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PERSPECTIVE ON THE BORDER

Good News Is Here for the Asking

Get past the incendiary issues and look at the millions of people and dollars that cross legally, fueling two economies.

July 28, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

SAN DIEGO — The civic leaders who helped lure the 1996 Republican National Convention to this lovely border city estimate that it will pump about $100 million into the local economy. That's not quite as much as the $136 million spent when the 1988 Super Bowl game was played here, but still a respectable chunk of change.

But the economic activity generated by the GOP and Super Bowl high-rollers combined pales in comparison to the estimated $2.8 billion pumped into the San Diego economy every year by some "out-of-towners" that many Americans might assume aren't too welcome in these parts: Mexicans crossing the border.

Of course, such a stunning statistic requires some explanation to be fully understood. But that's exactly what the folks who came up with it want journalists like me to do. That's why they put it into a briefing book on the San Diego-Tijuana economy prepared for the hordes of journalists who will be here next month to report on the Republican convention.

The book was produced by the San Diego Dialogue, a think tank affiliated with UC San Diego. It was created five years ago by San Diego and Tijuana business leaders to study not just the problems but also the opportunities facing a rapidly growing metropolitan region that "just happens to have an international border running through it," in the words of Charles Nathanson, the sociologist who is executive director of the Dialogue.

Nathanson hopes that at least some of the journalists who file stories about how GOP politicians like Gov. Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan helped turn immigration into a "hot button" issue also try going a few miles south to actually visit the border--but not before perusing the Dialogue's impressive collection of information.

Indeed, any journalist who writes about the border just in terms of illegal immigrants, drugs or other problems is not getting the whole story. Take that from someone who's been writing about the border on a regular basis since 1973. The San Diego-Tijuana region has grown to almost 4 million people since then, and has prospered quite nicely.

Even the border itself is far less violent and far better policed than it has ever been. But you'd never know it to hear the overheated political rhetoric about immigration, drugs and other border problems that has hovered over California the past few years like stagnant air.

That political smog was first generated by a relative handful of single-issue extremists who decided that illegal immigration was a threat to civilization as we know it. To hear some of them rant, San Diego would be an earthly paradise if only it weren't for the hellhole at the southern end of Interstate 5.

At first, only a few loudmouthed radio talk-show hosts gave these anti-immigration nuts a platform to vent their spleen, adding flaky touches of their own, like the guy who urged listeners to gather en masse at the border to pull down their pants and "moon" Tijuana.

But the real damage was done when the immigration issue was blown all out of proportion by ambitious politicians. Most of them know that San Diego and Tijuana benefit from each other, but they just couldn't resist pushing a political hot button that might help them get reelected.

"The immigration story has contaminated everything else," Nathanson says. "Now you can hardly even suggest that anything about Mexico is positive for San Diego."

Like the fact that Tijuana is as solidly middle-class as San Diego (50% of the population of both cities is defined as middle-income). Or the fact that its maquiladoras, manufacturing plants built on the border for purposes of international trade, have turned this region into a major manufacturing center. Those plants even employ 8,000 San Diego County residents who commute southward across the border every day.

Or the remarkable size of Mexicans' contribution to the San Diego economy. That $2.8-billion estimate is based on the fact that there were 4 million border crossings from Baja California into San Diego County every month in 1996, 98% of them perfectly legal. And one-quarter of the Mexicans who crossed did so specifically to shop in the San Diego area.

San Diego and Tijuana are "the mother of all land border ports," says Nathanson, who points out that the main crossing at San Ysidro is twice as busy as Hong Kong's. "There are lessons being learned here for the entire border," he adds. "That's the story the media will see if they look beyond the border fence."

Amen. Here's hoping some of my colleagues who visit next month do take the time to look beyond not just the fence but (Republicans should pardon the expression) beyond the conventional wisdom about the border.

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