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Borders in Transition: North American Borders in Comparative Perspective

Frontières en transition : Les frontières nord-américaines dans une perspective comparative
Victor Konrad et Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera


Bien que les voisins nord-américains semblent diverger de manière significative en matière de politiques, d’orientations et de perspectives, le Canada, les États-Unis et le Mexique restent liés par la géographie tout comme par les frontières qui les séparent. Alors que cette étude reconnaît la divergence nord-américaine au XXIe siècle, nous soutenons que, en examinant les frontières et les zones frontalières nord-américaines dans une perspective comparative, il est possible de voir plus clairement les liens, les « coutures » et les connections entre ces pays et de mieux comprendre la façon dont l’Amérique du Nord fonctionne. La pandémie actuelle illustre l’évolution de la fonction et de la signification des frontières dans une Amérique du Nord post-humaniste, où les frontières contribuent à la fois à contenir la propagation du virus et à soutenir une intégration irréversible et des systèmes de mobilité continentale.

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Notes de l’auteur

This article is inspired by our edited book entitled North American Borders in Comparative Perspective (University of Arizona Press 2020). Yet, the article also adds new arguments to the imperative to move away from the growing United States-centered perspective, and re-imagine a broader continental perspective to envision processes which increasingly engage all of North America.

Texte intégral

“The straightness and finality of the borderlines mask the wandering spirits of the borderlands.” Anon.

A Meandering Story of Two Borders

1On July 1, 2020—Canada Day—the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) entered into force. Yet, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not join Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the President of Mexico on July 8, to celebrate the event at the White House. Instead, Trump and AMLO simply confirmed and renewed an unequal relationship between “distant neighbors” (Riding, 1989). Whereas the USMCA reinforces commercial integration among the three countries, the renegotiated trade agreement reaffirms Mexico’s disadvantageous position in the overall US-Mexico relationship and it consolidates Mexico’s position as “America’s backyard”—un patio trasero. Whereas Mexico looks across Trump’s wall into an America now off limits to Mexican labor and migrants, Canada is pleased to enforce a border against US citizens in this time of pandemic while the country is assured of sustained and renewed American trade.

2For Mexico, the USMCA seals and reinforces the old imperialistic agreement that benefits the wealthy partners, and particularly the United States. The agreement diminishes the competitiveness of Mexican manufacturing, subjugates the Mexican energy sector to US firms (Ganzt, 2019), and prevents most Mexican workers from legally crossing the border to work. Additional agreements under the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) or the “Remain in Mexico” Program, requires Mexico to accept and hold asylum seekers to the US while they wait for their cases to be considered. It appears that Trump had gained a symbolic, functional, and effective wall, and that Mexico’s leadership has acquiesced (Burfisher et al., 2019; Sanchez et al., 2020). The new Biden administration is focused on more immediate problems with the pandemic, and President Biden has not reversed the Trump trade policies (Oxford Analytica, 2020).

3For Canada, the USMCA reinstates the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to a very large degree, but, more important, the trade deal removes the specter of uncertainty without a trade deal. Canada has moved on with other concerns, safe and confident in its trade relationship with the US. A more important concern for Canadians, and certainly for Canadian leadership at all levels is the immediate threat of the pandemic, and the measures required to keep the border closed except for trade and essential travel (Nossal, 2021). In early, 2021, with no sign of a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States, and an increasing pressure from US citizens to flee the pandemic and escape to Canada where the virus has had less impact, the Canada-US border was a welcome floodgate for Canadians. In mid-2021, COVID-19 cases in the US have dropped significantly although vaccinations have stalled well below the 70 % target of at least one dose for Americans by July 4th, in sharp contrast to Canada where vaccinations now stand at 80 % for the first dose administered, and 50% with the second dose administered (Canada, 2021). The Canada-US border has shifted from being open only for essential travel to opening slowly for those Americans and Canadians who can verify full vaccination. This border works differently than its southern counterpart, sometimes very open, sometimes more closed, yet characteristically a more durable permeation (Konrad, 2020).

4Our argument with the thesis of North American divergence (Egnal, 1996) is not with the obvious point that Canada, the US and Mexico, are and have always been distinct countries, and that in the 21st century this distinction continues, but with the notion that North American national distinctions, and particularly American exceptionalism (Lipset, 1996), should veil the commonalities and agency that operate to connect and sustain the continent. Furthermore, we contend the borders that ostensibly divide the United States from Mexico and from Canada are in fact the keys to understanding how North America is constituted and how the continent works. To realize North America, these keys need to be turned together to enable a comprehensive and comparative perspective.

5This study aims not to extend stereotypes, assumptions and misconceptions inherent in nationalist and continentalist portrayals, but rather to seek commonalities, parallels, alignments and shared characteristics to enable a North American perspective on how borders serve the United States, Mexico and Canada at various scales extending from the local to the global. We contend that a North American north-south grain of engagement persists in constant tension with the east-west delineation of nation state boundaries. As we emphasized in North American Borders in Comparative Perspective (Correa-Cabrera and Konrad, 2020), understanding North America requires looking beyond the borderlines to the borderlands. Whereas we sustain this position in the article, we also develop three arguments that are clarified and supported by the North American experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. First, North America has entered a post-humanistic era in which humans are beginning to realize that we have sparred with nature, created the Anthropocene (Butler, 2021), but are losing the control we thought we had, and that borders display new functions and meanings in this world (Nail, 2019). Second, the pandemic response underscores the irreversible integration of North America despite the lockdowns and border closures that failed to halt or shift information sharing, infrastructure grids, and supply chains (Gaupp, 2020). Despite the impacts of change, a North American pattern of interaction is set. Finally, although the pandemic has impacted the pace and extent of North American mobility, the routes and systems of continental motion, and the border crossings that enable movement (Pena and Durand, 2020), are merely in hibernation waiting to be activated. Mobility remains a North American condition.

6A brief contextual discussion follows of the evolving nature of North American borders and borderlands, and the re-bordering between Mexico, the United States and Canada that has become the hallmark of 21st century border relationships in North America. From this context, we proceed to evaluate North American Borders in Comparative Perspective, and draw briefly on the findings of contributors to the book as a springboard to engage with issues of the post-humanistic border, sustainable North American integration across borders, and recurrent mobility. Finally, we assess the role of North American borders in shaping the continental mold, address asymmetries and explore the North American advantage, and conclude with a commentary on the future of North American borders.

A context for North American comparative border research

7North American borders and borderlands have been analyzed extensively, but usually separately. The Mexico-US border has received considerable attention by scholars throughout the 20th century but this work became more extensive and significant in the decade of the 1980s when North American ideas about border studies emerged in this southern border region. The work of Oscar Martinez (1994) and other scholars in Mexico and the United States paved the way to expanded research throughout the social sciences and the humanities, and the institutionalization of border studies in the United States and Mexico. In recent years, the literature has become extensive with hundreds of scholars contributing to journals in the field and publishing numerous volumes devoted to the southern border, with a focus on either the Mexican or US side, or a specific cross-border region (Elizondo Griest, 2017; Córdova, 2017; Valenzuela Arce 2013; Anderson and Gerber, 2008; Ganster and Lorey, 2007). Some academics and policy analysts have focused on specific aspects of the border region, including security, trade, drugs, and immigration (Payan, 2016; Andreas, 2009; Staudt and Payan, 2009; Staudt and Coronado, 2002; Staudt, 1998).

8Culture, trade, migration and the environment have become the primary emphasis in more recent scholarship about the Canada-US border and borderlands. Characteristically, the work is led by scholars and policy analysts who live and do their research along the extensive border regions shared between the United States and Canada (Konrad and Nicol, 2008; Nicol, 2015; Bryce and Freund, 2015; Roberts and Stirrup, 2013; Roberts, 2015, 2018; Rodney, 2017; Moore, 2014; Norman et al, 2013; Chang, 2012; Konrad and Kelly, 2021; Widdis, 1999). Border studies emerged in this region as trade between Canada and the United States became more formalized in the 1980s, and as scholars in Canada looked beyond “Canada First” approaches nurtured in the shadow of US hegemony, to recognize the immense significance of cross-border interaction rather than just repudiate the vision of integration with the United States. These scholars realized the parallels, parallaxes, dialectics and liminalities inherent in borderland life because Canada, with approximately 90 % of its population living within 100 kilometers of the US border, is a borderland.

9Only a few volumes of North American affairs (Hamalainen and Johnson, 2011; Chavez, 2012), and particular issues or policy areas (Andreas and Biersteker, 2003; UNEP, 2012) focus on borders. Even fewer studies compare the two borders or assess main issues or policy areas in comparative perspective (Sadowski-Smith, 2002; Nischik, 2016; Johnson and Graybill, 2010; Brunet-Jailly, 2007). These broader North American analyses received greater attention in the 1990s, particularly when NAFTA was under discussion and initially implemented. Additional studies focused on the impacts of economic integration in the continent, and optimism prevailed regarding the benefits of trade and greater integration among Mexico, the United States and Canada. This sentiment changed dramatically after the events of 9/11. Further changes have taken place in recent years to incise the boundaries and draw distinctions between the North American neighbors.

Two borders in comparative perspective

10After the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, the United States experimented with the notion that the nation-state was contained within one territorial boundary and that US citizens maintained a consistent border around the country. This vision was articulated as “perimeter security” (Topak et al., 2015) and it actually invited a comparative approach to North American borders as it focused on the development of a coordinated security policy framework. During the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations it became apparent that one border policy did not suffice, and that borders with Canada and Mexico required policies of border control and management tailored to the nature of the two bilateral relationships. Moreover, it was apparent as well, that both adjacent to the southern and northern boundaries, and across them, regional borderlands of interaction which emerged over centuries remained viable and vital even in the face of enhanced security and impacts on cross-border mobility (Canada PRI, 2006; Martinez, 1994; Ganster and Lorey, 2007).

11The northern and southern borders and borderlands had become hinges of the North American relationship because they allowed independent yet coordinated articulation of two of America’s most important relationships. Whereas independent articulation of the hinges is acknowledged in all aspects of trade, migration and interaction, the coordinated linkage, for example, of north and south borders in facilitation of continental food distribution and tourism is largely taken for granted until it is threatened. The current pandemic has made this clear. The centuries old regional borderlands facilitated an immense volume of north-south trade, allowed energy sharing, and filtered flows of information and people (Widdis, 2015). Concerns over illicit drugs, terrorism and irregular migration had incentivized the borderlands in the American psyche, and the resulting security emphasis required efforts to enhance borderlands mobility—and also brought about greater constrictions (Payan, 2016, Konrad and Nicol, 2008). Security primacy prevailed (Konrad, 2010). Enhanced border security required more scrutiny at border crossings by land, sea and air and this need was addressed with technological approaches to develop smart borders (Topak et al, 2015). Inevitably, with more border personnel, expanded infrastructure and extended protocols at borders, and growing numbers of border crossers, borders in North America thickened (Ackelson, 2009).

12With the inauguration of the Trump administration in 2017, the US border policy showed signs of more and even greater change. Although the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (US DOJ, 2006) authorized the construction of barriers, these barriers were deemed insufficient by the Trump administration, and a “big, beautiful” wall with Mexico was touted and some additional barriers constructed (Wright, 2019). Border relationships with Canada became more strained as US and Canadian policies diverged on environment, immigration and some trade issues (Burney, 2020). Then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed the borders except for essential travel and cross-border interaction (Nossal, 2021). Nevertheless, borders and borderlands continue to do their work, and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by all three countries illustrates that borders are now even more central to the articulation of relationships and engagements in North America.

13Our article began with a story about North American borders today, to reveal the distinctive nature of first the over-portrayed Mexico-US border, and then the largely overlooked Canada-US border. The unbalanced and slanted view of the two borders in the American imagination has been explored somewhat in the media and by scholars of border studies (Sadowski-Smith, 2002; Rodney, 2017). Yet, the perspectives on either border are rarely compared. Essentially, the prevailing view is that the Mexico-US border is too porous, and that is not good, and so a wall is necessary to keep out people and influences alien to America (Dear, 2013; Garcia, 2019). Canada is not scrutinized as intensively by US citizens, who claim “Canadians are like us,” but recently as Canada has become more evidently multi-cultural, the United States has viewed the Canada-US border with greater suspicion and concern (Konrad, 2020). Nevertheless, despite the rhetoric and the nationalist leanings, Americans, Mexicans, and Canadians continue to engage with the entire continent, drawing extensively from its resources, expanding North American trade and economic integration, sharing media and culture, responding collectively to environmental challenges, and moving extensively throughout the continent. The borders and the borderlands of North America are increasingly the arbiters of this continental exchange pattern.

North American borders: From divergence to alignment to re-bordering

14For more than three decades, North American borders have experienced extensive re-thinking as the United States, Mexico and Canada have grappled to manage an increasing flow of goods, people, information and power in one of the most fluid continental exchange systems on the planet (Alper, 2020). International boundaries have been the continent’s steadfast control lines and floodgates. Yet, international boundaries work in very different ways. The northern boundary is distinguished by cooperation and connection whereas the southern is defined by its fortified barrier. Moreover, these borders are differentiated more than at any time in the past three decades as political differences between the countries are accentuated.

15Why are these borders so different in an ostensibly fluid continent in the vanguard of globalization? This question leads us to explore some fundamental premises in the thinking about what North America is and where it is headed. First, we must examine more closely and critically the state of continental integration in North America. We need to dissect flows and differentiate movements from the actual transfer of ideas, culture and norms. The process of globalization in North America needs to be better understood and differentiated from what is generally regarded as a worldwide process engaging all parts of the world, albeit in varying degrees.

16It is enticing to view a global process as perhaps more pervasive and encompassing than it really is. Scholars have noted this with industrialization (Hewitt and Wield, 1992) and metropolitanization (Taylor, 2017). Is there a unique form of globalization in North America? How does it work? What part do borders play in the articulation of the process? These questions lead to the interrogation of the very idea of North America. How durable is this idea? Is the idea of North America adequate and appropriate to conceptualize an incisively bordered continent? All of these questions are fundamental to understanding North America. Furthermore, the questions are all linked to the role of borders in both dividing and linking North American components into a system and network that both works and yet grates constantly with seismic force and unpredictability.

17We affirm that North America is not a leveled playing field for trade, migration and other forms of exchange. North America is not integrated, politically. Now, more than ever, borders are used to articulate a divided and differentiated continent. These borders are both the traditional national and regional boundaries and the sustained yet metamorphosed lines between people in North America, some national, but increasingly based on wealth, race, education, and politics. It appears that the movement toward North American integration has been shattered. Yet, we also sustain the notion that the idea of a more integrated and aligned North America remains as an idea of a more viable interaction on the continent, to a linkage that extends beyond connections for profit to cooperation for a common good.

18Perhaps the greatest legacy of the “free trade” initiatives of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and NAFTA is the comprehension, if not explicit acknowledgement among people in North America, that there is a common standard possible and desirable for environmental sustainability, technology sharing, health, social welfare and security (Rugman and Kirton, 1998). In a sense, people in North America—Mexicans, US citizens and Canadians—realize yet negate their commonalities, and use symbolic boundaries to reinforce distinctions. This growing dialectic is most disturbing, invasive and disruptive in the enlarged borderlands of interaction where people experience the border constantly. These borderlands, although significant in the United States, are even more important to the economy, prosperity and well-being of Canada and Mexico. Understanding North American borderlands, then, leads to a more effective understanding of the coincident differentiation and integration through bordering in North America.

19The challenge now is to sustain the momentum toward recognition that North America works not only as a hegemonic power flanked by two lesser states secured from it by impenetrable borders, but also through the enlightened and sensitive engagement among the three states at the borderlands. Borderlands work at all times (Jones and Johnson, 2016). They operate as effective conduits in situations of enhanced trade and migration. Also, they sustain communication, linkage, and all forms of engagement, even under conditions of substantive bordering and re-bordering (Brambilla, 2015). Understanding borderlands is the key to understanding the role of North American borders.

20Up to and including NAFTA, enforced in 1994, the economic integration of the three countries, as well as the gradual elimination of the barriers that divided the countries, was the two-fold dominant trend. However, during this period of linkage building, a host of problems related to cohesiveness and comprehensive integration in North America were evident. More specifically, the North American region was in transition between “isolation” and “integration,” now understood as a move towards globalization and trans-nationalism. Simultaneously, a resilience and even re-imposition of borders occurred. David Newman has stated:“lines continue to separate us” (Newman, 2006, 143) and while this seems to be a contradiction, North American citizens have found themselves caught for decades between a more globalized world order and more complicated expansion of borders.

Comparing North America’s borders: Insights from North American Borders in Comparative Perspective

21Drawing on the idea of “transition”, and based on this broader contradiction, we explore and question this notion as it relates to borders and borderlands. We have concluded that to build an effective and viable North America, both political will and a certain amount of hope are needed. The prominent scholars and policy analysts who participated in writing North American Borders in Comparative Perspective proposed new insights and ideas related to borders with the aim of advancing towards a more integrated and developed region. The goal was to bring theory and policy together. The interaction between academic and nonacademic sectors has been proven important to solve very complex problems in border studies projects in Europe and North America. Generally, the participants advocated for integration in innovative approaches, policies and directions which still resonate despite the US administration shift in 2016.

22Our analysis compares the two North American borders, their people (sometimes called borderlanders in the US and Canada, and fronterizos in Mexico), main issues, policies, current trends and perspectives on policy directions and cooperation. Such an analysis covers both sides of each border and concludes by posing two plausible and also uncertain and diverging scenarios. The first one proposes further North American integration and greater collaboration in the future, notwithstanding the most recent changes in US politics and proposed policies. A more troubling scenario redirects the current trends towards isolation, and disintegration of existing and evolving bilateral and trilateral agreements and cooperation. In retrospect, following the ongoing pandemic and responses to it, we offer a mediated and transitional scenario in which North America is being re-imagined and re-configured as a continent in continued flux as Canada, Mexico, and certainly the United States, aim to secure their bearings and deal with enlarged challenges of the pandemic in a post-humanistic world, and North America’s place and trajectory in this world.

23A summary of North American Borders in Comparative Perspective sets the stage for this mediated scenario. First, we demonstrate the re-placement of 21st century borders between Mexico, the United States and Canada. The boundary lines themselves remain in place but the border constructs are placed both at and beyond the border. This change underlines the inter-connectedness and multi-layered space that emerges in evolving North American borders. North American borders are increasingly a-territorial, constructed in imagined spaces, fuzzy, flexible, and multi-faceted in contradiction to the fixed and stable entities that they portray. Clearly, national claims of intransigent and sacred borders, primarily by the US authority, are blurred in the wake of contemporary bordering, de-bordering and re-bordering processes. A major disconnect is that North Americans imagine and construct borders that fail to coincide or engage with the borders enforced by the nation-states.

24Another conclusion is that North American borders must be viewed concurrently as both distinctive and parts of a set. These borders are also part of a world system, and they must be viewed in this light as well. Moreover, North American borders are in transition, and, as such, it may be difficult to define how, why and where they work. What we do know is that, regardless of neo-nationalistic pronouncements, primarily in the United States, the borders with Mexico and Canada are continental and global link points and conduits of flows and motion that resonate more with the global than with the national pitch. The continental scale, however, continues to elude recognition and acknowledgement as forces in the United States proclaim “America First” in the face of mounting evidence that something bigger is going on, and that this something is articulated at local, global, and continental scales.

25The reality of North American exchange is found in borderlands space and place, transborder community, robust cross-border regional entities, and the creativity of co-existence. Co-existence in North American borderlands, as in many other borderlands around the world, has actually opened up closed off or bounded space to enable and even promote creativity in the use of this space. Moreover, co-existence has formed cross-border community and extended communitas to regional and supra-national scales. The multi-scalar affiliations of borderlands space, and borderlands places, are demonstratively transnational, exhibiting at once local transborder, regional borderlands, bi-national, and global connections. In this regard, North American borderlands, like North American “world cities” (Sassen, 2018), engage globally not only across prescribed national boundaries but also at multiple levels all at once.

26The shifting nature, instability, mobility and multi-scalar characteristics of borders in globalization are all apparent in North American border governance. Border governance needs to capture this essence of mobile rights and goods that are negotiated across as opposed to within territorial boundaries. Yet, border governance remains caught in between a global nexus of policymaking and the container of territorial governance. This leads to forms of both territorial and a-territorial border governance evident in border regions with the result that the border continues to promote inequalities. Concurrently, some border regions develop gateways and corridors to empower borderlands and produce models for bi-national governance articulated at sub-national levels.

