Borderline insanity: A proposal to fix the US-Mexico frontier by Joe Mathews

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The U.S.-Mexico border is set to reopen following a long shutdown to all but “essential” traffic.” This will likely bring heavy traffic, sanitation issues and crimes. Columnist Joe Matthews says allowing borderland residents to self-govern will offer solutions to the problems. Photo by Shutterstock.

The U.S. will reopen its border with Mexico to non-essential travel early next month. Businesses and residents on both sides of the border have been pushing for the reopening, saying restrictions introduced to slow the spread of COVID-19 have inflicted major damage on local economies.  

Zócalo commentator Joe Mathews says it’s yet another sign that federal governments in Washington and Mexico City are mismanaging the southern border region.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews: 

To: Baja California Gov.-elect Marina del Pilar Ávila and California Gov. Gavin Newsom
Cc: Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria
Re: Borderlands Assembly

You all can see that the American and Mexican governments are playing politics with the border, instead of governing the region with the respect its people deserve. 

So why don’t you let borderlands residents govern themselves?

If you work together, you can establish a citizens’ assembly to represent constituents on both sides of the border. Citizens’ assemblies are representative bodies of everyday people — often chosen by lot — that deliberate on a particular problem, and then make public policy.

Such a body would be novel for California and Baja, but citizens’ assemblies are being used elsewhere. Ireland created a citizens’ assembly to resolve thorny social issues, making possible the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. France used citizens’ assemblies to tackle climate change. Finland convened a citizens’ assembly to address the hottest issue in that cold place — snowmobile regulation. 

The idea behind such assemblies is that everyday citizens, uncompromised by the need to win elections and build political careers, are freer to solve difficult challenges that politicians won’t tackle. 

The U.S.-Mexico border is one such challenge. The nasty national politics around the border have produced mass deportations, child migrant concentration camps, and systematic abuses by unaccountable U.S. agencies and Mexican police and military. 

Border residents live with the consequences. They endure intrusive searches, harassment, and violence from authorities on both sides of the border; intrusions on their property; and sanitation, traffic, and crime problems associated with the queuing and confinement of migrants near the border. Residents also suffer long delays in the routine border crossings essential to their family and working lives. 

Which is why the four of you should give residents the power to govern the border themselves.

A citizens’ assembly should be divided 50-50 between residents of California and Baja living near the border. Assembly members would be selected by lot and would meet in person and digitally. There also should be representation for migrants stuck at the border. 

And the assembly should have legislative and oversight power.

The two federal governments won’t give up their authority over the border. But you should work to ensure that the assemblies have subpoena power to compel testimony from federal officials, and the ability to recommend changes in federal law. All four of you have the political clout to make this happen, since you are members of the same parties as your countries’ respective presidents.

At the state and local levels, you should empower the citizens’ assembly to act directly. Governors Ávila and Newsom should give this assembly law-making powers in border matters, which could be subject to override by your state legislatures. 

Mayors Gloria and Caballero should commit to a similar delegation of authority for border-related city ordinances in San Diego and Tijuana.

With such powers, an assembly might solve many thorny problems. It could devise ways to house and protect migrants left to fend for themselves. 

The assembly could work to make legal border crossings easier, and enact policies to protect local residents from illegal searches and seizures, especially via high-tech tracking tools both national governments use with little oversight.

Your hopes for such cross-border policymaking should be high. After all, the governments of California and Baja California have long cooperated productively on education, environment, trade, and law enforcement. And Tijuana and San Diego are as thick as thieves, sharing a border airport and co-hosting events.

Indeed, the current joint bid by Tijuana and San Diego to serve as the 2024 World Design Capital— and host 2024’s “Olympics of Design and Innovation” — could become a platform for designing such a citizens’ assembly. 

Such an assembly would make history, but that shouldn’t scare any of you. Mayor Caballero and Governor de Pilar Ávila, you are the first women elected to your posts. Mayor Gloria and Governor Newsom, you never stop talking about changing paradigms.

So, why not cross one more border and give both sides a shot at self-government? 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman