There is the curbside view of the Mexican border: severed heads on nightclub floors, migrant corpses in the mountains, fingers lopped off, armies in pursuit of drug lords, fleeing fugitives, gangs of money-washers, set to the plaintive ballads of narcocorridistas.
And then there is another world, unseen by most. In this opposite realm, the right real-estate deal is enough to endow a family dynasty for decades. The players are ensconced in air-conditioned suites far removed from the turmoil in the streets, filled with the prerogatives of privilege and gentle promises of progress.
This world was created by the desire by millions to cross the border, in one direction or another — to get a job, score a line of coke, sell a stash of guns, open a factory, flee a crime, smuggle illegal labor, build a power plant, launder drug money.
Finding a way to profit from this traffic is the business of the border barons. They do not judge its morality or concern themselves with its values. Oblivious to the mayhem outside the door, business proceeds smoothly, on both sides of the frontier, cloaked in a velvet curtain of discretion and diplomacy.
The controlling families, both Americans and Mexicans, are rich. They were born in American hospitals, went to Ivy League schools, wear tailored European suits, are protected from kidnappers by bodyguards, and shuttle through border crossings with no delay.
They have homes in Coronado, La Jolla, Mazatlán, and Luzerne. They know the cops and politicians worth knowing and can spot the next big money-making opportunity because they have been doing it, as have their fathers and grandfathers before them, for as long as they can remember.
Whether their native language is English or Spanish, they use a coded vocabulary, so as not to offend public sensibilities by saying the obvious: the border is a broken but lucrative place for business, and no authority in Mexico or the United States of America will do anything to fix it.
“Treating the border as a shared economic space rather than a clear boundary might permit flexibility in how national regulations are applied to adjacent communities on different sides of the frontier,” says a February 2009 “concept paper” by the Pacific Council on International Policy and the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, two nonprofit think tanks closely linked to the border moguls.
Translation: we want more border crossings. Pedestrian bridges, freeway crossings, freight crossings, truck depots. Billions of dollars are made every time a new border crossing is opened and the flow of trade and humanity gushes across the frontier, bathing the owners of adjacent real estate in commerce and cash.
This is a story about a new border crossing, not yet open and still pending United States approval, along the frontier between Mexicali and Calexico, in the desert about 100 miles east of San Diego. It is also about a longtime denizen of the border and its politics, who married into a wealthy San Diego family with deep ties to the border region. He has become a major border player, with a personal financial stake in its development.
On September 22, President Barack Obama nominated Alan Bersin to be commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, known as CBP, one of the most sensitive positions in the government of the United States. As noted on its website, the agency “is one of the Department of Homeland Security’s largest and most complex components, with a priority mission of keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S.
“It also has a responsibility for securing and facilitating trade and travel while enforcing hundreds of U.S. regulations, including immigration and drug laws.”
Bersin has been a United States Attorney, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, and California secretary of education. He is a personal friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Arnold and Maria Schwarzenegger and is revered by many other friends of trade along the border.
“He is somebody that knows the border, knows the process,” J.B. Manson, chairman of the Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority, said after Bersin’s appointment was announced in September. “I believe if he is confirmed it would mean a smooth relationship between trade and CBP.”
“He is a man that is very passionate and understands the balance between trade and security,” former Nogales mayor Marco Antonio Lopez Jr., now chief of staff for CBP, told Nogales International.
Alan Bersin has taken an interesting road to the border. But the saga begins long before he was born, with the great grandfather of his wife, Lisa Foster.
Isaac Ratner, a cap maker from New York, came to San Diego for his health in 1921, accompanied by his wife and six children, and established United Cap Works. San Diego was close to the border and filled with sunshine, cheap labor, and Navy contracts.
Ratner began making uniforms and, in the 1930s, civilian menswear. Sons Abe and Nate joined him in the business. After World War II, their downtown factory began turning out a stylish variety of suits, sports coats, and slacks. Business in the postwar era was good, but it would become much better under the direction of Abe’s ambitious young son-in-law.
Abe’s daughter Pauline met Stanley Foster on a blind date while she was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The son of a Ukrainian scrap dealer, he ran a downtown furniture store. They married in 1954 and moved to San Diego, where Stan worked his way up the ladder at Ratner Clothing, first in the shipping department, then in sales.
In 1970, at the age of 42, Stan Foster succeeded 64-year-old Abe Ratner as president of the business and quickly moved to put his stamp on the firm. In 1972, he took the company public. A year earlier he had purchased the Hang Ten trademark for $2 million, the beginning of a multimillion-dollar licensing bonanza for the firm.
The Ratner company was a creature of the border. It built a 310,000-square-foot factory in Chula Vista, an easy commute from Tijuana for many of its workers. It also owned the Arizona Slack Co., which operated a plant just across the state border in Yuma, employing hundreds of Hispanic workers, and owned a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, opposite the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez.