Why this Study? (The Context)

At the dawn of the 21st century, public anxiety about border "security" and the inspection functions it entails continues to be high. Devising and implementing effective responses to the perceived "threats" of illegal drugs and other prohibited goods, unauthorized migration and terrorism, as well as intercepting and collecting fees from "dutiable" items, thus continue to be a political priority of the first order. In many ways, it is to this priority that this research project has been geared.

Specifically, the research has sought to gain insights about how the NAFTA partners perceive of and conduct their border "inspection" responsibilities, assess whether such inspections are done in the most effective and efficient manner?as well as in a manner that is consistent with interests in other crucial public policy priorities?and the effect these actions have on the "life" of communities that straddle international borders. The project has looked at four different international border regions?three sets of sites along the U.S.-Canada border, four sets of sites along the U.S.-Mexico Border, the Germany-Poland and Russia-China borders, as well as to the process of dissolution of internal borders within the European Union (EU). The project has gained additional insights through collaboration with researchers who have studied the Mexico-Guatemala and other Central American borders and have compared the EU?s approach toward Eastern Europe with that of the U.S. toward Mexico.

The field component of the research has had the following aims.

  1. To catalogue and understand existing local initiatives toward greater cooperation between border communities located on different sides of an international border.
  2. To understand better the similarities and differences in that regard among such communities.
  3. To extract and contextualize "best practices" in local self-management with regard to cross-border matters

The results of the field research were then to be used to assess and develop a perspective on the state of integration within North America, and particularly within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) space, and articulate a vision for such integration ten to fifteen years from now.

The Place of Local Community Interests in the Making of National Government Decisions about Borders

One of the project?s key points of departure has been the widely shared concern in border communities in many settings that discussions and policy-making about borders and their management occur exclusively in national capitals. The continuing conceptualization of borders as the physical location where real and symbolic expressions of state sovereignty meet, a quite recent phenomenon by historical standards, may help explain why domestic decisions about them are seemingly made "unilaterally" by central governments. In fact, a state?s organization into a federal configuration and/or its rhetoric about a commitment to power devolution seem to have only a marginal effect on how "inclusive" (within the state itself) decisions about the management of borders are. (Virtually all states in the study are nominally federal states or otherwise have been taking steps to share power with or transfer power to their regions. Their actual level of commitment to devolution, however, varies greatly.)

One of the study?s main working hypotheses has been that at the local level, communities on both sides of a common border are thinking (and acting) creatively and often collaboratively in responding to common problems and pursuing common interests. Our field research has validated this hypothesis in all instances, although to varying degrees. Furthermore, we found that, increasingly, and within the parameters of how much autonomy they feel they have, all communities have developed processes and institutions that give substance to the concept of both devolution and integration.

The following are among the most robust findings of our field research.

  • The interests of border regions typically receive inadequate (and at times, unwelcome) attention by national governments. Yet, there are few instances where national interests and guidance should coexist with local interests in "self-governance" more naturally on matters large and small than in such regions.
  • In some instances, national government inattention or the "wrong kind" of attention leads to discontent and generates calls for more autonomy on trans-border issues of greatest concern to a locality or region (the U.S. Northwest is one such example). In other instances, demands for attention have conflicting aims (the U.S. Southwest?s or many Central American border communities? simultaneous calls for greater order and security, on the one hand, with continuing commercial access to consumers from across the border, on the other hand, is an example of contradictory aims). In other instances yet, population and "unplanned" economic growth along a border contribute to social and environmental problems that typically go unaddressed. Neighbors of similar levels (high) of development, however, seem to be better able to manage these issues.
  • Border communities typically approach both the challenges and the opportunities deeper cross-border relations create in remarkably pragmatic fashion. Communities along the U.S./Canada border typify this attribute, although below the screen of newspaper headlines and the rhetoric of politicians, this is now a nearly universal phenomenon.
  • Business and commercial interests are the drivers of better cross-border relations across all research sites. They also serve to complicate such relations, however, (a) when their interests are in conflict with national regulations (regarding the legal status of border-crossers, for instance); (b) when national regulations and the way in which federal authorities implement them are inherently contradictory (such as in the often conflicting aims between the greater facilitation of legitimate traffic and greater control over illegitimate one); or (c) when communities take initiatives in the absence of clear federal government mandates about an issue. (For instance, the visa function in the Russian Far East has devolved to regional and local authorities mostly by default and is applied inconsistently, even arbitrarily.)
  • A combination of a sense of increasingly common destinies and, perhaps to a lesser degree, ethnic solidarity, are in many places providing the impetus for cooperation on issues ranging from public health and access to education, to environmental protection, joint regional planning, and law enforcement.
  • There are different models on how best to invest and how many investments are made in the economic and social development of border regions and cities. They range from significant funds distributed through supranational institutions (the EU "Euro-regions" model) and potentially very significant U.S. investments in transportation corridors (which, remarkably, allow investments in Canada and Mexico), to an embryonic U.S. effort at the U.S. Southwest Border (Interagency Task Force for the Economic Development of the Southwest Border) and virtually no investments (in much of Central America and the Russian Far East).
  • Governments in several sites are experimenting with a variety of "extra-territorial" arrangements designed to facilitate commercial interests. These range from permitting Mexican border inspection functions to be performed deeply within U.S. territory during the Christmas season (in order to reduce delays at the border), and reciprocally expanding the zone for the free movement of Mexicans in Arizona to 75 miles, to an institutionalized U.S. pre-clearance system located in most Canadian airports, the sharing of inspection facilities, etc.