27North American border policy either advances integration or sustains bilateral constructs. Sectoral policy, whether in energy, water resource management, economic development, conservation, or any one of a vast number of policy fields, often extends beyond Canadian, American and Mexican policy making bodies to encompass international regions and even the region of North America itself. Some of these sectors have experienced legislated trilateral cooperation as in the case of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) with a mandate, funding from all three countries, and a secretariat in Montreal (Coronado, 2020). Other sectors, watershed and water resource management, for example, linked to geographical contexts and well-established rules and traditions, retain bilateral models although advances in policy making are shared across the continent (Brown, 2020). Energy policy, often led by regional interests, remains largely in the domain of national policy although in some aspects, hydro-electric grids and pipelines for example, there is extensive bilateral and multilateral cooperation and integration (Correa-Cabrera and Keck, 2020). Overall, a range of sectoral policy frameworks are evident, and each of these is dynamic, impacted by forces originating in government, industry lobbies, non-governmental agencies, public representation, and from agencies external to North America.

An expanded perspective on the role of North American borders

28Current thought about borders and their role in globalization is evolving rapidly as more analysts direct their attention to what borders are, how they have evolved, and, particularly how they work. An expanded perspective on the role of North American borders must address the often overlooked fact that borders are historically and culturally contingent. They are lines with temporal as well as spatial location, and history is very important in understanding where and how borders have been placed (O’Dowd, 2010; Widdis, 2015). It is also important to understand how the line divides different or the same peoples in the border space. These are border essentials in North America where Indigenous peoples still prevail in areas re-bordered over centuries of colonial and state-building processes by newcomers to North America, and where successive waves of immigration have reconfigured borderlands history and culture (Rouviere, 2019). These processes have shaped as well the imaginaries of the border in the borderlands, and in the national territory at large.

29Characteristically, in North America, the visions of the border are different in the borderlands and in the “heartland” thus contributing to everything from differences of opinion to outright conflict between those who inhabit the borderlands and those who control the border as a territorial boundary. One very practical consideration is to understand that borderlands have spatial extent (even though these areas are rarely designated or defined by the state) and that distinctive activities and actors operate within these zones. In North America, these border regions or borderlands have now been defined as cross-border regions which may be as confined as the Tijuana-San Diego metropolitan region with its linked transportation systems (Anderson and Gerber, 2008), or extensive as the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) spanning five US states and four Canadian provinces and territories (Alper, 2020).

30These regions facilitate and articulate balanced and graduated interaction, and to a degree integration. Also designated are the many corridors and conduits that operate as the arterials of the continent. True, these are often formed in and vital to the infrastructure of the three countries, but their connection and extension create a truly North American ligature that is now firmly in place. Within this framework, the operation of the border and the borderlands is impacted by the vagaries of agency, political will and clout, economic cycles, and other forces both inside the borderlands and from the outside. The resulting patterns of border operation and management, and borderlands efficacy and viability, are mainly defined regionally and locally. Borders and borderlands, then, are best understood and operationalized through a coordination of scale, because, as we have experienced during the pandemic, borders and borderlands are increasingly evocative of scalar pluralism and mobility.

31When the scalar recognition and articulation is not evident, there is something missing or out of balance in the borderlands. The borderlands recede, and the border takes precedence in statist, territorial definition, most certainly, but also in the “holding of the line” (Nicol and Townsend-Gault, 2005) to constrain, stratify and prohibit crossing and definitely integration. Borders that do not work are costly and require substantial securitization, eventually with walls. Yet, when walls are constructed, it is a definitive sign of a border that has failed. In an era of globalization such failure is even more devastating because it is exhaustive of state resources that are required to sort, select and protect flows, resources that could be utilized elsewhere to provide more effective well-being and prosperity.

32Borders have now become critical to understanding North American relations, and this tendency has been emphasized during the pandemic and the expanding environmental crisis. Borders have been institutionalized in the federal government structures and operations of all three countries. The United States Department of Homeland Security alone had an appropriation of US$49.41 billion in 2019 to fund expanding cohorts of personnel to manage borders, infrastructure, technology, and security apparatus (US DHS, 2019). Most of this border enhancement is in the name of heightening security and control of the southern and northern land borders of the United States, as well as the ports and airports that are increasingly international entry and exit spaces in a global network. All of the apertures are “ports” in a continental as well as a global exchange system. These apertures and the edges that they penetrate—on land, sea or in the air—are vital connections in these systems at the same time that they are potential boundaries which may be breached by flows of undesirable goods and people. North American relations are at a crossroads with scenarios of continued divergence or re-engagement of integration both plausible. In the following discussion, we argue that despite the seemingly intractable positions and distance between North American neighbors, the fortified borders that divide them are actually powerful and advanced mechanisms of integration as well, and that a combined acknowledgement of and action toward re-positioning borders in a post-humanistic North America will help to address challenges to sustainability.

North American borders: Advantages of asymmetry, irreversibility, mobility, and sustainability

33In this article our objectives have been at once to de-center the assumed hegemonic role of the United States in border affairs in North America so that we can view the borderlands more clearly, and still acknowledge that the United States is at the geographical and policy center of borders and bordering in North America. The United States of America maintains a centrality in defining current border processes in North America, as it has done for centuries, and, yet, Canada and Mexico, both continental and even global forces, play a role in shaping borders and borderlands. The asymmetries of border engagement—between Canada and the United States, and between Mexico and the United States—remain in the 21st century, sustained by an immense US market economy and a robust US military stance at the boundaries and within the borderlands. Clearly, there are differences in how the United States faces Mexico and how it faces Canada, and border management practices reflect these differences. In the post-9/11 George W. Bush administration, initial US Homeland Security approaches defined one consistent perimeter around the country but soon eased into separate practices at the Mexico and Canada borders. Initially, the Obama administration also announced one border policy but soon differentiated US-Mexico and US-Canada border practice by expanding security forces exponentially on the southern border and developing detention centers for illegal immigrants (Martin, 2012). In the Trump administration, although differences in practice remained, the two international borders were increasingly subjected to the same narratives of edge space and place, a cross-border zone of concern and scrutiny, a space where walls belong. This situation alone seeks a comparative analysis of the borders of the United States, and an analysis of border repositioning.

