Bill Moyers examines the issues of immigration, economics and the special relationship that has developed between the U.S. and Mexico by talking to the people of the border who live and work in a world that is both Mexican and American. This program originally aired on CBS on September 3, 1986.
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ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: That river is an illusion; it does not exist. The river is just inconvenient. They’re not aliens here. What’s alien is the perception of people in different parts of the country of what’s happening here.
BILL MOYERS: Fascinating, because up North people look at Mexicans and think of foreigners. Down here, you look at them and think of neighbors.
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: They’re neighbors. They’re us. They’re me. I mean, I’m an Irish-American, but when I was six and seven years old, I didn’t know I wasn’t a Mexican.
MELENA FIELD: I just happen to be born in the United States, but I really consider myself Mexican. (Mexican music)
AL VELARDE: Mexico’s a very proud country, and I don’t think that troops on the border is a good show of being good neighbors.
WOMAN: What is your citizenship, sir?
ERASMO GUERRERO: I wouldn’t even give it a second thought. I would serve with the American forces. The American flag will be my flag.
MAN: Oh yeah. Have we got anybody from Texas out there in the audience right now? (Audience cheering) If you do, let me hear it. Yee-haw!
GARY JACOBS: You and I are sitting today on land that used to belong to them, that we only took away from ’em a few years ago. (Man strumming guitar; says “oh yeah”; starts singing song about Texas)
BILL MOYERS: One hundred and fifty years ago, Texas won its independence from Mexico. Since then, the Anglos have dominated this part of the country, despite its Hispanic past. But even as Texas celebrates its sesquicentennial, an era is passing. Crisis in Mexico has created an exodus of citizens toward the northern lands Mexico lost to the United States in the last century. This is no ordinary immigration, and here on the Texas-Mexican border, you can see why. Along the river that divides the U.S. from Mexico, a third country is emerging. Its inhabitants share family and economic ties but feel isolated from the distant capitals of their two native lands. As tensions rise between Washington and Mexico City over death, drugs and immigration, there are different voices to be heard here on this border. They speak in the accents of One River, One Country.
BILL MOYERS: The Spanish call it the Rio Grande, the “big river”. It’s not that big, not that much of a river. It’s more like an irrigation ditch. For many people, the river is just the way they come to work every morning. These people are coming illegally, from Juarez, Mexico to EI Paso, Texas. They’re practically one city, whose main street is a muddy river, busy each day with rush-hour traffic. Twice as many people live in Juarez, south of the river, as live in El Paso. These northern provinces of Mexico are growing fast, faster even than Mexico City. The border population will double by the end of this century. Impoverished Mexicans looking for work leave the interior of their country to come here. From the hills of Juarez, it’s a short commute by “human taxi” to the fabled promise of the north.
AL VELARDE: These fellows make a living, earning about 25¢ per carry. This-
BILL MOYERS: You mean, he’s charging her about 25¢ to come across?
AL VELARDE: She doesn’t want to get wet. She takes off her shoes and rolls up her pants, gets on the person’s back, and they bring ’em across. See? They do that-and they do this every day, every day.
BILL MOYERS: Al Velarde has watched this morning ritual for 20 years. He runs a Catholic Conference immigration office in EI Paso.
AL VELARDE: Look at — th — there he goes. He’s got plenty of clients. Unemployment, especially for men, is way up around 40, 50%. They’re selling oranges, they’re selling cigarettes. And now it’s gotten to the point that a lot of ’em have turned to selling drugs. That is beginning to be a big problem.
BILL MOYERS: You must want to come to work almost desperately, to come by that commute.
AL VELARDE: Yeah. And you know, this is only one of the-one of the points of crossing. Here, you get past these tracks and you’re right into downtown south El Paso. The south side has no blacks and no whites; it’s all Hispanic.
BILL MOYERS: So you disappear very quickly.
AL VELARDE: So you can — you blend in with the population.
BILL MOYERS: These people are retreating. Why?
AL VELARDE: Yeah. Here comes border patrol. Ah, they’ll just take them to the — to the fence. They’re not going to chase them down any farther. But it’s a cat and mouse game.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. They don’t seem particularly frightened.
AL VELARDE: Naw. Naw. They’re not frightened. They know the system. To me, I see it as an underground foreign exchange of money from here to families over there, and it’s not going through the system of government to government. If they ever shut that off, you could see the impact economically-it would — gonna have to the poor people. But that’s just a li — small, small example of how one city helps the other, and it’s really an illegal system. But it works.
BILL MOYERS: It really is one city, isn’t it?
AL VELARDE: Oh-
BILL MOYERS: In — for all practical purposes?
