Review: Vanishing Frontiers

Salvatore Esquibel Global, Politics & Society, Reviews Leave a Comment

Andrew Selee’s Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together

In Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario or in Netflix’s near-obsessive depiction of Pablo Escobar in shows like Narcos, there is a tendency to impose on the viewer images of a Central America mired in violence and corruption, a popular conception which is best recapitulated by a US President whose coup de grace solution is a physical wall. These conceptions, of course, proceed from what we see, but sometimes even that is unreliable. It is the goal of Andrew Selee’s book, Vanishing Frontiers, to elucidate such conceptions and provide an up to date account of the American-Mexican relationship and just how the two have fared in an era that has seemingly poised them to be ever hostile.

Though he never says it directly, Selee is addressing claims that are generally promulgated by the right-wing, namely, that illegal and unskilled Mexicans will come by the hordes across the border because Mexico is poor, has a severely corrupt government, and is bereft of any sort of industry. Just last week an article was published stressing that President-elect Lopez’s decision to restructure the government will result in an increase in corruption and violence and more and more Mexicans who’d want to leave such an environment.

But Selee’s tone is not confrontational. He says, rather calmly, that most average Americans aren’t privy to the extent to which Mexico has become a component of their daily lives. He also points out that most American jobs in industries like nail and steel production were saved largely by Mexican business. Tackling the idea that Mexicans are unskilled, he explains that almost all unskilled labour left Mexico once cheap production moved to China. The resulting deficiency of jobs required an educated population skilled in professions from engineering to IT. The surplus of educated workers led to significant transformations in cities like Tijuana and Guadalajara, where the former now conducts binational projects with San Diego and the latter is Mexico’s analog to Silicon Valley, with companies like HP, Intel, and IBM investing in R&D. A middle class is developing, infrastructure is modernizing,  and investments, valued in the billions, are on the rise. Previously destitute cities are increasingly becoming innovation economies. The result is that Mexico is now experiencing an economic hump whereby years of high migration are followed by years of low migration in the wake of upward economic development.

What most right-wing claims seemingly refuse to acknowledge is that migrants are not always keen on migrating. It’s financial and social circumstances that force them to find alternatives. But leaving one’s family is not fun, and leaving one’s life behind isn’t either. Now that cities are becoming safer and economically viable, there is little need to migrate. Still, one detractor is that the book sometimes feels like it’s being one sided on topics like migration and NAFTA. Vanishing Frontiers begins its story in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, one of the first cities to deal with illegal immigration. In recent years, however, Mexican migration into the United States has lessened and American migration has risen; this despite, however, the continued presence of drug-related violence.

Hollywood depictions of Mexico almosy always portray a unilateral system of justice whereby the DEA drives with guns aho to some Mexican city to extradite a criminal or corrupt politician who’s come clean. In reality, though, DEA and Mexican agents work together on both sides of the border. The truth is that Cartels are as present in the US but are harder to find since violence, habitually used as an indicator for gang activity, is not as widespread or common and so their operations are harder to find. Often they hide in plain sight as wealthy owners of prized racehorses and private jets. Information sharing, then, serves to help both sides way more than the top-down approach often suggests.

The notion that rule of law in Mexico warrants review as citizen activism and the rise of a strong middle class has pushed judiciary reform nationwide. Cities like Tijuana have reduced violence and gang participation by raising awareness and engaging in all kinds of social activism.

The book’s upshot, implied in its title, is that there are forces that necessitate greater interaction between the two countries, but the reader is left thinking just what these forces are.  What force can be strong enough to catalyze reformation to rule of law, flourish of industry, and power of innovation such that two countries, historically so opposed as to be wary of one another, are now cooperating on unprecedented levels?

In 1990, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl advised then-President Carlos Salinas that, in the wake of the fall of the USSR and consequent end of the Cold War, what matters most in the 21st century will not be a country’s military arsenal but its infrastructure, economy, and power of innovation. Being a member of an economic bloc would make it easier to transform the country. George H. W. Bush recognized this as well and, after tiresome and involved negotiation with all North American nations, NAFTA was signed.Helmut Kohl’s suggestion was entirely correct, as most of Mexico’s present successes are due to its membership in NAFTA.

Interregional competition necessitates that countries within the same bloc cooperate with each other in ways that surpass cultural and political limitations. This sort of economic interdependence seems to be exclusive to the 21st century, with the first of such behaviour seen in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. If the past is any indicator for the future, then it is likely that cooperation and all sorts of dependence will continue to grow despite hostilities. It’s possible that this comprises much of the force of which Selee speaks.

This, of course, doesn’t mull over the existing differences on border security and migration policy. Selee acknowledges that the divide is far from complete reconciliation. The book isn’t meant to gloss over facts and claim that the relationship is entirely friendly when it’s not. It simply aims to present an account that counters an image of Mexico that may seem counterintuitive from the outset. And its real purpose, so far as I can see, is to cut through much of the noise and media circus that constitute the nature of the current debate.

About the Author

Salvatore Esquibel

Salvatore Esquibel is a Political Analyst for South East Asia at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. An Alumni of Concordia University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Mandarin, he holds a position as an English teacher at Montreal Confucius School. Additionally, Salvatore is a Director at the Journal for Education Reintegration, the research component of kiki4kids, a charity based at the Montreal Children's hospital. Salvatore intends to pursue research in medicine, specifically rare genetic disorders such as Marfan syndrome, which he has.

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