34A comparative analysis is also required to answer the question of what happened to North American integration? Our contention is that borders and borderlands played an important role in making late 20th North American integration irreversible and establishing a North American pattern of interaction that persists even during the current pandemic. A comparative analysis of North America’s borders enables a better understanding of the borders and borderlands, and the comparative analysis also allows a more incisive assessment of the current state and future of North America. The North American continent is both constructed and contradicted by its borders. Borders define a multi-scalar complex of jurisdictional boundaries throughout the continent—international, state/provincial, regional, municipal, ward, and neighborhood. This is the North American border construct that intuitively cascades through distinctive multi-scalar boundary complexes within each nation-state container. Yet, borders also cut across these lines at all scales to define political, cultural, economic and social boundaries between people according to their beliefs, values, wealth, race and other aspects of identity.

35With the advent of accelerated globalization, built upon advances in technology, communication and mobility, the constantly changing and shifting borders between people have emerged to challenge, and even to contradict national border complexes as people align together or against each other along boundaries of ethnicity, gender, religion, net monetary worth and other distinctions. Illicit flows also play an important role in the new border complexes. People all across North America create different spaces of affiliation within these borders. Some of these spaces emerge as distinctive borderlands and “third” spaces (Soja, 1996; Dear, 2013) of transition and hybridization (US-Mexico borderlands), but many are zones or areas of like-mindedness that range from relatively stable and long term (“bible belts”) to sudden and ephemeral (crowd funding spaces). Consequently, whereas North American borders, and particularly national boundaries, may appear to be so simply configured and delineated, they are in fact disguising an intricate, variable, multi-scalar, and dynamic border complex.

36This border complex may appear to be everywhere because it is socially constructed by a growing number of interest groups (border communities, the business sector, border politicians, labor unions, and the border security complex) both within and across national boundaries in North America. Yet, the borders are also somewhere. That is, the borders are defined spatially and they may be recorded and situated through technologies such as Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS). Furthermore, the North American border complex may be situated in time as well as space to help us comprehend the processes of bordering in addition to the documentation of borderlines. Ultimately, the contribution of border studies, then, is to help us understand the process of becoming North America and North Americans, and the meaning of North America—not only as a region, but as a concept.

37Unfortunately, for many people in North America, borders are viewed primarily as limits. Moving across borders is considered transgression by those comfortable within these limits. Transgression is codified and enforced as trespassing by a growing and increasingly powerful “border security / military industrial complex” (Miller, 2014; Correa-Cabrera, 2017), ostensibly invigorated to deter and prevent illegal flows. Yet, the securitization of borders has led to an elevated level of control of all flows. Only the elites are allowed and enabled to transcend the entire border complex within the nation-state and beyond its borders. Only the “compliant” are permitted to cross selected boundaries within the nation-state, and only the documented citizenry are permitted to venture across international borders. Also, inequalities have grown between the northern and southern borders. Our comparative analysis allows us to see more clearly these inequalities and the contradictions associated with them, yet it also reinforces that northern and southern borders remain as components of a North American border system and evolve within this system.

38In an increasingly bordered North America, the sheer weight and volume of border constructions, and their accumulated contradictions, cloud visions of a North American entity. North America in 2021 may be one of the most highly connected spaces in the world, yet this connectivity has not yielded extensive integration but rather discernable division. The division is remarkable in its intensive polarization resulting in manifestations such as neo-nationalism buoyed by populism. Concurrently, globalization, once considered a force for equalization, has, in fact, led to greater inequalities in North America. It appears that in North America the differences between US citizens, Mexicans and Canadians have grown, just as the differences have grown within these societies—wealth, health, ethnicity, race, for example—even as physical distances between people have diminished. The inequalities and contradictions driven by globalization, securitization and the new political contexts of the three countries are not only more visible through the prism of comparative border analysis, they are revealed as components of a North American pattern which aligns with a resilient vision of North America.

39In his book, The North American Idea, Robert Pastor (2011) begins cautiously with the question “Should we fear North America?” He details hopes and fears of NAFTA, and the dread of sovereignty at risk, not only in Canada and Mexico, but also in the United States. Consequently, the forces driving a vision of the emergence of North America are countered constantly by forces aligned against a vision of a North American entity even remotely akin to the European Union. The promise of the North American idea, once fed by the successes of NAFTA, as well as accords in environmental protection cooperation and defense partnerships, has become elusive. Now North American trade is defined in an acronym which clearly places “America First” over Mexico and Canada—the “new” so-called United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and makes no mention of North America. So, even though millions of Mexicans work and reside in the United States, and some in Canada, and millions of Canadians reside at least seasonally in the United States and in Mexico, the continent remains three distinctive nation-states where visitors and residents from the other countries remain identifiable, and often at risk. The North American idea remains far from realization yet the pattern of integration is set.

