A different view of the border


As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Elena Bastida, professor and chair, Department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, shares her experience living near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration. The wall. Our neighbors. When watching the news, it is important to understand the environment and context of the story to fully grasp what is going on.

Elena-Bastida_-HPDPThe depiction of the U.S.-Mexico border by the media and Hollywood films has created misconceptions about the border that do not adequately describe or account for the past history of the region or its present reality. This border is the most frequently crossed border in the world. More than 3.5 million documented crossings take place each year.

I lived along the border for more than 20 years after moving to the area with my husband, a border native. While at the border, I worked on diverse health research projects with University of Texas institutions and the University of North Texas Health Science Center prior to coming to Stempel College in 2010. It was during this time when I made deep connections in the border communities — and I often return to visit.

The border area is fluid, with businesses flourishing on both sides thanks to the exchange. People fail to realize the extensive commercial markets in that area. Both sides of the border depend and benefit from these exchanges. In fact, Mexico is the primary destination for exports from three border states: Arizona, California and Texas.

There are border residents who travel back-and-forth every day to work or shop. From the U.S., many go to Mexico for prescription drugs, which are less expensive and easier to buy; there are businesses set up to serve American markets like veterinary clinics and stores that offer items for better prices. Similarly, Mexicans travel to the U.S. to shop at malls and buy products that are less expensive or better quality.

Beyond the economics, the cultural and familiar ties bond the region together. The region has a long history of migration and of families settling on either side of today’s border. Some families still share past stories of when they became separated at the time borderlines were drawn in the late 1800s. While the border was defined in 1884, it was not until 1924 that Congress established the Border Patrol.

The shared connection is exemplified by Mexican Mother’s Day, which is always on May 10. On that day, you know to not try to cross the border unless you really need to because the lines will be very long, four to six hours, because families live divided across the border.

I crossed regularly and conducted research among the communities along the border. I implemented a 12-year NIH supported longitudinal study that collected data in three counties along the border. I also led a Ford Foundation Border Pact health intervention in Monterrey, Mexico, and Corpus Christi, Texas — later replicated with NIH support in several counties along the U.S. border.

I have crossed many times, in many different places – driving and walking across, depending on where I needed to cross. On foot, it takes much less time to cross, so what I would do most of the time is park my car nearby and cross by foot. There are taxis and buses that can take you to nearby shopping, or to Mexican Universities, as was my case. Of course, it’s important to have your papers in order, but it is just like entering the country at the airport, where you first stop by Immigration.

I am very much sadden these days by descriptions or assumptions about the border made by those not familiar with the region. We need to encourage greater understanding of the area and its history. This is what public health teaches us — the importance of knowing the context, researching its history, people, socioeconomic conditions before we proceed to engage in research or implement an intervention to address one or another health challenge. Similarly, it is important to understand the border context, the region and its history, prior to developing a border narrative.

Unfortunately, a superficial and sometimes fictional border narrative has emerged that does not adequately describe the region’s history and social context. We must recognize that communities on both sides of the border have been neighbors and family for over two hundred years and these interactions, whether economic or social, cannot be suddenly stopped.