AL VELARDE: Oh, oh yes. Oh yeah. That — that — that fence, that — that international border, really doesn’t mean a lot because when that city bleeds, we bleed. (Conversation in Spanish)
AL VELARDE: He’s a welder, but he — he doesn’t get paid well over there.
BILL MOYERS: What does he make? (Velarde questioning man in Spanish)
AL VELARDE: If he was being paid the equivalent of American dollars, he would be earning about $20 a week.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty dollars a week?
AL VELARDE: As a welder. (Speaking Spanish and translating) Thirty-five dollars a day, welding in the United States. They’re looking to a system to change. And, you know, when people, again, see that the system on their side is not working and they attempt to come to the United States and they see there’s another system there that’s trying to keep ’em out, okay, you’re gettin’ that sandwich approach. They’re being pressured, pressured. The ∑ government tries to do something for ’em; they can’t. Also, you see the professional now, saying, “I can’t take it anymore.” You’re seeing the secretary, you’re seeing the airline pilots that are coming into my office and saying, “How can you help me?” Doctors, who were the elite who could make it, no longer.
BILL MOYERS: So it’s not just the poor who are coming, it’s the professionals, the middle class.
AL VELARDE: Well, what was middle class two and a half years ago, you question that now.
BILL MOYERS: You think they’re poor now.
AL VELARDE: They’re — they’re hitting on it because, you know, you wake up one morning, and your-and your dollar value is 120, the next day it’s 580, and the next day it’s 600. It just keeps going down, down, down.
BILL MOYERS: You-you lose your purchasing power.
AL VELARDE: Oh yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Is this country in crisis?
AL VELARDE: Very much so. It’s — it’s on a powder keg right now.
BILL MOYERS: Four years ago, it cost Mexican citizens 70 pesos to buy a dollar. Today that dollar costs more than 600 pesos. The price changed daily as we filmed. One symptom of an economy out of control. Already, nearly half the people of Mexico have no work or too little work, and, as the population grows, a million new jobs are needed each year. There is too little money to invest in creating those jobs, too little money to pay the huge national debt. “La Crisis”, the Mexicans call it, and it’s driving them north toward the border, to squatter ghettos, or “colonias” on the edge of America.
AL VELARDE: Most of the Juarez population is on this side of the city, right here. Because they come, they — they squat — it’s — they’re called paracaidistas, parachutists. They hit into this area, they stay here for a certain amount of time, and then they can go to the government and the government will give ’em the title.
BILL MOYERS: Parachutists?
AL VELARDE: Yes. Parachutists. Paracaidistas.
BILL MOYERS: Why do they call them that?
AL VELARDE: They — they land on the piece of land.
BILL MOYERS: They land here from Durango and Sonora and places south.
AL VELARDE: Zacatecas, Aguascalientes. I’m just wondering how many of the kids that we see out here running around are not really U.S. citizens ’cause if a woman has a local border-crossing card, she can go into EI Paso, she can have her child born over there. And they’ve done that, made that sacrifice in the past, and you-
BILL MOYERS: Look at this-look at this T-shirt on this child right there.
AL VELARDE: Yeah. From Nebraska. But I’m sure a lot of these kids were born in the United States and are living over here with their parents.
BILL MOYERS: Ask him where he’s from?
AL VELARDE (questioning child in Spanish): There’s a U.S. citizen right there. He was born in EI Paso.
BILL MOYERS: Where does he live?
AL VELARDE (questioning child in Spanish): He’s got brothers and he’s got cousins who were born in the United States and live here.
BILL MOYERS: Will he-when he grows up, will he live over there?
AL VELARDE (questioning child in Spanish): Hey, I don’t know. I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: What’d he say?
AL VELARDE: He found out that he was gonna be on national television. . He’s all excited now.
BILL MOYERS: Well, ask him, do — do — do you watch American television?
BILL MOYERS: What do you watch?
AL VELARDE:: Baseball, the — the soap operas. (Excerpt from soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and TV commercial)
BILL MOYERS: Nothing stops at this border, especially the allure of America. The contrast can be startling. The images and appetites of America’s way of life transmitted to a people whose standard of living has barely changed in a century. (General town hubbub: music, people talking, children shouting) There’s no border like it anywhere, no place the Third World so dramatically joins the First. The two worlds meet on this river. They meet, and merge. All along the Rio Grande, from El Paso a thousand miles to Brownsville by the Gulf of Mexico, you will find the poorest poor in America. If Mexico catches the economic measles, the U.S. cities on this river break out in spots. As Mexico gets poorer, shoppers have less money to spend on American goods in American shops. Businesses on the border are closing up. Unemployment has reached 25%. (Dog barking)
In some places, the Third World itself has crossed the Rio Grande. This only looks like the Mexican side of the border. It’s actually Texas. Here, as south of the border, there are squatter ghettoes of people too poor to afford anything else. Some are legal residents; some are here illegally.
