A border fence with a hole big enough for Mexican trucks

A globalization paradox: How do you keep terrorists and illegal immigrants out, but let cheap truckers in?

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 20, 2007 6:51PM (EDT)

On Tuesday, a House Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection held a hearing on "Cross-Border Trucking Threats." At one point, Stephen Russell, the founder, chairman and CEO of Celadon Group Inc., one of the dozen largest trucking companies in the United States, compared the situation in North America to that of Europe.

If you put yourself in Europe and were a pasta maker in Venice and had an order to ship pasta in a truckload to Amsterdam, it wouldn't go in an Italian truck to the French border, a French truck to the Belgian border, Belgian truck to the Dutch border, Dutch truck to Amsterdam. It would be taken by an Italian truck or a Dutch truck going through.

And that's how it works for Canadian truckers in North America -- they drive from Canada across the border into the U.S. and then back again. But not Mexican truckers. They must unhook their trailers just south of the border, where their cargo is transferred by local trucking companies across the customs line and then shifted to American trucks. For years, the Bush administration has been attempting to fulfill a requirement of NAFTA that would permit Mexican truckers the same freedom to operate as Canadian truckers. A pilot program is supposed to allow 100 Mexican trucking companies to start hauling goods across the border this summer, but has been delayed by congressional opposition.

Resistance to letting Mexican truckers roam the U.S. interstate highway system has been orchestrated by an odd-bedfellows alliance of environmental organizations, independent truckers and the Teamsters Union. But at the subcommittee hearing there were only glancing references to the concerns often expressed by such groups as to the safety or environmental cleanliness of Mexican trucks. This was an opportunity for politicians to bolster their homeland security profiles. So there was much grandstanding by both Democrats and Republicans, who asked what they hoped would seem like tough questions about how security would be enforced at the border. How accurate are the databases of truck drivers? How would we know where the truckers go after they cross the border? How do we determine which trucks would be designated high-risk and require closer attention? There were imposing references to all kinds of technological fix-it solutions: "large-scale X-ray and gamma imaging systems and a variety of radiation portal detection devices."

It was all a waste of hot air. The real issue underlying the Mexican trucker controversy is not terrorism or the environment. It's economic. Mexican truckers cost less per mile than either American truckers or Canadian truckers. The American Trucking Association and big trucking companies like Celadon support opening up cross-border trucking, because the big trucking companies are multinational operations that own fleets of Mexican trucks in addition to their American and Canadian trucks. They'd love to be able to use their cheaper Mexican fleets to transport goods all the way to the ultimate point of destination. Independent truckers would face tougher competition, so they are naturally opposed.

If we define one slice of "globalization" as the effort of multinational corporations to cut costs by exploiting cheaper labor overseas, then the Mexican trucker fight offers as good a demonstration as one could hope to find on how fraught with contradictions the whole project is. Globalization requires more permeable borders while security concerns demand bigger walls. But bigger walls -- the creation of an impregnable Fortress America in which no al-Qaida sleeper cell, illegal immigrant, or pollution-belching Mexican trucks can get through -- could just as easily fuel the kind of anti-American resentment that makes achieving true security impossible. And attempting to protect the standard-of-living differential that exists between the U.S. and Mexico (by, for example, keeping cheaper Mexican truckers out) only serves to maintain the very imbalance that spurs people to cross the border, legally or illegally, in the first place.

Raul Salinas, the mayor of Laredo, Texas, a city in which 13,000 trucks go back and forth across the border every single day, made an interesting point in his testimony to the subcommittee. If the U.S. wants assurances as to the safety and security of the Mexican drivers coming across the border, then it needs good relationships with Mexican authorities.

You know, one of the problems that we have today is that, if we don't establish databases, if we don't have the informants, the confidential informants, if we don't have dialogue with our neighbors, here we are thinking about -- well, I think it goes beyond thinking about building a wall, you know. We ought to be building bridges of friendship.

And really, that's where we have a little bit of a problem. How do I expect to work with our counterparts, with our business people on the other side, when we're going to build a fence?

Raul Salinas is the mayor of a city that is an integral part of a metropolitan area that spans the border, so his discomfort with anything that makes cross-border interaction harder is easy to understand. He'd much rather the border between the U.S. and Mexico was like the border between, say, France and Spain.

How the World Works has previously explored how, during the process of European Union integration, fears were often expressed that opening the borders of the European community to poorer countries like Spain and Portugal would result in a flood of cheaper labor and consequent economic misfortune for the working classes of the richer countries. It didn't work out that way at all, but the exact same fears are now playing out with respect to the integration of the latest new EU members from Eastern Europe.

Integrating Mexico into a North American equivalent of the EU poses much greater challenges than EU integration. The economic disparities are greater, the border is bigger, the cultural animosities more intense. And it doesn't help at all that the chief advocates of making it easier to cross the border are those who want to exploit the cost savings possible by shipping goods in Mexican trucks. True security will only come when Mexican truckers are paid as well as American or Canadian truckers. Want cross-border trucking? How about a cross-border trucker's union?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization Homeland Security How The World Works Immigration Immigration Reform Latin America Mexico