Physically, Langewiesche explained, crossing the Rio Grande is easy—at times immigrants even use large truck tires as flotation devices and stepping-stones across the river. Along one 500-mile stretch, villagers living in adobe houses move freely from one side to another, and no one pays them any mind unless they wander too far into the modern world.
Langewiesche also surveyed a section of the border in San Diego marked by a fence that, though it was intended to keep illegals out, clearly posed very little obstacle:
In places the fence is new, and reinforced. Not everyone is athletic enough to go over the top. Enterprising Mexicans dig holes underneath it, and charge a dollar for each passage. Along older sections they also hack right through the steel. I watched a woman squeeze through a gap, careful not to tear her dress.
The region, Langewiesche emphasized, is difficult and unappealing:
It is grimy, hot, and hostile. In most places it is ugly. The U.S. side is depressed by the filth and poverty in Mexico. On the Mexican side the towns have become ungovernable cities, overrun by destitute peasants, roiled by American values. The border is transient. The border is dangerous. The border is crass. The food is bad, the prices are high, and there are no good bookstores. It is not the place to visit on your next vacation.
But the border is also, he noted, a powerful symbol—no longer one of division but, ironically, one of inextricable entanglement:
The border is no longer remote and no longer a buffer against our chaotic southern neighbor. Quite the opposite: growth on both sides of the border has physically bound the countries. Mexico’s problems inevitably become ours.
In “A Bold Proposal on Immigration” (June 1994), Jack Miles looked at the question of California polling in light of the influx of Mexican immigrants. He considered a proposal by Jorge G. Castaneda, a noted Mexican intellectual, that illegal Mexican immigrants should be given voting rights in California. Castaneda’s argument rested on the notion that taxation without representation is fundamentally undemocratic. Miles quoted from one of Castaneda's writings:
[B]y the end of the twentieth century, the richest state in the world will have a terribly skewed political system, with a foreign plurality that works, consumes, and pays taxes, but does not vote, run for office, organize, or carry much political clout.
Castaneda's argument is a powerful one, Miles conceded, and has many merits, but allowing illegal residents to vote, he argued, would be antithetical to American ideals: "if California were to accept his proposal," he wrote, "the state would be saying, in effect, that on so crucial a matter as the prerogatives of citizenship its relationship to Mexico counts for more than its relationship to the United States."