WOMAN: Where was she born? (Woman repeating questions in Spanish; woman responding)
WOMAN: In Florida.
BILL MOYERS: A population growing bigger and poorer by the day is straining public health care to the limit. The patient load at Brownsville’s free clinic has doubled in the last two years. (Baby crying) And at El Paso’s public hospital, more and more bills go unpaid.
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: We have a hospital that will write off $37-million to indigent health care. That’s not just illegal alien. It’s the poverty that is increasing in this community here. The wealth here is not increasing at all; we’re getting poorer. More of our people are needing that help, so …
BILL MOYERS: Judge Pat O’Rourke is the chief executive of El Paso County. He became so frustrated this year at the lack of money to pay for the health care of the poor that he sent the federal government a bill for $7-million in hospital costs. After all, he says, this is an international border. It creates problems a single city cannot handle.
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: You always have to look at the full name of this community is El Paso del Norte, the Pass of the North. And from the last 415 years, from the Spaniards to the French to the Mexicans, they have always come through this pass of the north, and it is the natural land passage to economic opportunity.
BILL MOYERS: You grew up here?
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: Yes, I did.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve seen it change visibly, literally?
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: Visibly and literally.
BILL MOYERS: Dramatically?
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: Dramatically in my lifetime.
BILL MOYERS: What do you see now that you didn’t see when you were a kid, or a high school student over there?
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: Numbers. Numbers of people. Just enormous numbers of people. When I grew up 20, 30 years ago, Juarez was half the size of El Paso. Now it’s three to four times our size. The influx of people from the interior to the border who are seeking economic advantage in the United States or relief from their problems has become so great that it’s just now an unmanageable problem here. But if I were living over there, and my child needed help from dehydration or from any disease, and I saw that hospital down there that could provide that help, and they don’t have the health care delivery system available in Juarez, I would take my child and I would walk across that six-inch river, six inches deep, and I’d save my child’s life. I’d do the same thing those people are doing. But we don’t have a way to answer that problem locally. If you snap the resource back of this border, you’ll break it down to the point where we don’t any mor — any longer export our — our technology and know-how; we’re going to import the poverty of Mexico.
BILL MOYERS: When you come out of your house right up that street and look out over that border, what do you see?
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: I see my community. I really do see my community. I — I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. I grew up here. When I was a kid, I’d get on the streetcar and go to Juarez and-and go to the cine, the movie, over there. That’s my community. These-these people are my friends, they’re my neighbors. And they have a world of hurt on ’em. And there’s not anybody that really has enough resource base in this part of the country to address their world of hurt. Soon, our infrastructure begins to fall apart here, and then it’s all going to roll backwards, and then you’re really going to see how poor we’re getting on the border.
BILL MOYERS: And then you’ll see, really, how that border isn’t a border.
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: That’s right. It’s all one community. (Mexican singing song, subtitled translation shown on screen) (Subtitles): “Mexican by ancestry” “American by destiny” I am of the golden race” “I am Mexican-American”
BILL MOYERS: They sing of their past and their future. Mexican by ancestry, American by destiny. (Song continuing, with subtitles) “Zacatecas to Minnesota” “from Tijuana to New York” “Two countries are my home” “with honor I’ll defend them”
BILL MOYERS: This is neither Mexico nor the United States. This is the border. They’re people of the border, with traditions and family ties that crisscross the river and connect them to the old world and the new. Something different is growing up here — a border culture and a border economy. For American industry, northern Mexico is both marketplace and manufacturer’s paradise. Hundreds of U.S. companies have factories here, making everything from auto parts to television sets at Mexican-style wages. (Woman speaking Spanish) They are assembly plants, called maquiladoras, from the Spanish word for assembly. American parts are brought here, assembled and shipped back across the river. The maquiladoras are mushrooming. Mexico gets nearly $2-billion a year in foreign exchange from the exports. American industry saves on labor costs. A quarter of a million Mexicans work for the maquiladoras. Most are young, female, just up from the village, working for the first time. Almost overnight, they have crossed a century into the age of high tech. (Spanish music playing at assembly plant. The rhythm of the music is Mexican; the rhythm of the machines, American. Productivity in these plants often exceeds U.S. levels, something that pleases plant managers like General Motors’ Jack Roettinger.
JACK ROETTINGER: We are constructing the rear-body wiring harness that goes into all General Motors automobiles for assembly in the United States.