Our field research findings allow us to draw numerous conclusions and offer a variety of recommendations. The following are among the many conclusions of the field phase of the study.

  • As cross-border contacts increase, local officials, in partnership with business interests, religious organizations, and community-based and other relevant groups, play increasingly significant roles in the ongoing discussions about and the making and implementation of policies that affect their lives. While in most instances such participation is "autochthonous" and privately funded, in at least one instance, the EU, supranational institutions provide much of the funding. In another, and very notable instance, the Pacific Northwest, a remarkably well-organized public-private effort has been able to count on funding from state, local, and U.S. federal funds to pursue its objective of adapting national policies to the region?s unique requirements and opportunities. In all instances, however, two weaknesses have become obvious.
  1. The lack of an effective mechanism for border communities to build their capacity to aggregate and articulate their interests; and
  2. The lack of a formal mechanism for communities to convey their interests to the appropriate central government policy-making bodies in a manner that guarantees a fair hearing.
  • With regard to the first need, a regular annual or biennial conference of public and private sector interests along and across a single border can hold the promise for exchanging views, learning about each other?s interests, priorities, successes, and failures and creating an opportunity to build relationships and organize issue-focused groups to promote common interests.
  • With regard to the second need, central governments should create regular and systematic opportunities for local interests to be brought into the decision-making process about issues that affect them. Both U.S. and most other borders we have studied are undergoing enormous?and extremely fast-paced?social and economic transformations. In light of such transformations, the public sector at the capital city may be the least well equipped entity to shape and manage such changes effectively. Capital cities are typically located far away from the borders and think about issues, and set priorities, in ways that often militate against giving localities the space and flexibility they need to set and pursue their own priorities?even when this is done within the legal framework of national government policies.
  • Central governments typically view borders as "zones of conflict and exclusion" and use symbols and language that reinforce that imagery. Such views, however, often contrast sharply with the views of localities, which view the border as places of commercial, social and cultural interchange with a part of an often single community that just happens to be in a foreign political jurisdiction.
  • Central governments typically think of their responsibilities toward borders within the framework of "reasons of state." Such thinking, especially when "security" concerns enter the mix, reinforce the tendency of bureaucracies to make decisions unilaterally and thus ignore local dynamics and preferences.

The following are among the many recommendations of the field component of the study directed to the NAFTA partners.

  • Border controls should be seen as a means to an end, rather than as the ultimate policy goal portrayed in political rhetoric. Put differently, the end goal of inspection and enforcement efforts at the border should be the management of the border to a level of effectiveness that can prepare the ground for the serious conversation about how best to accomplish each neighbor?s principal public policy priorities.
  • The implications of this recommendation are as follows. First, the current set of discussions and initiatives regarding the NAFTA partners? internal borders should continue to proceed roughly along the paths that they have been following. For the U.S./Canada border, this means ever closer and organic cooperation, an ever more explicit focus on understanding and addressing differences, and ever greater experimentation. For the U.S./Mexico border, this means that the deep engagement of the United States that Mexico has undertaken for the past decade must continue in earnest. The issue is too important for Mexico (but also for the United States) to become too distracted with this year?s Presidential elections. Second, and more importantly, the NAFTA partners must initiate an additional set of discussions?undertaken bilaterally?that will initially explore interest in and set the parameters for negotiations about changing the current paradigm in border management. The fact that both U.S. and Mexico will be changing executive leadership, although potentially challenging, should be embraced as an opportunity to start the relationship anew while acknowledging and taking advantage of the gains already made. (Put differently, the current governments may simply be too invested in the "new" status quo to be able to start the different conversations that this second set of negotiations requires.)
  • National governments must show uncharacteristic willingness to adapt their management and enforcement practices to local conditions. While this recommendation may raise important field management concerns about the Immigration Service (which has proven unable to reign in its field managers and thus deliver any of its functions with consistency), the principle nonetheless remains a powerful one. Whenever possible, field managers should be encouraged to work in tandem with local communities to deliver the various components of the immigration function in a manner that is sensitive to and builds upon the particular circumstances of an area.

