Crazy Borders

SAN DIEGO — San Diego. -- Think of Upper and Lower (Baja) California as the two shanks of your arm. Where they meet at the elbow there should be a nice round olecranon bone and lots of soft material to allow smooth movement between the two.

Right now, at the U.S.-Mexico border, it's just two bits of hard bone butting painfully up against each other.


It is, of course, la frontera that is the problem, with its boundary fence perpetuating vast differences of language, economy and culture. It dictates an abrupt end of one civilization and the sudden beginning of another and creates a siege mentality on both sides.

This abrupt meeting of two nationalisms is creating a kind of apartheid between peoples who are neighbors and who should be able to work unhindered on common problems like trade and migration.


The solution? A soft border, a cushioning buffer zone. San Diego-Tijuana should be declared by both governments an "intra-national zone," with its own twin-city government, officially sanctioned bilingualism, binational police, immigration and, perhaps a tax-free status -- a Hong Kong-like openness to trade as an entrepot between the two Americas as well as the Pacific trading bloc.

Think of Singapore. Think of Venice. Think, back in history, to places like Xian, Alexandria, Constantinople -- trading cities on the cusps of different worlds. Instead of desperately trying to maintain their separate identities as outposts of empire, these city-states prospered by becoming the middlemen, centers full of people savvy in the ways of several civilizations.

The hard-border concept is already breaking down up north in the Seattle-Vancouver area. Last fall, Congress passed a bill establishing the Cascadia Corridor Commission, a binational decision-making body to coordinate the economic development of "Cascadia," which happens to run through two countries and three jurisdictions -- British Columbia, Washington and Oregon -- but shares the same mountains, valley system, climate and outlook. As a result, the inhabitants are developing common environmental and growth-management strategies, water-supply solutions, education policy. They are working on coordinating expansion plans for the Seattle-Tacoma and Vancouver airports, rather than fighting one another to snare foreign carriers. There's even a competition going on to design a transnational Cascadia flag.

The economic and cultural differences between San Diegans and Tijuanans are, of course, far greater. But they share two important elements with Seattle-Vancouver: They are split by a random, artificial border, and their respective capitals are far removed from their own special regional needs. It makes sense for them to start looking to one another to work out their region's problems.

Problems such as:

* Communications: It costs more to place a call from San Diego to Tijuana than from New York to Hawaii. Mail can take three

weeks to deliver over the border.

* Regional development: The port of Ensenada is looking to develop its own container facility, with no thought of coordinating with the port of San Diego to take on the shipping giants to the north -- Long Beach and Los Angeles.


* Transportation: There could soon be two massive airports immediately adjacent to one another on either side of the border. Both cities are looking to build separate rail links, and their tracks could be just 100 yards apart.

This is crazy! Yet there it is, in varying degrees all along the border to Brownsville-Matamoros. It is creating waste in the name of national separateness, the result of each nation thinking of these cities as ends of the road, not trade and business crossroads joined to bridge the two economies.

As for the "porous border" problem that worries so many: There's no miracle cure, but a strong, combined city-state of San Diego-Tijuana should act as a filter and achieve a more effective control. A single, bicultural immigration body and unified law-enforcement could unite the know-how, intelligence and costs of the present array of organizations currently doing their own thing on each side.

Sovereignty issues tend to be very emotional. And yet if, by giving up some sovereignty to create intra- national zones like San Diego-Tijuana, we can lubricate the elbow joint of Upper and Baja California, the spread of prosperity southward will be the best cure for many of the aggravations and irritants we each have been trying to remedy alone.

Bill Manson, a San Diego-based journalist, wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.