BILL MOYERS: These are the electrical wires that run to the backup lights?
JACK ROETTINGER: To the backup lights, the turn signals and to the license lamp.
BILL MOYERS: How important is this plant to — to General Motors?
JACK ROETTINGER: If one of these wiring harnesses doesn’t get built, an automobile goes down the assembly line without this wiring harness in it.
BILL MOYERS: This wiring doesn’t get done then, no car gets built.
JACK ROETTINGER: That’s right. We are a single-source plant, as all of our plants are.
BILL MOYERS: Okay. What about their wages? What do these young people make?
JACK ROETTINGER: Well, the wages, obviously, are — are on the Mexican wage scale, and — and we follow those standards as a maquila industry.
BILL MOYERS: So, what are those?
JACK ROETTINGER: The numbers are — are ever-changing. The minimum wage has just gone under a — a new adjustment. It will be a 25% increase of 1600 and — I believe it’s 1640 pesos a day for the minimum wage.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s about, under the new devaluation, about three dollars.
JACK ROETTINGER: I believe that’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Is that an hour or a day?
JACK ROETTINGER:. Well that’s per day.
BILL MOYERS: Per day?
JACK ROETTINGER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Some make more than the minimum wage. Eighty-two cents an hour is considered good pay. And there are fringe benefits provided by the companies. Cafeterias, for example. And lunch coupons to reward good attendance. This could be the workers’ best meal of the day. The factories are a world away from where most live, in the shantytowns of makeshift houses that are all they can afford when they arrive from Mexico’s interior. Marta Corral came to Juarez from Durango.
MARTA CORRAL (through translator): There’s no work over there. There’s no industry over there. So-and here there is. There’s work. So this is why she came.
BILL MOYERS: Where does she work?
TRANSLATOR (questioning Marta in Spanish): She-she works at Exis. Exis is a maquiladora.
BILL MOYERS: That’s one of the twin plants.
BILL MOYERS: What does she do there?
TRANSLATOR: She’s a solderer. She solders.
BILL MOYERS: So she makes about $20 a week.
BILL MOYERS: Her husband works as a carpenter. Together, they support an extended family of 10 people. The money means survival. But life in this new world on the border means changes, changes that concern social workers like Sister Julie Slowic.
SISTER JULIE SLOWIC: Their time is — is consumed by the — by the maquiladoras, you know, and their children are left with — sometimes with other family, with mothers and so forth. And often, when they grow up, both father and mother are working, and the youth are on the streets. And they form gangs, called cholos, that become very destructive in the neighborhoods. And it is a real reflection on the family life that is being tom apart.
BILL MOYERS: So here on the border we’re seeing the disintegration of one traditional culture-
SISTER JULIE SLOWIC: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — and the emergence of a wholly new culture for these people.
SISTER JULIE SLOWIC: Yes. It is a culture shock for them. And the frontera itself is a culture shock for — for anyone who-who comes from the interior here.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
SISTER JULIE SLOWIC: Well, the — just the mode of living, the speed of liv — to produce all day at some — on an assembly line is not part of the very nature of a — of a Mexicano, and so they have to adapt to the American way of doing things.
BILL MOYERS: The American way of doing things infiltrates far more than economics on this border. It’s easy to cross legally. So easy, it’s a daily routine for Mexicans who come to shop, to work, even to go to school in America. (Children singing song about Texas) The schools of Brownsville, Texas are getting almost 1500 new students each year, just about all of them Mexican-Americans. Four years ago, the Supreme Court ordered Brownsville to educate the children born here of illegal immigrants. The children are U.S. citizens. Now the school district is the biggest business in town, building 194 new classrooms this year alone. Many children live with their parents in Mexico, even if they are U.S. citizens. Principal Roberto Rodriguez knows his classrooms serve two nations.
ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: I may have as many as a hundred pupils who live across the river.
BILL MOYERS: Out of how many?
ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: Out of s-700. We have a really delicate problem, and that is that if children are born in the United States but live in Mexico, and we refuse to educate them here, in Mexico, because they are U.S. citizens, they won’t be educated at all. So if — if we won’t educate them here, and they won’t be educated in Mexico, they won’t be educated at all. So the choice is rather clear for us.
BILL MOYERS: What do you do?
ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: We educate ’em.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the rest of the country understands what you’re doing here, what you’re up against?
ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: No.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me if you think I’m wrong. I get the impression that this is neither Mexico nor America, that there’s something new happening here.
ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, it’s call the frontier. In Mexico, they call it “la frontera” and it’s really a frontier. And that’s really what’s happening here. That river is a — a phantasm. That river is an illusion. It does not exist. There’s a — there’s an economic block that takes — that goes a hundred miles into Mexico and a hundred miles into Texas. That’s real. The river is just inconvenient. (Children reciting in classroom)
BILL MOYERS: Erasmo Guerrero has crossed the Rio Grande so many times he’s lost count. Like many of the children in this fourth grade class, he grew up on both sides of the border; first in Reynosa, Mexico, then in Brownsville, Texas.
ERASMO GUERRERO: I relate to them very well. I can understand where they’re coming from. I was 13 years old when we came to this country. My father wanted to provide a better life for us and better educational opportunities for us.
BILL MOYERS: His father used false papers to bring the family across the bridge. Guerrero didn’t know for years that he was living here illegally.
ERASMO GUERRERO: There had been some rumbling, and we had heard some things about it, but noth — nothing had happened. And I realized that if I wanted to — to have a-my lifetime teaching certificate here in Texas, I was going to have to apply for my — my naturalization papers. So I went down to the Immigration Office and I got the applications and the paperwork and I was filling it out. And I came to questions that — a question that-on that form that said, “Have you ever done anything illegal here in the United States?” Some reason-somehow, I couldn’t answer that “no”. I just couldn’t answer it. I couldn’t answer it. It-it bugged me. I had embraced this country with all that I had to give, and all of a sudden I’m-I’m here and I’m really not here. I have to-I have to do something — you know, they told us, “You have to do something to — to — to fix this problem.”
BILL MOYERS: What did you do?
ERASMO GUERRERO: Well, the only other thing was to re-immigrate. And it’s just a matter of getting that piece of paper that would say that I was here legally, but in my mind I had been here illegally.
BILL MOYERS: Guerrero got the piece of paper and is now a U.S. citizen. When he takes his American-born wife and their two children back to his hometown of Reynosa, just across the border, he is part American tourist, part pilgrim, searching for his family’s roots and part just a neighbor, strolling to the other side of town.
ERASMO GUERRERO: Okay, look, Daniel. This is where your daddy used to play, right here in the square. Sometimes I think about it, and I — I realize that I — I am from two cities and from two countries. I — I think I’ve inherited two cultures. My own culture, from Mexico, what I grew up with, and — and I came to love and appreciate, and my new culture. All right, Daniel.
WOMAN: What color you want?
ERASMO GUERRERO: I — I think it’s — it’s just wonderful for me to raise my children in this environment. I tell ’em that that’s where Daddy came from and that they have a part in their own blood from that, but that they’re Americans first and Mexicans second. I tell them about how lucky we are to have this — this twin identity, that we should be proud of it and never hide it and never be ashamed of it. You weave the two cultures together, and it becomes almost like a new country.
BILL MOYERS: In a new country, old ideas of nationality no longer apply. On the border, identity is a state of mind. Take the employees of this computer software company in EI Paso.
MAN: Tim, this is Javier from the Holgang Corporation. The problem that you have right now, Tim, is that the paragar is not communicating with the port.
BILL MOYERS: Meet Javier Murgua.
JAVIER MURGUA: You have to check that.
MELENA FIELD: — the personnel and general administration. This class is gonna take place next week and what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna schedule …
BILL MOYERS: Melena Field.
SALVADOR NUNEZ: — digitized points and choose to digitize item number six. It tells you the types of …
BILL MOYERS: Salvador Nunez. (Man speaking in Spanish)
BILL MOYERS: They grew up in Mexico but are U.S. citizens. What nationality are they?
MELENA FIELD: I knew I was a U.S. citizen, but it didn’t make any difference to me, because I grew up-up here, so it didn’t really matter.
BILL MOYERS: How do you think of yourself now, as-as an American, as a Mexican, as a Mexican-American, as-
MELENA FIELD: I really think I’m a U.S. citizen, but really Mexican.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
MELENA FIELD: I mean, I know I’m a U.S. citizen, but I consider myself Mexican.
SALVADOR NUNEZ: Well, some of us were here in the elementary schools, and all of a sudden we became aware that you must be citizenship — citizen of a particular country, and I realize — beginning to ask myself, ”Where am I a citizen from?” And I asked my parents. They told me, “You’re a U.S. citizen.” There was some surprise there ’cause the only national anthem I knew at that time was the one I’d learned in school, was the s — one from Mexico.
BILL MOYERS: The Mexican national anthem?
SALVADOR NUNEZ: That’s right.
JAVIER MURGUA: When you’re real small, you don’t think about these kind of things. Actually, when you start to make a decision as to whether you’re going to live over here in Mexico or — or in the United States, that’s really — really when you start thinking whether I’m an American or a Mexican. And it’s really hard to identify yourself as a Mexican-American. I really like to think of myself as a Mexican who chose to live in the U.S.
