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The border between Mexico and the United States spans four U.S. states, six Mexican states, and has over twenty commercial railroad crossings.
Border counties in the United States along the Mexican border

The Mexico – United States border is the international border between Mexico and the United States. It runs from San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Baja California, in the west to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Brownsville, Texas, in the east, and traverses a variety of terrains, ranging from major urban areas to inhospitable deserts. From the Gulf of Mexico it follows the course of the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) to the border crossing at El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; westward from that binational conurbation it crosses vast tracts of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Desert, the Colorado River Delta, westward to the binational conurbation of San Diego and Tijuana before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

The border's total length is 3,169 km (1,969 miles), according to figures given by the International Boundary and Water Commission.[1] It is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, with about 250 million people crossings every year.[2]



San Diego together with Tijuana creates the bi-national San Diego–Tijuana metropolitan area.
On the left: Nogales, Arizona; on the right, Nogales, Sonora
US Border Patrol helicopter along El Camino del Diablo, Arizona-Sonora border, 2004

The nearly 2000 mile (3,138 km or 1,950 miles) international border follows the middle of the Rio Grande — according to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the two nations, "along the deepest channel" (also known as the thalweg) — from its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico a distance of 2,019 km (1,254 miles) to a point just upstream of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. It then follows an alignment westward overland and marked by monuments a distance of 858 km (533 miles) to the Colorado River, during which it reaches its highest elevation at the intersection with the Continental Divide. Thence it follows the middle of that river northward a distance of 38 km (24 miles), and then it again follows an alignment westward overland and marked by monuments a distance of 226 km (141 miles) to the Pacific Ocean.

The region along the boundary is characterized by deserts, rugged mountains, abundant sunshine, and two major rivers — the Colorado and the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) — which provide life-giving waters to the largely arid but fertile lands along the rivers in both countries.

The U.S. states along the border, from west to east, are:

California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The Mexican states are:

Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas.

In the United States, Texas has the longest stretch of the border of any State, while California has the shortest. In Mexico, Chihuahua has the longest border, while Nuevo León has the shortest.

There are currently 42 U.S.-Mexico border crossings. From west to east, below is a list of the border city twinnings.

The total population of the borderlands — defined as those counties and municipios lining the border on either side — stands at some 12 million people.


El Paso (top) and Ciudad Juárez (bottom) seen from earth orbit; the Rio Grande is the thin line separating the two cities through the middle of the photograph. El Paso and Juarez make up the second largest international metroplex. San Diego and Tijuana being the first.

It was only in the mid-1500s with the discovery of silver that settlers from a variety of countries and backgrounds began to arrive in the area. This period of sparse settlement included colonizers from different backgrounds. The area technically was part of the Spanish colony, but due to the lack of population and the diversity of the citizens it had, it did not seem to belong to any country. This period lasted until the early 1800s at which point the United States bought the lands known as the Louisiana Purchase from France and began to expand steadily westward in its pursuit of Manifest Destiny.[3]

The border itself was now clearly defined and remained so until the Mexican colony became independent from Spain and entered a period of political instability. Mexico attempted to create a buffer zone at the border that would prevent possible invasion from the North. In order to do so the Mexican government encouraged thousands of their own citizens to settle in the region that is now known as Texas and even offered very inexpensive land to settlers from the United States in exchange for populating the area. The influx of people did not provide the defense that Mexico had hoped for and instead the Texas territory declared its independence in 1836. That independence lasted only until 1845 when the United States annexed Texas.

The constant conflicts in the Texas region in the mid 1800s eventually led to the Mexican-American War, which began in 1846 and ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Due to the treaty Mexico lost more than 960,000 square miles (about 2,500,000 km²) of land, 55%[4] of its national territory, including what is today California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, in addition, all disputes over Texas and the disputed territory between Rio Grande and Rio Nueces were abandoned. Five years later the Gadsden Purchase completed the creation of the current United States – Mexico border. These purchases left approximately 300,000 people living in the once disputed lands, many of whom were Mexican nationals. Following the establishment of the current border a number of towns sprang up along this boundary and many of the Mexican citizens were given free land in the northern regions of Mexico in exchange for returning and repopulating the area.[5]

Map of Mexico in 1842.

