might evolve, concluding that the region is in for two decades of both good news and bad.

The Border economy will grow faster than the state economy, adding jobs at an average rate of 2.4 percent through 2020, compared to the state rate of 2 percent. The Border population, estimated to be 6.3 million by 2020, will grow faster than the state's. Nearly 1 million more people will move into the Border region than move out through 2020, and relatively high birth rates will also help spur the population growth.

Low wages, a steady flow of people seeking work, and high unemployment, however, will impede the general prosperity of the Border region. Border wage rates will be suppressed, expected to average 20 percent less than the state average. And the region's jobless rate will remain nearly 3.5 percentage points above the state rate.

Construction, transportation, and business and health services will be the industries responsible for job growth in the Border region for the next 25 years. The annual average wage in the Border will rise to $27,400 (inflation-adjusted) in 2020, up from $21,660 in 1995. Since statewide wages will also increase at approximately the same rate, Border wages will continue to trail wages elsewhere in Texas.

Personal income for many Border residents is largely composed of transfer payments--mainly federal Social Security payments, unemployment insurance, state welfare payments, and other government aid. This share is expected to grow through 2020 primarily because of the aging population and associated increases in Social Security payments, as well as relatively low household incomes and high unemployment.


Bordering the Future

In the pages that follow, fundamental characteristics of the Border region--from health care to the environment--are examined. In "Laying the Foundation," school funding, teacher certification, bilingual education, and academic performance in the Border region are analyzed. "Setting the Framework," illustrates the evolution of state colleges and universities in the Border region into comprehensive regional institutions striving to meet the educational needs of a growing population. Workforce skills development and employment trends in the Border are discussed in "Higher Skills, Better Jobs."

Transportation--infrastructure and manpower needs--is the topic of "Stopped at the Border," and housing affordability, availability, and quality are probed in "Homes of Our Own." The issue of colonias--defined by the federal government as substandard residential communities, incorporated and unincorporated, within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border--is discussed.

Health care accessibility and health conditions on the Texas-Mexico border are examined in "Chronic Conditions." Environmental issues along the Rio Grande, from water to air to hazardous waste, are discussed in "Common Ground."

Crime, particularly the scourge of illegal drugs, is presented in "Line of Fire," and immigration, often the subject of deep ambivalence for both Texans and Mexicans, is pursued in "Crossing the Line."

After laying out crucial issues facing the Border region, this report tackles managing the solutions. In "Who Decides?" topics such as shared governance and planning the Border's future are examined.

In "Building Prosperity," recommendations are outlined. They include creating a center for Border health services and a regional commission patterned after the Appalachian Regional Commission.

It's important to note that the recommendations in this report do not represent an agenda for government alone. Although state and local agencies have key roles to play, common-sense solutions will arise through the best efforts of private businesses, education, health, and environmental experts, as well as concerned citizens from El Paso-Ciudad Juarez to Brownsville-Matamoros, working in concert to secure a future of equal opportunity and prosperity for everyone living in the borderlands.

  Bordering the Future The Economy -->