BILL MOYERS: By choice?
JAVIER MURGUA: By choice.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you choose it?
JAVIER MURGUA: Because of the opportunity that it brought to my career.
MELENA FIELD: I have to live there. I’m a U.S. citizen. As — the minute I turned 18 years old, I couldn’t live here anymore.
BILL MOYERS: And work.
MELENA FIELD: I couldn’t work here anymore. So I had to survive. I had to go where I — I belonged, which was the United States.
BILL MOYERS: And yet you really do, for all practical matters, belong in both places.
MELENA FIELD: That’s right;
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that the people up north know about the kind of culture, the kind of world, this border is?
MELENA FIELD: I don’t think they all do. I think there’s a lot of training required sometimes. It’s amazing. I have a friend that owns a big, big store here in Juarez, and the first thing that came out of her, she says, “I am throwing away all the ashtrays that show the little charos with the sombreros on ’em,” she goes, ”because the Americans will come, and they expect to see Juarez the way they see those ashtrays.” She goes, “So I don’t sell them anymore.” And I could relate to that so well because there’s just a misunderstanding. You know, it’s — we keep selling these things because they’re cute and people just keep it in their minds as that’s the way Mexico is, and it’s definitely different. And it’s sad that people in the United States, in a lot of areas, are very ignorant about Mexico. So it’s a matter of explaining to them, understanding, and taking them around and showing them.
BILL MOYERS: Do they ever say, “Wait a minute. Whose side are you on?
MELENA FIELD: Not necessarily. I don’t think I’ve ever had that problem.
JAVIER MURGUA: Why take sides? I mean, why do you have to take a side? That’s the whole issue, I think. Why you have to declare yourself as sometimes being on — for the Mexicans or for the Americans?
ANNOUNCER: Americans. We know who we are. And when it comes to news, we know who we trust.
BILL MOYERS: This is one image of the border, the familiar image. Border patrol agents struggle to stem the tide of illegal immigrants. Law enforcement officers check out reports of drug smugglers. The Reagan Administration has declared this border a kind of war zone. Some of the people who live on the front line think it’s just in time.
JULIA MONSEES: There are no lights on on this property, ever, at night. Never. Because you’re a target.
BILL MOYERS: Hmm. The river’s over there.
JULIA MONSEES: That’s right. . Right on the other side.
BILL MOYERS: So you get folks coming up through here.
JULIA MONSEES: Through here. Sweetheart, they’ve got regular trails. They come up right this side of that levee. There are trails all through there. There must be four or five. When they come in to pick up what is dropped, they’ll go down Taylor’s Road, which is now barricaded. That doesn’t stop them anyway ’cause they cut through the field.
BILL MOYERS: You think some of it’s drugs?
JULIA MONSEES: Of course it’s drugs. This is the old 8-70. This is the one I carry so much. You see it’s rusted here. From carrying it around.
BILL MOYERS: Now, do you fire this mostly as warning?
JULIA MONSEES: No, dear. I’m a crack shot.
BILL MOYERS: You must feel as if you’re on some kind of front line here.
JULIA MONSEES: You are, dear heart. What do you think this is? The Fourth of July picnic?
BILL MOYERS: That’s one image of the border. (Mexican music playing) There is another, quite different, image. To many of the people who live here, the meeting of these cultures creates a festival of opportunity. Their greeting to Mexico is not “keep out” but “welcome”. They want the business. It was a big day when the Laredo National Bank reached a billion dollars in assets, to become the richest bank on the border. It celebrated with a big party for its clients from both countries.
BILL MOYERS: The bank’s loans helped finance industrial development on the Mexican side. (People talking at musical celebration) For bank president Gary Jacobs, a good-neighbor policy is simply good business.
WOMAN: I will be eternally grateful. But don’t you (indistinct) to invest in Mexico.
BILL MOYERS: Money crosses the border here the way people do. The casas de cambio, the houses of change, are thriving. Legal and illegal immigrants buy dollars to send home to their families in Mexico. (Man speaking in Spanish) It’s here on the border that wealthy Mexicans have brought billions of dollars in capital for safe-keeping in the U.S. And it’s here that trade between Mexico and the United States means jobs on both sides of the river. To Gary Jacobs, it all adds up to a case for an open border, without economic walls. He has carried the argument to Washington.