The economic development of the border region on the Mexican side of the border depended largely on its proximity to the United States due to its remoteness from the commercial centers in Mexico. During the years of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, between 1876 and 1910, growth of the border communities boomed due mostly to its close ties to the United States and the Mexican governments support for financial investments from the United States.[6] Railroads were built that connected the northern Mexican states more to the United States than to Mexico and the population grew tremendously. The mining industry also developed, as did the United States’ control of it. By the early 1900s companies from the United States controlled 81% of the mining industry and had invested five hundred million dollars in the Mexican economy overall, twenty-five percent of which went to the border regions alone.[7]

The Mexican Revolution, caused at least partially by the increasing animosity towards foreign ownership of Mexican properties, began in 1910. The Revolution increased political instability in Mexico, but actually did not significantly slow United States investment. It did reduce economic development within Mexico however, and the border regions reflected this. As the infrastructure of communities on the United States side of the boundary continued to improve, its Mexican counterparts began to fall behind in the construction of important transportation networks and systems necessary to municipal development as well as the upkeep of systems already in place.[8]

Security issues

To the right lies Tijuana, and on the left is San Diego. The building in the foreground on the San Diego side is a sewage treatment plant.

The U.S.Mexico border has the highest number of both legal and illegal crossings of any land border in the world except for the Canada – United States border. The border is guarded by more than seventeen thousand border patrol agents, however they only have "effective control"[9] of less than 700 miles of the 1,954 miles of total border.[9]

There are an estimated half a million illegal entries into the United States each year.[10] Border Patrol activity is concentrated around big border cities such as San Diego and El Paso which do have extensive border fencing. This means that the flow of illegal immigrants is diverted into rural mountainous and desert areas, leading to several hundred migrant deaths along the Mexico-U.S. border of those attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico without authorization from the Federal government of the United States.[11]

For a period of time in the 1990s, United States Army personnel were stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border to help stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. These military units brought their specialized equipment such as FLIR (forward looking infrared) devices and helicopters. In conjunction with the United States Border Patrol, they would deploy along the border and, for a brief time, there would be no traffic across that border which was actively watched by "coyotes" paid to assist border crossers. The smugglers and the alien traffickers simply ceased operations over the one hundred mile sections of the border sealed at a time. It was very effective but temporary as the illegal traffic resumed as soon as the military withdrew.[12] After the September 11 attacks the United States looked at the feasibility of placing soldiers along the U.S.-Mexico border as a security measure, but made no mention of the Canada – United States border. Some believe the whole U.S.-Mexico border could be sealed with as few as 100 helicopters equipped with FLIR scopes, and a few hundred men equipped with state of the art sensors, scopes, and other electronics.[12] Another strategy suggests that the US Military or Border Patrol could easily eliminate 100% of illegal mainland crossings by placing a guard every 500-1000 feet along the 2000 mile border with Mexico, arguing that even this low tech, manpower intensive option would represent a tiny fraction of the annual Defense and Homeland Security budgets.[13] Opposition says this is a violation of Posse Comitatus although the army patrolled the border for more than 46 years after the passage of the Posse Comitatus act.[12] Others believe that the border could never be completely closed, but that the United States could possibly put a serious dent in illegal cross border traffic with a more robust military presence and a larger, more pro-active Border Patrol.

Beach in Tijuana at the border.
Picture of the border between Nogales, Arizona, on the left, and Nogales, Sonora, on the right.
The US-Mexico border fence near San Diego, California. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 authorizes the construction of 700 additional miles of the double chain link and barbed wire fences with light and infrared camera poles.
Portion of border near Jacumba, California in 2003
Portion of border near Jacumba, California in 2009 with enhanced security
Border for pedestrians in Tijuana