40What parts or expressions of the idea of North America work, and what parts are clearly beyond realization? “Seeing like a border” (Rumford, 2011) allows us to view the North American relationship from the edges rather than from the centers of component states. Also, this perspective allows us to examine important questions of how and where North America works. To be explicit, does enhanced connectivity and integration lead to greater cooperation and exchange? Or, as is evident in North America today, does interconnection and interdependence actually contribute to inequalities, polarization, and extremism?

41The view from the edges is clear. There is a North American “advantage,” and it does work in the borderlands of Mexico and the United States where millions of people depend on interaction and exchange. Similarly, the Canada-US borderlands, which arguably contain most of Canada, show some of the most extensive and sophisticated exchange networks on the planet. Despite recent difficulties between Canada and the United States in re-negotiating NAFTA, the cross-border regions remain viable and effective conduits of the world’s foremost trading relationship. Yet, the edges of North America remain very unequal, and as stated previously, it is through comparison that these significant inequalities may become more evident. The edges are also the primary spaces of contestation between the United States and its neighbors. Here, “holding the line” (Nicol and Townsend-Gault, 2005) remains an imperative. In 2020, Trump’s enhanced “wall” remained a very real possibility. In March, 2019, the President vetoed a Congressional effort to deny proclamation of a national emergency at the US-Mexico border in another effort to assure “his wall” (Edelson, 2020). Although the rhetoric of the barrier comes and goes, and has subsided in the Biden administration, a “wall” remains. Nevertheless, the paradox, that the edges in North America are also the foremost spaces of integration, remains as viable as it ever was since the boundaries were drawn (Widdis, 2015).

42Although the paradox of North American borders remains, and, it is important to acknowledge and understand that borders sort flows rather than just allow or disallow passage (Amilhat Szary, 2015), it is most important to understand just how this new era of sorting has come about, and how it works in both distinctive border contexts. North Americans transcend borders in the 21st century as opposed to how they crossed borders in previous eras. As Pastor (2011) explains, the borders are still there but there are “new faces” at the borders to manage them and make them work more effectively. In some sectors, energy for example, transcending borders has worked exceptionally well, and the North American energy grid is an effective system.

43Unfortunately, illicit markets in firearms and prohibited drugs have also been adept in transcending the border. Overall, the flows allowed and facilitated are selective, chosen and regulated by elites who use increasingly discerning technologies to enforce flow management. Advances in forwarding a virtual border have, in part, addressed both the need for enhancing sanctioned flows and interdicting non-compliant flows (Vaughan-Williams, 2009). Indeed, there has been a growing realization in all three countries, that flows across both territorial and a-territorial borders are components of emerging global networks that transcend national and continental borders (Zureik and Salter, 2013).

44Although there is an indelible North American pattern, borders are constantly in motion (Konrad, 2015). This is evident throughout North America where borders juggle, increasingly, purpose, efficacy, passage, and impact in globalization. Also, increasingly, motion becomes the constant—rather than static boundaries--as borders become mobile and a-territorial in their nature. In an effort to harness and control mobility, North Americans are building and enhancing north-south corridors the length of the continent. Yet, as Pastor (2011) argues, even though we envision and create North American “superhighways” to cross borders, inevitable and irreversible “speed-bumps”, “potholes”, “roadblocks” and “walls”, and “hidden tolls” remain or are constructed to slow down the even more inevitable forces of connectivity and transformation.

45Another paradox emerges. The very initiatives undertaken by all three countries, but primarily the United States, to stem in-flows of terrorists, illegal migrants, and prohibited substances, have in fact become transnational projects. In North America, national and public security is inherently transnational as well, and this characteristic has grown with the “war on terror” and the “war on drugs” (Payan, 2016). Similarly, efforts by the Trump administration to adjust the economic playing field of NAFTA in favor of the United States, have led to the facilitation of more effective exchange platforms. Whereas the USMCA has been ratified, there are signs that non-conformities like the dairy supply management system in Canada are being addressed to create a more effective North American trade and distribution system in all economic sectors (van Kooten, 2020). The overall effect of these transnational transformations may yet be to forward the North American advantage, albeit quietly and cautiously, at the same time that national agendas have been touted and extolled. But, at this time, it is difficult to see beyond the emphasis on “America First”, and the fact that the centrality of the idea of North America, at least implicit in NAFTA and its side agreements, has been lost.

46The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored, however, that the North American pattern of interaction across borders is set and irreversible, and that the mobility associated with borders and borderlands remains despite partial lockdowns (Askitas et al., 2020). Moreover, the pandemic has allowed time for reflection and enabled the re-positioning of borders in a post-humanistic realization of North American environments and human-environment relations. Bordering against the pandemic, at all spatial scales, has made many North Americans more sensitive to environments beyond their control. This post-humanistic realization encompasses North Americanness while it enables distinctiveness. On the one hand, we have North American borders that are distinctively North American, yet on the other hand, these borders—south and north—are distinctive in their own right. This inequality, two borders with different yet aligned dynamics, allows us to compare these borders and draw out the inequalities. As discussed previously, this inequality is one reason that the Mexico-US border and the Canada-US border are only occasionally considered together, and rarely compared. Now, as North America as a transnational construct is very much in question, it is imperative that we do compare the borders in order to comprehend how they work both separately and in concert, and how these borders operate to hinge as well as divide contemporary North America.

