Standing on the Brownsville, Texas end of the bridge across the Mexican border, one can watch perhaps $1,000 worth of goods go by in a matter of minutes -- and that's not counting the vehicles weighing heavily on the bridge. It's only the pedestrians, mostly middle-class Mexicans, carrying the day's shopping home to Matamoros.
Clothing, groceries, and household supplies cross the bridge in staggering quantities. U.S. shoppers carry their share back across, in the form of crafts, gifts, shoes, and other items for which the strong dollar has made Mexico's prices cheap.
For all practical purposes, the Rio Grande Valley, slung between the U.S. state of Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, has had free trade for decades. Now, with "free trade" negotiations well under way, academics, workers, and consumers on both sides of the border are looking at the Valley's experience as a tool for predicting the potential impact of free trade in the rest of their respective countries.
One much-discussed aspect of life in the Valley is the presence of maquiladoras, labor-intensive factories built along the Mexican border by U.S. corporations looking for cheap labor in close proximity to the border. Publicized as a development strategy for Mexico, the 20-year program has drawn heavy criticism both from defenders of workers' rights in Mexico and from U.S. labor advocates who have watched "runaway shops" carry much-needed jobs away from U.S. cities.