GARY JACOBS: There is no constituency for the border. There has been absolutely no recognition of what the Mexican-U.S. border is all about. And it makes absolutely no sense for the United States, in my opinion, to pursue bilateral trade policies with Korea or Singapore or Taiwan that discriminate in favor of those jurisdictions, when we have 80-million people living in Mexico, most just wanting to produce, to improve themselves, to work, to earn a decent living, and we do exactly the opposite. We’ve got all kinds of special-interest groups in Washington trying to pass trade legislation that absolutely, specifically discriminates against anything that’s produced competitively in the Republic of Mexico. Here we have this huge neighbor to the south. This Administration is legitimately concerned about problems in Central America. You know, what’s the root of those problems? I think it’s abject poverty. Look. Here’s a little town, Columbia. It’s a great little town. And I’ll bet the per capita income in Columbia is not $800 a year.
BILL MOYERS: You know, Gary, the-I’m sitting here thinking I’m back in the 19th century. I mean, she’s spending hours today, doing her wash. She’s going to hang it all — she’s done it all by hand-
GARY JACOBS:‘ Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: -she’s going to put it up there all-
GARY JACOBS: And how far away from the border? About a thousand feet. Right?
BILL MOYERS: Th — the river’s down there.
GARY JACOBS: Yeah. Fifteen hundred feet, maximum.
BILL MOYERS: See those kids over there?
GARY JACOBS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: What’s going to happen to them? What kind of work can they do around here now?
GARY JACOBS: When they’re 15 or 16, or — or maybe just a few years older, they might go to work on a farm or a ranch. But there’s no job opportunity for them in this immediate area that’s going to teach them any new skills, that’s going to teach them to be economically self-sufficient. The United States government should focus most of its energy for the next five or six years on trying to develop some kind of massive border industrialization effort. If you industrialize the border — those people are Mexican nationals. They love their country. They don’t love the United States. They don’t come to the United States out of admiration for the culture of the United States. They come because they’re looking for work, so if you give ’em work on the border and create a decent working environment that they can make a living, I think they will stay along the border ’cause that’s where their culture is.
BILL MOYERS: You know, you said “this is their culture,” but the fact of the matter is it’s — it’s your culture too. It’s Gary Jacobs’ culture too. There’s a new kind of culture on this border. What is it that those of you who live here understand about the foreign policies of the two countries that the rest of us don’t see from afar?
GARY JACOBS: Well, the United States does not have a foreign policy towards Mexico, in my opinion, for one thing, and I don’t think it — it has had for the last 30 or 40 years. The United States has taken Mexico for granted. I went to the State Department early in the Reagan Administration-of course, I’ve gone every Administration — and I talked to a high-level — level State Department idiot who said that he was not the least bit concerned about Mexico’s liquidity crisis or any other crisis in Mexico because they have always “muddled through” — quote — and they are going to “muddle through” this time.
BILL MOYERS: Traditional ways of doing things are not likely to bring Mexico the growth in jobs needed to stave off disaster. The jobs and foreign exchange already created by American plants are not enough. So Gary Jacobs advocates a grander scheme, one he believes would create more jobs for these Mexican workers. He is urging Washington to make Mexico the most favored nation we trade with, removing roadblocks to trade and providing incentives that would bring new plants to both sides of the border. The jobs the U.S. has been losing abroad would come here, close enough to home to help Mexico and America.
GARY JACOBS:‘ I think that some bilateral trade policies that discriminate against nations that we have given a very, very most favored nation status-Korea, Taiwan, et cetera-for years; Japan, if you will-Mexico should become the highest-agenda item and we ought to transfer a lot of that production to the U.S.-Mexican border, not cause I live here, because it’s in the absolute selfish interest of every American to see Mexico prosper.
BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about a new economy.
GARY JACOBS: A different kind of economy, with our most important neighbor and trading partner.
BILL MOYERS: Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, exporting to America products ranging from bricks to steel, but US trade barriers keep Mexican exports below the level allowed many other countries. This brick-and-tile factory employs 220 workers. Many make $3.25 a day. Owner Augustin Villarreal and his son Isaac say they could make more bricks and hire more people if they could sell more to the United States.
ISAAC VILLARREAL: I think the border is one country. If the border is closed or the duties are up, the countervailing duties or whatever, the border will be a closed country. Closed. A dead country.
AUGUSTIN VILLARREAL: We have problems here now. Our economy right now, the duties that we have to pay in some of our products are very high. For example, the floor tile. In the floor tile, we pay 38%-
BILL MOYERS: Thirty-eight percent tax?
AUGUSTIN VILLARREAL: Thirty-eight percent.
BILL MOYERS: Just to sell.
ISAAC VILLARREAL: Just to sell. Just to cross the border, as an import tax. And-
BILL MOYERS: So that adds to the cost of-
ISAAC VILLARREAL: Actually costs to — so it’s difficult to compete against the other producers in United States. We need to export. There’s no reason this plant be on the border if we do not export to United States.