  • Apropos to this last recommendation, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to the issues at hand?not even along a single border. History, topography, economy, the level of local engagement with the issue (both that of the public sector and that of the for-profit and not-for-profit private sectors), and the skills and "personality" of the local managers of national bureaucracies guarantee enormous variability in the delivery of the border inspection function. While this reality demands vigilance?so that the spirit of national policy priorities is maintained and that managerial discretion does not reach the level of arbitrariness?it should be encouraged and its "lessons" should be systematically incorporated into the national agencies? world view.

Where Do We Go from Here? The Concept and Vision of North American Integration

We understand "integration" in the Churchillian sense of a "living organism"?always in need of nourishment and tending to, of active support, of seeing to and managing its growth and progress. (Conversely, inattention, or the "wrong kind" of attention, can stunt its growth and even lead to its demise.) It is in this conceptual framework that this report calls on the three NAFTA partners to commence initially domestic processes that test the idea that a North American Integration "Project" is worth pursuing and develop a strategic plan for changing the terms of the debate about the border relationship with their immediate neighbor. If the decision is to proceed, bilateral negotiations should be pursued with an aim to agreeing on the kind of border relationship each pair of countries wishes to see by an arbitrarily set target date (say, 2010 or 2015).

Whatever is agreed to must proceed from the assumption that if these negotiations are to succeed, they must recommend activities that are organically arrived at, that is, that are gradual and evolutionary, and in each instance, take into account the interests of the affected communities. This implies much deeper levels of national government/state (provincial) and local government cooperation, as well as far greater and more systematic consultations with local stakeholders than any of the three national governments are either familiar with or perhaps comfortable in undertaking.

What is envisioned here is a set of processes that asks the question whether there is already support (or, alternatively, support can be generated) for a bold vision of a North American "Project." Such a vision imagines the NAFTA?s internal borders gradually (and in temporal and substantive terms, unevenly) becoming irrelevant to the point where their abolition could proceed without any real compromise in any of the important security or revenue collection priorities of each partner. The vision also imagines remarkably small actual losses in "sovereignty" for any of the partners and democratic surpluses for all three partners.

Such a vision could be approached best from two distinct, yet ultimately converging, tracks. The first one focuses on continuing with the multiplicity of contacts, the deepening of bilateral engagement, and the focus on pragmatic problem-solving, that have been the highlight of the past few years. While this track has at times produced an almost mindless continuity (simply doing more of the same but somehow expecting much better results), at other times, it has led to real progress toward the often competing goals of each pair of partners. In this, more positive, view of the past few years, Mexico has seen gains in its top priorities (protecting the human rights and dignity of its nationals and inoculating the rest of the bilateral relationship from the infectious potential of disagreements about immigration and drugs). Canada has been largely insulated from America?s often wild and unpredictable tilting at the windmills of foreign terrorism or illegal immigration or drug trafficking, although not without a great deal of effort and smart diplomacy. Canada?s ultimately successful effort in reversing the entry/exit control provisions of the relevant 1996 U.S. law will become a classic case-study of successfully navigating between the American equivalents of the proverbial Scylla of U.S. domestic politics and the Charybdis of improper interference in U.S. affairs. In the process, Canada has protected its economic interests with extreme efficiency. The U.S., finally, has managed to impose its will regularly on an at times passive Mexico on an array of law and order issues relating to the border (such as illegal immigration, drug trafficking, etc.), while working closely with Canada to address issues of common concern in what is by now in many ways a seamless process of cooperation across a remarkable number of potentially contentious issues.

Key Elements of the Vision

The second track should focus instead on the kind of North America the citizens of the three countries have a legitimate right to expect in the not too distant future?and on how best to achieve it. Some of the required elements will by necessity be "defensive" in nature, that is, they must "protect" citizens from unwanted activities, practices, and products. Other elements will be forward looking and will be advancing broader citizen interests for prosperity, adherence to rules, protection of rights, and humanitarianism. In its totality, the proposed vision should hold the promise for doing better by most people in each of the NAFTA partners along most of these goals.

We postulate that such a vision would include the following items among its main elements.

