America Puts Up Chain-Links along a Once-Friendly Border Series: ON THE BORDERLINE. Par1 of an 8-Part Series. Only Article Appearing Today

Article excerpt

LL along the US side of the Mexican border and into America's heartland, the mood toward illegal aliens has turned distinctly chilly.

Politicians from Pete Wilson to Pat Buchanan to Bill Clinton have picked up on the shift in public opinion. They are offering tough measures to protect American jobs and businesses.

Rarely before has the 2,000-mile border been so vigorously defended. Steel fences run through deserts and up over hillsides. United States Border Patrol agents are equipped with high-tech surveillance devices.

On both sides of the border, tensions are growing over NAFTA, water, schools, drugs, and other bilateral issues.

Yet the new, tougher American mood clashes with official US goals of free trade, Mexican development, and greater harmony between two neighbors starkly different in wealth and outlook.

In an eight-part series starting today (Page 9), the Monitor explores how the new border tensions affect life for residents on both sides, and why US-Mexican relations are now on the borderline of a new and chilly era.

WHERE the Pacific Ocean meets the border between the United States and Mexico, a plaque mounted on a chiseled rock dedicates the surrounding seaside park "to the friendship" of the American and Mexican people.

The Border Field Park was opened in 1974 for the enjoyment of people from two neighboring countries. Today, it is divided by a high fence designed to keep the people and contraband of the south from coming north.

"This used to be a nice place where people from here and over there could actually get together," says a US Border Patrol agent, standing vigil on a recent foggy morning over the traditionally busy San Diego section of the border. "Then all the illegal aliens and the drug runners ruined it."

The San Diego fence, along with others like it in El Paso, Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and elsewhere, symbolizes the widening and hardening of a 2,000-mile-long border that until recently was thought by many local residents and border specialists to be fading as a divide.

Examples of cooperation between the two sides were growing, from city halls and private environmental and economic development organizations, to board rooms and family-run businesses. Life magazine hailed the area in 1969 as an unguarded border where the best of both cultures mixed. By 1985, however, the National Geographic called it "the eroding border."

The promise of Mexico's strengthening economic ties, encouraged by the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), only bolstered a sense of optimism and excitement about the border region in the late 1980s and early '90s.

That was before immigration became a more potent political issue in the US than at any time since the 1920s, before Mexico became the No. 1 entry point for illegal drugs into the US, and before middle-class malaise in the US coupled with Mexico's economic crash in 1995 convinced a growing number of Americans that the border was going to be more a problem than an opportunity for some time.

Reflecting that thinking, the border is a controversial issue in this year's presidential campaign. Republican candidate Pat Buchanan has set the tone, blasting Mexico as a socialist sinkhole into which the US should pour no more money, and calling for both cancellation of NAFTA and construction of a border wall.

He said in a New Hampshire fund-raiser in January, "I believe there's a direct correlation between the declining standard of living of American workers and these unfair trade deals we've been negotiating with China, Japan, and Mexico."

President Clinton, feeling vulnerable over his support of NAFTA and the $50 billion Mexico bailout he orchestrated last year, is moving to look tough on Mexico as well. Last month, the administration announced that as part of the continuing battle against illegal immigration, use of the military along the border would increase. …