AUGUSTIN VILLARREAL: We owe too much money to the United States. Most of the industry and the government inclusive.
BILL MOYERS: The debt. You owe a lot of money.
ISAAC VILLARREAL: Yes.
AUGUSTIN VILLARREAL: So the only way to pay is that United States — the government of the United States let us to export our productions to United States.
BILL MOYERS: So you can earn dollars to payoff that debt.
AUGUSTIN VILLARREAL: To pay it. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And you’re not asking for foreign aid, you’re just asking for commerce, for trade, for business.
ISAAC VILLARREAL: Yes. That’s — that’s all.
AUGUSTIN VILLARREAL: That’s all we ask. Commerce. Free commerce.
GARY JACOBS: Why shouldn’t we have a different policy for Mexico than we do the rest of the world? I mean, after all, didn’t the Marshall Plan rebuild Western Europe, and what — what-what’s so distasteful about recognizing the realities of the relationship the United States has with Mexico and have a bilateral policy with Mexico that’s different from what we have with the rest of the world? We-those — those other countries don’t need our help today.
BILL MOYERS: You think we should single Mexico out for spe-
GARY JACOBS: Special treatment. Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: But John Q. Public out there, listening to Gary Jacobs, is going to say, ”Wait a minute, Mr. Jacobs. Please tell me why we should single out for special treatment a country that our own government has said is deeply corrupted, cannot pay its debt, won’t come to grips with its population explosion and is supplying America with all these drugs.” Why special treatment for that kind of a government, that kind of a country?
GARY JACOBS: Well, I don’t think it’s that bad, but I think Americans, for the most part, really need to become a lot more tolerant of deficiencies that they perceive to exist in the Mexican society, and — and try to look at the strong points and the resources that the United States could work with, in kind of a joint venture, to help Mexico through her troubled times, which would inure to the benefit of both countries.
BILL MOYERS: Are you — excuse the term — are you a liberal Democrat?
GARY JACOBS: No. (Laughing) I co-chaired with the mayor of Laredo the Committee to Re-Elect Ronald Reagan and George Bush and to elect Phil Gramm, and I’ve been a Republican since I began voting, and-
BILL MOYERS: But whose side are you on? You sound as if you’re on Mexico’s side.
GARY JACOBS: Well, I’m on our side. And — and in this particular case, what’s good for the United States is also good for Mexico; what’s good for Mexico is good for the United States. (Man singing “Beat the Drum Slowly”)
BILL MOYERS: The first time I came to this border many years ago, I was impressed with the things that made Mexico and the United States so different: language and faith, philosophy and the past. They met here warily, rudely or violently. They clashed or embraced and retreated again. The border was just their camping ground. (Music continues) It’s different now. The crisis in Mexico is real, and what once divided the two nations here has faded in significance. This is one river, one country; its culture and people are unique. They’re American and they’re not; they’re Mexican and they’re not. They need to be heard; their view of life here is far more accurate than the crude visions of the border held by their distant governments. The capital of this country is reality. The people live it, face to face, neighbors instead of enemies, and the neighborhood’s in trouble.
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: We, as neighbors have a problem, and we as neighbors need to solve it. And if that means the industrialization or a Marshall Plan in northern Mexico, then I think we have to do it.
BILL MOYERS: But, Judge-
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: And-and the other part of that is, we can send a greater signal, right here in EI Paso and Juarez and northern Mexico, to all of Central and South America than we can by sending $100-million into Nicaragua to fight a war we don’t understand.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think when you heard President Reagan asked for $120-million in aid to the contras?
JUDGE PAT O’ROURKE: It made me sick. And that’s not un-American and it’s not undemocratic. A hundred and twenty million dollars on the border here could do more to bolster the American in the eyes of the Mexican and the Central and South American than anything in the world we could ever do with guns and ships and planes. You look at — at the foreign policy development groups in the United States — the Atlantic Council, the European Marshall Plan. Everything is couched in terms of Atlantic, Europe, England. Here’s where the future is. Millions and millions of people. We have never had a foreign policy, we’ve never had a federal policy that addresses Mexico, that asks them to join us and considers them as our equal, as our friends, as our neighbors.
BILL MOYERS: To learn more about Hispanic culture and our relations with Mexico, the Library of Congress suggests these books: The Tarnished Door: The New Immigrants and the Transformation of America by John Crewdson; The Border Economy by Niles Hansem; Hispanic Culture in the Southwest by Arthur L. Campa. These and many other books are waiting for you in your library and bookstores. Visit them. They’ll be happy to help you read more about it.
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.