  • Greater security from illegal activities and unwanted products from outside of the NAFTA space?including terrorism, illegal immigration, drugs, etc.
  • Protection from illegal activities and undesirable products that may be found inside the NAFTA region that is no less reliable than the one each NAFTA partner enjoys now.
  • Protection from the political ups and downs (the political "mood swings," as it were) of one NAFTA partner or another and, more generally, from bureaucratic "ad-hocism" affecting the vital interests of the other partners. Such protection would be best guaranteed by institutional mechanisms (especially "dispute resolution" ones) similar to the ones developed for the NAFTA.

  • Greater prosperity within the region?both through greater intra-regional economic growth and through a more internationally competitive position for the NAFTA region?s products and services.
  • Greater freedom and democracy for the people of the region, especially by encouraging border communities to reach their own levels of integration?in the fullest sense of the concept.

Getting There From Here: Preliminary Steps to Pursuing the North American Integration "Project"

  • Each border inspection agency (the interests of between one and two dozen federal, state, and local agencies are represented in most major border crossings) should be required to analyze each one of the functions it performs at the border and asked to do three things. First, answer the question whether each of the functions can be done only at the border. Second, study and evaluate the costs and benefits to doing that function at the border versus doing it elsewhere. Third, answer the question whether any of its functions could be performed by the inspector of a sister agency. (An advisory citizens? panel could review each agency?s report for responsiveness to the mandate.)
  • For instance, what if the Customs Service re-deployed its resources to doing many of its inspections and collecting all applicable duties at the point where the cargo is loaded in North America and employed available technology to seal the container(s) and transfer all the relevant information about the cargo electronically to any other inspection point?

  • What if Customs were then to employ a "risk management" methodology for performing its inspection functions and in return re-deployed some of its newly "released" personnel to joint investigative task-forces with agencies from either side of the border designed to uncover violations of various types?
  • What if all inspections and the collection of tariffs for all of the NAFTA partners where done either by one partner on behalf of the others or jointly?but always once?at the first point in which a cargo from a non-NAFTA country enters NAFTA space?

  • What if the remaining border customs inspections were done also once?by either national customs service?so as to accommodate staffing, physical infrastructure, and topographical idiosyncrasies? (Isolated instances of "sharing" are already in place but they have proven to be politically very difficult.)

  • What if the existing systems of customs brokers and private bondsmen were utilized to an even greater extent and were given even greater power and responsibility?and, by extension, penalized more severely for failures of either omission or commission? And what if it was thus the private sector that grew to accommodate the growth in demand, rather than the public sector agencies whose growth depends so completely on the finances and priorities of the national governments?

  • What if the private sector were to be relied upon more consequentially in areas ranging from technology to the building of better infrastructure wherever it is needed (through liberalized public-private partnerships and pay-as-you-go projects).
  • What if the Immigration Service were to move in the same direction as Customs, that is, did all third country (non-NAFTA) immigration controls at an individual?s first point of entry into NAFTA space? (Pre-clearance technology and intelligence cooperation in many instances is already significant enough to expect that this method can be accelerated without any significant loss of control.)
  • What if Canada and the United States, initially, were to agree to a common visa regime for the widest band of countries each country could accommodate and exercised much greater care in the issuance of visas for the citizens of countries about which visa free entry could not be agreed to by the other country?
  • What if Canada and the United States agreed to gradually liberalize the movement of each other?s nationals? Considering the special treatment that each has offered to the other?s professionals, businesspersons, investors, etc. under the NAFTA, and in view of the extraordinary?and increasing?degree to which the two economies and their associated labor markets are integrated, formalizing any remaining movement may be a relatively small step to take. It might be instructive to note in this regard, however, that despite having reached absolute freedom of movement, intra-EU migration by EU citizens is miniscule. It stands at about 7 million persons or about 20 percent of Europe?s foreign-born population, most of whom emigrated prior to the EU freedom of movement provisions coming into effect. (Concerns about the potential exploitation by the nationals of one country of another country?s more generous social support systems can be addressed in a variety of ways, including the EU?s method of a foreigner continuing to be protected by the social protection mechanisms of the country of origin for the first three months after "relocation." One might also be required to leave the country to which he or she has moved to unless (s)he has found a job within a specified period of time or has his or her own means of support.)

How does this Vision Relate to the European Integration "Project?"

The repeated references to the EU beg the question of how closely our vision for a North American "Project" might be to Europe?s own integration project. The answer is that, in the matters likely to matter most for North Americans, the differences between the two concepts are far greater than their similarities. Three differences may be most consequential.

