When the Rio Grande flows into Mexico it becomes the Rio Bravo. But it is the same river: One can debate who stole the most water from it. Or who is legally entitled to it. The river doesn't care.
The vast majority of the undocumented people who flow north into the United States are from Mexico. By the time they cross the border into the United States, they have different names as well.
In Mexico they have the traditional twin Spanish surnames reflecting the paternal and maternal family lines. In the United States they have two sets of names, but they are utilitarian and unvarnished, not the proud lineage of conquistadors and Montezuma, but the ambivalent, sometimes brutal monikers a nation reserves for newcomers.
The first set of names might be maid, gardener, busboy, tomato picker, dishwasher, sweat shop worker. Another set might be illegal alien, drug dealer, car thief, welfare cheat, child breeder.
Under the first set of names, vegetables worth $17 in San Diego cost $40 in Vancouver. (The difference between paying exploited Latino pickers $3 an hour in the United States and $12 an hour in Canada.)
Under the second set of names, California taxpayers spent $2 billion providing schooling, jail cells and Medicaid for undocumented immigrants, causing the virulent white backlash that led to the passage of Proposition 187, which seeks to remove them from the state's largess. (Never mind that the illegals paid an estimated $732 million in state and local taxes.)
Ever since the Clinton administration took office, it has been dogged by one immigrant-related nightmare after the other, whether it was Zoe E. Baird and Kimba M. Wood (both sought to be attorney general but were dropped for employing illegal aliens) or the sending of 20,000 troops to Haiti in the hope that restored democracy would help stem the flow of boat people.
The immigrant issue was paramount in the Florida gubernatorial race, where President Clinton's Haitian-Cuban interdiction policy helped re-elect Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr.
And it was key in the Senate and gubernatorial races in California, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her GOP rival, Michael Huffington, traded charges over the immigration status of their Latina maids, and where Gov. Pete Wilson successfully used Proposition 187 as a club against Democrat Kathleen Brown.
And while more than 30 lawsuits have tied up Proposition 187 in the courts and the likelihood of it ever taking effect is remote, the referendum does represent the concerns of millions of taxpayers fed up with paying for Washington's failure to patrol the nation's borders. The nation's 3.4 million undocumented workers are enough, they say.
The recently passed crime bill contains funding to pay for the cost of imprisoning illegal aliens. The 4,000-member Border Patrol is being increased and has managed effectively to cut illegal border crossings in San Diego and El Paso, Texas. And the new Republican leadership in Congress is expected to move toward eliminating illegal aliens from the schools and Medicaid.
The favorable vote for Proposition 187 also represented the unease of lower-income citizens competing with illegal aliens for jobs in the midst of California's recession, and it represented the anxiety of an Anglo population being overwhelmed by a rapidly growing Latino culture.
Indeed, even if the U.S.-Mexican border were sealed, Census Bureau figures suggest that California will be majority Hispanic within 35 years.
"However you want to look at it, the border is artificial. What we have is an economic region, spanning two countries, and a cultural region not isolated by national boundaries," said Robert Briscetto of the Southwest Voter Research Institute.
But the increasing U.S. emphasis on closing the border and kicking out the aliens may create an explosive political mixture within Mexico, which has used the United States as a safety valve for its surplus labor.
With Mexico's 88 million population expected to double by 2025, the nation must create more than 1 million new jobs a year to
stay even. But this is not likely to happen soon.
Mexico's immense economic strides under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari have mainly benefited the rich. Forbes magazine now counts 24 billionaires in a Mexican economy that is equal in size to greater Los Angeles'.
World Bank figures show that the top 20 percent of Mexicans enjoy 56 percent of the nation's income while the bottom 20 percent have but 4 percent.
The disparity has worsened under the year-old North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, as scores of Mexican workers have lost jobs due to the competition from the north.
Moreover, Mexico's deeply conservative society has been badly shaken by the emergence of an Indian-based revolution in the south, and the assassinations of a cardinal, the leading presidential candidate and the No. 2 leader of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Contributing to the unease in U.S.-Mexican relations is the sudden turnabout in the U.S. Congress that now puts Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., as the likely next chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Helms once accused top Mexican officials of drug dealing, has called the 65-year reign of the ruling party a dictatorship and opposed NAFTA.
He and other neo-isolationists have effectively killed the administration's efforts to broaden NAFTA to include other countries in the hemisphere, notably Chile, thus gutting Mr. Clinton's Latin American summit next month in Miami.
Adrian Lajous, the grand old man of Mexican banking, believes that the United States periodically undergoes crises of confidence that cause it to adopt jingoistic attitudes toward Mexican immigrants.
The Mexicans understand, he says. They do it themselves.
"Practically every Mexican child was taught how the U.S. stole half our territory. It wouldn't be terribly hard for any Mexican president to grab a microphone and rile up the crowd for a march on Washington. But what would happen the next day, after he backed down? He would lose the people's confidence.
"In this situation, with the growing jingoism in California, with Jesse Helms and 'Fortress America' attitudes getting stronger, and the borders being tightened, it becomes an explosive mixture, especially if the economy worsens here. I hope wiser heads will prevail. They usually do."
John M. McClintock, a copy editor for The Sun, was Mexico City correspondent from 1987-1992.