Each state in the United States has a National Guard organization that could, in principle, be placed on the border at a state governor's discretion to assist with border security; many states also have a backup to the National Guard called the State Defense Force that could, in an emergency, also be activated for this purpose. However, few governors have done this. Many governors fear a backlash from local businesses and ever increasing communities of Latinos. Arizona and New Mexico have currently declared the counties that border Mexico to be under serious duress caused by uncontrolled illegal migration, thereby enabling governors to deploy National Guardsmen to the international border. However, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) has opposed some measures intended to reduce illegal immigration through enforcement and proposed a bill calling for earned legalization (which many call amnesty) in the Senate. Texas governor Rick Perry has called for the deployment of national guardsmen to watch certain high-traffic spots of the Texas/Mexico border, partly as a response to an incident in 2006 where U.S. officers involved in a pursuit in western Texas lost suspected drug smugglers when their 4x4 vehicle crossed the Rio Grande and was met by several men armed with assault rifles and dressed in Mexican military uniforms. In May 2006, President Bush announced a plan whereby up to 6,000 National Guardsmen would help build facilities on the border to assist the Border Patrol with tactical and technical measures but not enforcement duties. There has been some resistance: in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger initially denied Bush's request to deploy 3,000 National Guard troops to the California-Baja California border.[14] Later Schwarzenegger changed his mind after being reassured of reimbursement and replacement if they are needed elsewhere and deployed over 1600 California National Guard troops to the border.

Attempts to complete the construction of the United States–Mexico barrier have been challenged by the Mexican government, illegal immigrants living in the United States, and various U.S.-based Chicano organizations. According to proponents of open border policies, agricultural work is one of the many types of work that illegal immigrants fill that could not be easily filled by United States citizens. Opponents counter that U.S. citizens would gladly take these jobs if offered decent wages.

In December 2005, the United States House of Representatives voted to build a separation barrier along parts of the border. A companion vote in the United States Senate on May 17, 2006 included a plan to blockade 860 miles (1384 km) of the border with vehicle barriers and triple-layer fencing. Although those bills died in committee, eventually the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed providing for the construction of 700 miles (1,100 km) of high-security fencing. Proponents hope that barriers of various types running the length of the border will reduce illegal drug smuggling and illegal immigration drastically.

According to Dr. Douglas Massey of Princeton University [15] and other experts, the efforts to curtail illegal immigration by means of security has done nothing but redirect the migration flows into the most desolate and desert areas of the border, thus increasing the mortality rate of illegal immigrants. Instead, they remain in the U.S. for longer periods of time and eventually bring their families with them. President Bush has presented an initiative to reinstate a Guest worker program or expand the H-2B program to fill the perceived needs of labor for some areas of the U.S. and, at the same time, has pushed to strengthen the security measures at the border to stop suspected illegal immigrants, terrorists, and narcotics dealers from entering the U.S.


Border incursions

In the fiscal year of 2006, there have been twenty-nine confirmed border incursions by Mexican government officials, of which seventeen have been by armed individuals. Since 1996 there have been 253 incursions by Mexican government officials.[16][17][18]

The Washington Times has reported that on Sunday, August 3, 2008, Mexican Military personnel who crossed into Arizona from Mexico encountered a U.S. Border Patrol agent, whom they held at gunpoint. The soldiers later returned to Mexico, as backup Border Patrol agents came to investigate.[19][20]

As of September 4, 2009. Mexico and the U.S. will create a trans-border communications network that will help police on both sides of the border to fight crime and violence. According to the U.S. State Department secure voice, data and video channels costing $7 million on the U.S. side, are expected to be online within three years. The Department of Homeland Security and Mexico's Secretary of Public Security will work out the details. William H. Grigsby of the State Department said Thursday that secure networks will allow federal, state and local police to "coordinate a broad array of law enforcement activities." [21]

Cost to local governments

In a new study conducted by the University of Arizona, together with San Diego State University, it showed that due to law enforcement and criminal prosecution cost relating to illegal immigrants their costs increased 39% within the border counties of Arizona. This study was commissioned by the U.S.-Mexico Border Counties Coalition.[22] It is important to note, however, that the cost of illegal immigration on the US as a whole is very significant. "Prior to U.S. welfare reform in 1996, immigrants were more likely than natives to receive public assistance. New laws restrict immigrant access to many benefits, one important exception being costly public education. For some types of public assistance, individual U.S. states have the discretion to offer benefits after an individual has been in the country for at least five years. Excluding immigrants from public assistance has been subject to numerous judicial challenges. With immigrant use of public assistance, the net fiscal transfer from taxpaying US Citizens to immigrants is extremely substantial. It is even more so in a few specific states with both generous welfare benefits and large immigrant populations and is a large contributing factor to the states fiscal problems. " [23]

Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)

In late 2006, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a rule regarding new identification requirements for U.S. citizens and international travelers entering the U.S. Implemented on January 23, 2007, this final rule and first phase of the WHTI specifies three forms of identification — one of which is required in order to enter the US by air: a valid passport, a NEXUS Air card, or a U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner's Document (MMD).[24][25][26]

U.S. and Canadian citizens crossing the border by land or sea may use an Enhanced Driver License or Enhanced Photo ID instead of a passport. A passport book is required at all times when travelling by air.[citation needed]

The Fence

The start of the border fence in the state of New Mexico--just west of El Paso, Texas, U.S.A.

The US government is erecting a border fence along the U.S. / Mexico border. This is a controversial topic in the Senate and around the country. The fence is not one long wall extending the full length of the border, but many individual fences. In between them, is what is being called "virtual fence". This "virtual fence" is heavily monitored by cameras, sensors and Border Patrol agents alike.


When animals are imported from one country to another, there is the possibility that diseases and parasites can move with them. For this reason, most countries impose animal health regulations on the importation of animals. Most animals imported to the United States must be accompanied by:

  • Import permits obtained in advance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
  • Health certification papers from the country of origin.

Veterinary inspections are often required, and are available only at designated ports;[27] advance contact with port veterinarians is recommended.[28] Animals crossing the United States-Mexico border may have a country of origin other than the country where they present for inspection. Such animals include those from the U.S. that cross to Mexico and return, and animals from other countries that travel overland through Mexico or the U.S. before crossing the border.

Horses and cattle

Crossing from Mexico to the United States

APHIS imposes precautions to keep out several equine diseases,[29] including glanders, dourine, equine infectious anemia (EIA), equine piroplasmosis (EP), Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE), and contagious equine metritis (CEM). APHIS also checks horses to prevent the introduction of ticks and other parasites. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, U. S. Department of Agriculture inspectors look for horses and livestock that stray across the border carrying ticks. These animals are often called wetstock, and the inspectors are referred to as tickriders.[30]

Per APHIS,[29] horses originating from Canada can enter the United States with a Canadian government veterinary health certificate and a negative test for EIA. Horses from Mexico must have a health certificate; pass negative tests for EIA, dourine, glanders, and EP at a USDA import center; and undergo precautionary treatments for external parasites at the port of entry. Horses from other Western Hemisphere countries must have the same tests as those from Mexico and, except for horses from Argentina, must be held in quarantine for at least 7 days as a check for VEE.

APHIS imposes similar testing and certification requirements on horses from other parts of the world but without the quarantine for VEE. These horses are held in quarantine--usually 3 days--or until tests are completed. Because the disease equine piroplasmosis (equine babesiosis) is endemic in Mexico but not established in the United States,[31] transportation of horses from Mexico to the United States requires evaluation of horses for the presence of this disease.

Transportation of horses from Mexico to the United States normally requires at least 3 days in quarantine, which is incompatible with most recreational equestrian travel across the border. A leading exception to this rule is the special waiver obtained by riders participating in the Cabalgata Binacional Villista (see cavalcade).

Crossing from the United States to Mexico

Import from the United States to Mexico requires evidence within the prior 45 days of freedom from equine infectious anemia, among other requirements.[32]

See also


  1. ^ "United States Section Directive". Retrieved 2006-10-30. 
  2. ^ "Borders and LawSDEASDASDS Enforcement". US Embassy Mexico. Retrieved 2006-03-07. 
  3. ^ Martínez, Oscar J. Troublesome Border. Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 1988.
  4. ^ "Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo". Retrieved 27 June 2007. 
  5. ^ Byrd, Bobby and Susannah Mississippi (eds). The Late Great Mexican Border: Reports from a Disappearing Line. El Paso, Cinco Puntos Press: 1996.
  6. ^ Hart, John M. “The Mexican Revolution, 1910 – 1920”. Oxford History of Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 pp 433-466.
  7. ^ Lorey, David E. The U.S.-Mexican Border in the Twentieth Century. Wilmington, Scholarly Resources, Inc.: 1999.
  8. ^ Lorey, David E. The U.S.-Mexican Border in the Twentieth Century. Wilmington, Scholarly Resources, Inc.: 1999.
  9. ^ a b Jeffrey, Terence P. (24 September 2009). "Administration Will Cut Border Patrol Deployed on U.S-Mexico Border". Cybercast News Service. Retrieved 25 September 2009.  and
    Shacat, Jonathon (25 September 2009). "Fewer border agents in south". The Sierra Vista Herald. Retrieved 25 September 2009. 
  10. ^ "Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol’s Efforts to Prevent Deaths Have Not Been Fully Evaluated" (PDF). Government Accountability Office. August 2006. p. 42. 
  11. ^ "GAO-06-770" (PDF). United States Government Accountability Office. August 2006. 
  12. ^ a b c Sher Zieve (July 13, 2006), Mexican government running US immigration policy--Part III, 
  13. ^ Craig Ballard (April 20, 2009), Bordering on the absurd - A Simple Plan B, 
  14. ^ "Schwarzenegger defies Bush on border troops". Washington Times. June 25, 2006. Retrieved 2006-07-10. 
  15. ^ (Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration, Russel Sage, 2003)
  16. ^ "Report: Border Patrol confirms 29 incursions by Mexican officials into U.S. in 2007". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 2008-01-17. 
  17. ^ "MSNBC report on Border incursion Oct 18 2007". MSNBC. Retrieved 2008-01-17. 
  18. ^ "Mexican incursions inflame border situation". MSNBC. Retrieved 2008-01-17. 
  19. ^ "Border patrol agent held at gunpoint". Washington Times. Retrieved 2008-08-08. 
  20. ^ "Mexican Military Holds Border Patrol Agent at Gunpoint in the USA: Mexican Military Continues to Escort Drug Smugglers". 
  21. ^
  22. ^ Associated Press (March 5, 2008). "Tucson Study: Illegal immigration costs border counties millions". 4 News 4. (Web link). Retrieved on 2008-03-05.
  23. ^ Gordon H. Hanson, Kenneth Scheve, Matthew J. Slaughter, and Antonio Spilimbergo (May 2001), Immigration and the US Economy: Labor-Market Impacts, Illegal Entry and Policy Choices,, retrieved 2008-04-18 
  24. ^ DHS Announces Final Western Hemisphere Air Travel, Association of Cotpotrate Travel Executives, 5 December 2006,, retrieved 2007-12-02 Rule
  25. ^ Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative: The Basics, U.S. Department of Homeland Security,, retrieved 2007-12-02 
  26. ^ Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, January 13, 2008,, retrieved 2007-01-12 
  27. ^ Ports Designated for the Importation of Animals, APHIS webpage accessed March 2008
  28. ^ Port Veterinarian List, APHIS webpage accessed March 2008
  29. ^ a b Importing a Horse, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, March 1997 (accessed March 2008)
  30. ^ Miller, Tom. On the Border: Portraits of America’s Southwestern Frontier, pp. 72-73.
  31. ^ Equine Disease Quarterly, Volume 12, Number 3 (October 2003)
  32. ^ Import health requirements of Mexico for horses (non slaughter) exported from the United States, December 2005 (Accessed March 2008)


Parts of this article have been adapted from The International Boundary and Water Commission, Its Mission, Organization and Procedures for Solution of Boundary and Water Problems, a public domain publication of the United States Government.

Arbelaez, Harvey, and Claudio Milman. "The New Business Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean." International Journal of Public Administration (2007): 553

Kelly, Patricia, and Douglas Massey. "Borders for Whom? The Role of NAFTA in Mexico-U.S. Migration." The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political Science 610 (2007): 98-118

Miller, Tom. On the Border: Portraits of America’s Southwestern Frontier, 1981.

Thompson, Olivia N., "Binational Water Management: Perspectives of Local Texas Officials in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region" (2009). Applied Research Projects. Texas State University. Paper 313.

External links

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