Life on the US-Mexican border: ‘I can’t imagine El Paso without Juárez’
Unlike most teenagers, Ashley Delgado starts her school day by crossing an international border. She gets up at 5am so her mother Dora can drive through Juárez’s dense traffic to the Paso del Norte bridge, where she follows the caged pathway between Mexico and the United States by foot. Clearing customs takes on average half an hour, but often it’s double that – depending on the line and the guards’ moods.
“Sometimes they put people in a little room for investigation and start to ask questions,” says the 14-year-old as her mum picks her up from the Mexican side at the end of a school day. “Where are you from? What are you bringing? What are you going to do in the US? It’s never happened to me, but to some of my friends it happens every three days. “
Ashley escapes these questions thanks to her dual citizenship; an access-all-areas pass in the twin border cities of Juárez in Mexico and El Paso in the US state of Texas. Located in the gaping desert and flanked by low mountains, the industrial city of Juárez, Chihuahua is separated from the US by the narrow strip of the Rio Grande – if it can even be called a river. At this point in its journey it’s nothing more than a puddle of water in the littered concrete river bed.
A low electric fence marks the two cities’ dividing line, with four border crossing points stemming the constant two-way traffic. After the neighbouring cities of San Diego and Tijuana, this is the second largest bi-national urban area on the US-Mexican border, with a combined population of over 2.5 million.
While the former are separated by 20 miles, Juárez and El Paso lie one on top of the other, cleaved apart by history from the same city. Modern day El Paso was part of Mexico until 1846, when American forces moved along the Rio Grande seizing tracts of the south-western desert.
For years, the adjoining cities have lived a symbiotic existence, their inhabitants, culture and economy an inseparable mix from either side of the increasingly militarised frontier. Arriving into El Paso from the Paso del Norte bridge, shop fronts offer mattresses, blankets and rugs in Spanish; nearby, a gas station accepts pesos and gives dollars in return.
Like Tijuana, cheap labour and a border location have turned Juárez into a manufacturing hub. As El Paso’s garment industry dwindled in the 90s, the 1994-enacted Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement) created scores of factories in Juárez’ dusty sprawl. Today, workers in more than 350 maquiladores churn out car parts, medical devices and electronics, most earning less than $11 a day. Ironically, Juárenses buy their own electronics in El Paso, where prices are much cheaper.
For dual citizens such as Ashley who can move freely between the two countries, the proximity of the cities offers unique advantages, from better shopping to better jobs. “I want to have a career in the US, with less limitations than here,” she says. Like many Mexican women living near the border, her mother Dora crossed into the US to give birth to her daughter. “It’s fine as long as you pay the hospital fees,” she says. “More options, better opportunities. I was afraid of how the situation is in Juárez.”
Between 2008 and 2012, Juárez bore the sinister mantel of world’s most violent city, the drugs trade leading rival gangs to murder at a rate that terrified the community. In contrast, calm, clean El Paso was for four years in a row named the safest large city in the US. The cartel battle in Juárez appears to have stabilised, for now – though October saw a sudden surge in violence. A new wave of restaurant openings and creative culture has brought colour back to the beleaguered city and gradually, El Pasoans once afraid to cross are returning.
At the University of Texas at El Paso, which has a large number of Mexican students, Josiah Heyman heads up the Center for Interamerican and Border Studies. He says El Paso’s residents appreciate the benefits of Juárez as much as the other way around. “The Mexican side is a social safety net for the US. There’s a huge level of use of private medical services [there] because people can’t afford them in the United States.” Around 10-15% of El Paso’s commerce derives from customers coming from Juárez, he adds.
For many, family life is so scattered across the border that no amount of violence could stop them visiting. Julio Chavez was born in El Paso but raised in Juárez. Like Ashley, he spent his school mornings queuing at US customs. His mother took him to live in El Paso aged 14 when she separated from his dad, so visits back and forth became a regular part of family life.
For Thanksgiving dinner, Chavez cooked his turkey in El Paso then drove it over to his father’s house in Juárez to eat it. “This has been my life, I grew up like this. I can’t imagine how there would be one [city] without the other,” he says.
In El Paso, where 80% of residents are of Latino origin, his life reflects the porosity of the border. Customs pass from children to parents and back the other way. “My dad doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving for American reasons, he celebrates because I ask him to. We as American kids grew up having a [Thanksgiving] dinner, so parents have to adjust to it.”
As a citizen of both sides, Chavez is sensitive to the pros and cons of each. “Once you come back to the United States, you breathe a different air, you breathe serenity,” he says. Yet there are aspects of El Paso, with its wide empty boulevards and tiny downtown, which are too quiet for him. “Here most of the streets are empty by seven o’clock at night. Me and my wife feel that it’s kind of boring here.”
All along the US-Mexican line, waiting times are a shared frustration. On the Bridge of the Americas, food hawkers weave through four lanes of traffic funnelling slowly into the US; delays range from 30 minutes up to two hours. An app predicts crossing times and residents use a Facebook page to share tips on the fastest line; meanwhile, southbound towards Mexico, cars and pedestrians move freely through the barriers, with passports rarely checked.
From Tijuana, crossings towards San Diego can take even longer. The San Ysidro port of entry is the busiest land crossing in the western hemisphere, handling 50,000 northbound vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians per day. Despite a $742m expansion project, the 34 northbound vehicle lanes and new pedestrian entrance still struggle to expedite the growing flow – by 2030, the San Diego government expects to see an 87% increase in vehicle traffic. Commuters can buy Sentri, a five-year pass for around $250 that allows pre-vetted, low-risk commuters to cross through more quickly.
Others simply have to wait. “It’s a pain,” Jose Ibarra Gonzalez, a Tijuana-based Phd student who crosses into San Diego around twice a month to visit friends and go shopping. “But in the end it’s worth it.” Gonzalez identifies three distinct groups in his city, which are paralleled in Juárez: one of internal, southern Mexican immigrants who don’t have a visa and stay rooted in their customs; another that’s “border-style” like him; and a third that’s “definitely binational – people with citizenship or a visa who live in Tijuana and work in the US. They’re bilingual and share both cultures”.
Looking forward, multi-agency groups are eagerly trying to match the border’s infrastructure to its geographical advantages. Just south of San Diego, the city of Chula Vista has plans for a binational university and innovation district, with a focus on cross-border opportunities. Nearby in Otay Mesa, the world’s first binational airport terminal opened in November 2015 – a 150m footbridge leading straight over the border into the Tijuana airport.