  • First, because of the degree of integration that is likely to have been achieved prior to achieving the vision promulgated here, and the United States? strong distaste for supra- national bureaucracies, we see no place for a "Brussels" in North America.
  • Second, the discussion in this document has a strong bias toward an integration process that is organic and is thus built from the bottom up?and particularly, from border regions to capital cities. Although it is expected that the final push must still come from the top down?if for no other reason than the fact that this is how national bureaucracies become energized?our model is dramatically different that the exclusively top-down approach the EU practices even today. (It is these fundamental differences in the source and location of the energy for integration that is responsible for the EU?s enormous democratic deficits?unlike what we believe are the significant democratic surpluses of our approach.)

  • Finally, unlike with the EU, there is nothing in our concept that envisions the creation of a new political entity, nor is there any expectation that areas which each of the three NAFTA partners consider nearly "sacred"?such as issues of identity or specific components of their mode of public governance (especially Canada?s attachment to [an eroding] system of social protections?will change at a rate that will be different with or without the end point of the vision articulated here.

Where/How Do the Interests of each NAFTA Partner Fit into the Vision Articulated Here?

  • Canada?s understandable preoccupation with the U.S. relationship will continue to motivate that country to be making certain that the economic relationship continues to grow in ways that guarantee the prosperity of its people. It is in fact our contention that, substantively at least, the U.S./Canada border is likely to disappear before any politician finds the political courage to negotiate its removal. Symbolic issues, of course, will need to be addressed, as will the significant strengthening of the police functions both at the outside parameter of North America and in the interior of each country?an intensification that is already occurring.
  • U.S. interest in the "project" envisioned here ("acceptance" may be a more appropriate term than "interest") is likely to be tepid until it is convinced that it can accomplish its own policy priorities less expensively, more efficiently, and much more effectively than it can under the status quo. In getting there from here, the greatest obstacle is likely to be drug and immigration issues, rather than customs or even "terrorism" issues. In that regard, it is the limits of thicker and infinitely more expensive controls?and their proven ineffectiveness?that may bring the U.S. to the negotiating table about alternative ways of dealing with these two issues.
  • Finally, Mexican interests are likely to remain limited to the current framework unless Mexico finds the confidence to enter into negotiations about a tough binational "bargain." That bargain might offer Mexicans much greater access to the part of the U.S. economy and labor markets in which it is already a major player?in combinations of Americans of Mexican descent and Mexican legal and unauthorized immigrants?in return for far greater and active cooperation in addressing the issues of concern to the United States. The ability for Mexico to deliver on the responsibilities it might undertake under such a bargain would in turn determine the pace at which it may begin to catch up with the U.S. treatment of its border with Canada.



Few issues in the international system are as complex as those surrounding borders. Borders, however, are not just the most direct physical manifestation of "statehood" and sovereignty. They are also tied up inextricably with competing policy priorities that simultaneously expect them to allow the swift and efficient passage of legitimate people and products while stopping, unerringly, illegitimate traffic and undesirable products. And our research has pointed a spotlight to another, and typically forgotten or ignored, facet of borders: as concepts which, in their practical manifestation can at times divide communities, exacerbate differences in approach between localities and national governments, and interfere with the ability of public and private sector "on the ground" actors to pursue their own paths toward ever greater integration.

At their very root, borders and their "protection," however much this last function may have changed, are first and foremost political concepts that can only be addressed politically. Hence this project?s search for a vision that might maximize the benefits while containing the undesirable elements of the extraordinary and increasing economic, social, and cultural exchanges among the peoples of the NAFTA region.

In many ways, there are few things easier than shooting down a vision. The three NAFTA capitals are full of people who know how to say "no" a million ways. (Bureaucracies of all types are particularly adept at saying "no" to changes in their mission or culture. Ultimately, since it is bureaucracies that will implement any vision, working with them will bear more fruit than working against them.) Getting to "yes," however, requires great courage and uncommon leadership. Neither can a vision of a different future have proper answers up front to all the different questions?legitimate or not?that people may ask. Fears, hopes, self-interest, competing institutional mandates and priorities, different senses of self, diverging Weltanschauungen (world views), and a whole host of nuances and large and small differences in perspective guarantee that the road to realizing the vision proposed here will be rocky and the outcome will frequently seem uncertain. Furthermore, as with the early stages of any new large initiative, there will be winners and losers?and each NAFTA partner will have to develop policies to address the concerns of the likely losers up front.

Nonetheless, it is our view that the paths along which the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico border and associated relationships are moving are not likely to change the terms of the debate sufficiently enough (and, in the case of Mexico, at all) in the foreseeable future to allow any of the NAFTA partners to enjoy more than a few of the fruits that greater North American integration can offer. Will we prove equal to the task? That is a question whose answer lies in the future. Without basic changes in our thinking, however, it is an answer that we may never reach.