The Border was inspired by a series of Los Angeles Times articles about illegal aliens from Mexico. These poverty-stricken, hopeless, and helpless Mexicans long for a new life in America. But as the movie's title song by Ry Cooder notes, the risk for these people is high: "You could lose more than you could ever find."

Charlie (Jack Nicholson) is a member of the U.S. Border Patrol in Los Angeles whose social climbing wife (Valerie Perrine) talks him into transferring to El Paso where her high school friend (Shannon Wilcox) lives in a duplex. They move in next door. Her husband Cat (Harvey Keitel), a border guard, introduces Charlie to the daily roundup procedures during which the "wetbacks" are processed and sent back to Mexico.

Screenplay writers Deric Washburn (The Deer Hunter), Walon Green, and David Freeman skewer the corrupt cops, especially Cat and his friend (Warren Oats) who are involved with a ring that smuggles Mexicans into the country to big businessmen and disposes of independent competitors. The screenwriters also make it quite clear the "the good life" these illegal immigrants envision in America is nothing more than a miasma of unfulfilling materialism exemplified by Charlie's wife and her new friends.

Fed up with his marriage and enraged by the amorality of the border guards, Charlie tries to save his soul by helping Maria (Elphidia Carrillo), a young Mexican mother, her child and younger brother who were made homeless by an earthquake that destroyed her village. When several attempts to get her across the border fail, he becomes obsessed with finding her baby — the boy's been stolen and is about to be sold to a rich, childless American couple.

Jack Nicholson's vivid and earnest portrayal of Charlie holds The Border together. His dream has to do with morality and a thug in the smuggling ring rightly sees "craziness" in Charlie's face. While the saga of Maria's unfulfilled quest for freedom is emotionally affecting, it is Charlie's inward thirsting for righteousness which make The Border succeed