COMMENTARY: The symbiotic U.S./Mexico border region relationship


While rich in economic diversity, the vast border region between the United States and Mexico has much in common. Geographic proximity and centuries of interaction have brought a unique social, familial, cultural and economic melding that transcends the two countries. In particular, since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the mid-1990s, the level of economic interaction has increased markedly.

We recently conducted an in-depth study of the border region and one fact that is abundantly clear is that future quality of life and prosperity in this region (and for both nations) depends on proactive efforts and working together to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities. Consider this:

The U.S.-Mexico border is almost 2,000 miles long and includes 10 states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and the Mexican states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila de Zaragoza, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. If the area were a single country, it would be among the fifth-largest economy in the world. Nearly 97 million people live in the region; 76 million in the United States and 21 million in Mexico.

The Mexican population tends to be younger, with a median age of 27 (compared to 38 in the United States). A higher proportion of the Mexican population has only completed high school/compulsory education, while the United States has a larger population that has started or completed post-secondary education.

There is a wide disparity between the average monthly household income and expenditures between the two countries. Although average monthly income in the United States is much higher, the cost of living in Mexico is lower (though a substantial gap remains). The access to technology also varies widely, with far more Americans having access to computers and the Internet than in Mexico.

Both countries are approaching or at full employment. Unemployment in the United States has been trending in the range of 4 percent, with an even lower rate of less than 3.5 percent in Mexico. Unemployment in both nations peaked in 2009 following the financial crisis and has now recovered to pre-crisis levels.

The United States has a higher overall labor participation rate. The disparity is due to Mexico’s significantly lower participation rate among women — about 43 percent compared to over 57 percent in the United States. Mexico has a notably higher participation rate among men, largely reflecting the fact that Mexico’s population is younger and therefore a greater proportion of the population is of working age. Employment in Mexico tends to be concentrated in manufacturing industries, particularly in the border areas.

There are 48 border crossings between the two countries, organized administratively into 26 ports of entry. In 2016, 5.8 million trucks crossed the border into the United States, 2.1 million in Laredo, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Over 10,400 trains entered the United States, containing 508,300 loaded rail containers, 487,100 empty rail containers, and nearly 14,500 passengers. About 88 percent of train crossings occurred through Laredo and Eagle Pass.

Over 181,300 buses and 75.6 million personal vehicles crossed from Mexico in 2016 bringing 143 million passengers. Most buses crossed in Laredo, and San Ysidro-Tijuana and El Paso-Ciudad Juárez had the most personal vehicle crossings and pedestrian traffic.

The large numbers of vehicles, trucks, trains, and pedestrians crossing the border each year are a clear sign of the strong ties between the United States and Mexico. The two nations are each other’s top trading partners. Many issues affecting one country also affect the other, such as security concerns, infrastructure, and border-crossing efficiency. The current differences between both countries present opportunities to work together to improve conditions through increased integration and enhanced cooperation. This symbiotic relationship is often not well understood, especially in areas distant from the border, but it is an integral part of the economies of both the United States and Mexico.