Some places the border is a muddy river, too thin to plow, too thick to drink. Other places it's just a line in the sand. Over the years mapmakers redrew it, wars moved it, nature yanked it all around as the course of the Rio Grande shifted. But what would it take to make it disappear altogether?
If today is like any other day, this is what is going to cross the line from Mexico: a million barrels of crude oil, 432 tons of bell peppers, 238,000 light bulbs, 166 brand-new Volkswagen Beetles, 16,250 toasters, $51 million worth of auto parts, everything from the little plastic knob on the air conditioner to your cell-phone charger. It all comes in trucks and boxcars and little panel vans, and that's just the stuff that Customs can keep track of. There is also the vast shadow market--not just the cocaine and heroin and freshly laundered money but also cut-price Claritin and steroids and banned bug killers and boots made from the flippers of endangered sea turtles.
And then there are the people, more than 800,000 crisscrossing legally every day, some walking, more driving, not to mention the 4,600 or so who hop the fence and get caught a few minutes or hours later. The ones who make it are on their way to jobs as meat packers in Iowa and carpetmakers in Georgia and gardeners in Pennsylvania. They want to be in the U.S. so badly they will risk the scorpions and the rattlesnakes, the surveillance cameras and underground sensors; they will fold into hidden compartments behind the dashboard of a car or in the belly of a tanker truck. They know they can get a job no one else wants, save some money, send some home, maybe find a way to bring their family--because someday this border may not look anything like what it does now: a barbed-wire paradox, half pried open, half bolted closed.
So, how much has to cross a border before it might as well not be there at all? There is no Customs station for customs--for ideas and tastes, stories and songs, values, instincts, attitudes, and none of those stop in El Paso, Texas, or San Diego, Calif., anymore. The Old World fades away--salsa is more popular than ketchup; Salma Hayek is bigger than Madonna--and the border is everywhere. One day soon it may seem a little backward for someone in the U.S. not to speak some Spanish, even the hybrid Spanglish of the Southwest: "Como se llama your dog?" Signs appear in the store windows of Garden City, Kans., that say SE HABLA ESPANOL, and you can buy extremely fresh mangoes at bodegas all over that town. Dalton, Ga. (pop. 27,900), has three Spanish-language newspapers. Says longtime resident Edwin Mitchell, 77: "We're a border community--1,000 miles away from the border." Already we are living in a whole new world.
Sometime in the next few years, Mexico will pass Canada as the U.S.'s top trading partner. Hispanics have overtaken African Americans as the country's largest minority, the swing vote to woo, the constituency to grab. If Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox manage to solve the problems of two countries that need each other but don't completely trust each other, the American Century could give way to the Century of the Americas and the border might as well have disappeared altogether.