The future of North American borders

47In 2016, the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America changed, perhaps fundamentally, the trends and the analysis applied to North American borders. More than four years later, the future of the region as a whole, and the relationship between the three countries remain tumultuous and unresolved. The relationship between the United States and Mexico could suffer the greatest change, and, ultimately, alter the perception of the role and validity of Mexico in a so-called region of North America. Integration appears to have given way dramatically to separation. The border dynamic between Canada and the United States appears less volatile. Yet, as stated already, borders and borderlands will remain in place as they have always been since they were established as North American divisions and connections. If anything, the task of border specialists has become more fascinating and important as they explore the workings of North American borders and borderlands. The changes in leadership, direction and politics in North America, now combined with an unanticipated pandemic, only make the study of borders more timely and significant.

48Any effort to draw summary conclusions needs to be tempered by the acknowledgement that these conclusions are possibly illusory and certainly premature because North American borders are very much in process, and caught up in motions both connected to globalization and pitted against it. What we do know is that North American borders have seen a paradigm shift. As former US Homeland Security Deputy Director Alan Bersin confirms, North American borders have been re-imagined, re-configured and undeniably altered since the events of 9/11 (Bersin, 2012). The demarcation lines remain the same, but the borders are simultaneously opening and closing according to new imperatives, regulations, and forces originated both in North America and around the globe. The two different borders—US-Mexico and US-Canada--remain distinctive, and they are emerging as more unequal despite the leveling forces of globalization, securitization, and cooperation. Yet, underlying this current condition is the ghost of a North America unfulfilled.

49Multi-scalar expressions of bordering both at, near, and removed from the boundaries, also complicate and cloud the view. The essence of understanding North American borders lies in understanding the flows that are also multi-scalar. These flows are facilitated, filtered, expedited, re-routed, amalgamated, diminished and arrested at “border points” in an increasingly complex set of networks. Consequently, border management has been obliged to reorient its approach, and this remains a work in progress. Similarly, border governance remains caught between a slowly emerging consensus that borders have moved from being territorial to more a-territorial in nature, and a reluctant admission that border governance needs to be practiced at scales from community to national levels to be effective. All of these shifts, in the meanings, configurations, workings, impacts, and governance of North American borders call for policy adjustments and new directions. Many of the advances in cooperation across the borders, particularly in energy flow management and environmental protection, were undermined by challenges from a vocal, extremist administration in the United States. The efficacy of North American borders and the sustainability of the idea of North America are concurrently in jeopardy.

50As this study has emphasized, there is an intersection of North American borders and the idea/concept of North America. We cannot understand North America without a comprehension of its borders, at all scales. And, we cannot understand how these borders work without an overview of what is being bordered, where these borders prevail, and why bordering has come to dominate in the continent, and particularly in the American psyche. Although North America is a paragon of integration, North America’s borders prevail over integration. There is no indication currently that this condition will change. Nevertheless, the buoyancy of the North American idea prevails as well to emerge regularly as a leitgeist and a potential framework for cooperation, greater democracy, civil society, and progress. The idea of North America is inextricable from the ideals that constitute civil and just society in Mexico, the United States and Canada, yet notions of borders, barriers, fences and walls are also constructed and enshrined in the social fabric of all three countries. Our goal, then, must be to understand the ideas and processes that lead to both North American integration and North American polarization, and how they intersect. Knowledge and understanding of this intersection is fundamental to shaping a future for North America.

51Meanwhile, in mid-2021, both borders remain largely closed to non-essential travel except for North Americans who are fully vaccinated. The flow of asylum seekers has re-emerged. Migration across borders, however, whether among “snowbirds” from Canada bound for the American south (Kelly, 2021), or immigrants from the south bound for the US and Canada (Slack and Heyman, 2020), is a trickle compared to pre-pandemic years. Working across the border is limited, and this has impacted Mexico severely. The looming border issue occasioned by the legalization of cannabis in Canada, and an insistence by US authorities that cannabis users will be inadmissible to the United States, is sidelined by the closed border (Calle, 2019-2020). The resurgence of COVID-19 cases and the under-vaccinated US has alarmed Canadians. “Snowbirds” are reconsidering their annual migrations to Florida and states across the US “sunbelt”. Canadian and Mexican truckers fear contracting the virus during travel to the US to maintain essential trade between North American countries. The paradoxes of North American borders continue to unfurl as these multi-scalar borders are being re-positioned in a growing post-humanistic order attentive to climate change and the lessons of pandemic. A North American pattern of interaction, irreversible integration, and sustained mobility remain components in this bordered landscape.

52Where are North American borders headed? The trend toward securitization, expanded substantially after the events of 9/11, has not yet run its course. New border restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic will play a major role in changing North America, at least temporarily. In order to understand this emerging North America, it is incumbent on us to understand as much as we can about borders, and how they work in continental as well as global context. We need to understand the confrontation between neo-nationalism and the cross-border structures, institutions and cultures that have evolved during the past three decades. A new knowledge of borders, borderlands, and the way in which these concepts have both galvanized opposition to integration and transition, and support for North American and global ideals, is necessary. In the process of re-thinking North American borders in comparative perspective, we may move closer to understanding not only how North America works, but how it may work better.

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Victor Konrad et Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, « Borders in Transition: North American Borders in Comparative Perspective »L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 42 | 2020-3, mis en ligne le 14 septembre 2021, consulté le 28 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Victor Konrad

Adjunct Research Professor
Carleton University, Departement of Geography and Environmental Studies

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

Associate Professor
Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University

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