EL PASO – If you want to go to Juárez for the day, all you need is your US Passport. The cheapest parking in downtown El Paso is right near the bridge on Santa Fe street – $3 for 8 hours. Pay 50¢ to the border guard by the window and head right on up the pedestrian bridge. You’ll cross the bridge over railroad tracks, a fence with concrete embankment, the Rio Grande, another fence with concrete embankment, a road where US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cars patrol, another fence, a wide concrete canal that’s bone dry, and then another fence.
Before you know it, you’re in a different country. Nobody stops you to check your passport, nobody searches your belongings, and no one charges you a visa fee. If you’ve got a US passport, you can walk across the bridge as if its nothing, just to buy a pair of shoes or have lunch at a bar – two beers and a plate of food for less than $6. You can pay for everything in US dollars and get change in US dollars. You can wander around and take photos, chat with locals. Then, when you feel like you’ve had enough of Mexico, just head back to the bridge.
Manny Martinez is there to offer assistance to anyone hauling a suitcase up the incline. He stands next to a stall selling candies, cigarettes and soda.
Most of the people going through here are just working in El Paso, he tells me in a mixture of Spanish and English. They’ll be back by tonight.
Manny tells me he lived in the United States for eleven years before he was deported. He left Mexico when he was 18 and came back when he was 29. He was a roofer in Albuquerque until there was a work accident and he had to come back to Mexico for medical treatment.
I have a son in Albuquerque, he says. I don’t know what he looks like but people tell me he’s mine. I had him with a Laguna woman. I would like to go back.
But he can’t, not easily. He tried to go back when his hand recovered, but was captured by ICE and deported almost immediately.
They took my fingerprints, he says, and now I have a record.
When gringos come over the bridge, sometimes Manny will take them around. They want to go to a pharmacy, a dentist or an eye doctor. Everything is cheaper here. There are more than 300 maquiladoras in Juárez, where foreign capital – mainly US – will come to use Mexican land and Mexican labor to produce goods that pay nearly no entry or exit tariffs to Mexico. They work long hours for little money.
I ask Manny if he thinks it’s fair that gringos get to come to Juárez, for an afternoon to visit the dentist or the pharmacy and he can’t go over the same bridge. No, it’s not right.
Manny, like most Mexicans, has indigenous roots in this land. More than 90% of Mexicans do. Gringos like myself have next to none. Yet, I am able to go back to El Paso after a few hours in Juárez,, and Manny cannot go meet his son in Albuquerque.
He tells me he applied for a visa. He will probably never receive a visa. In El Paso, the three ICE judges who decide on asylum cases turn away 95.4% of applicants. One of the judges turns away 99% of his cases. There is no law in the United States that a person seeking asylum or entry has the right to an attorney.
When you decide to leave Juárez, you’ll pay 25¢ to the Mexican border guard and head right up back on the bridge. On this side, people ask for money and sell items on blankets. There are more people. Near the bottom of the decline, an ICE agent checks to see who has passports. She waves past people who look the part to the left. On the right, a line stacks its way up the bridge.
There is preferential treatment, expedited lines for those with the proper papers. I sail through. The guard asks me what was I doing in Juárez. He asks if I brought anything back with me. I put my bag through an x-ray machine and walk out. In less than 10 minutes since I left Manny, I am back in the United States. No exit or entry stamps. I only needed the passport for the ICE agents.
This is the same in the West Bank when you want to cross from Ramallah to Jerusalem. To go from Jerusalem to Ramallah is no problem, but to come back out is a different story. This is when people worry what you might be bringing in, who you are, why you’re there. They say there are terrorists who want to get in, Manny told me. But we’re not terrorists.
Erving was born in El Paso but lives in Juárez. He commutes every day from to go to school or work as a barista at a coffee shop. He is 21 years old. He was born the year after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.
My father came here because he thought life was better in the United States, he says.
He’s been working at this coffee shop for 2 years. He tells me the money he makes at the coffee shop goes farther in Juárez, so he lives there. It’s not much trouble making the commute, since he has a US passport.
Does he think the conditions in Juárez have anything to do with the politics of the United States? Of course, he says. There are the drugs. There are the weapons people in the US sell the cartels in Juárez which they use to kill people.
He thinks there should be freedom of movement between Juárez and El Paso, because in reality the people are really the same on both sides. There might be cultural differences, but he thinks the border exists simply to divide the same people who live on both sides.
The maquiladoras are a way of life in Juárez. The companies are no longer just from the US, but from Germany and China now too. Erving tells me they work 12 hour days there for little pay.
Racism is a problem in the election discourse. Erving says he’s not a bad guy – he doesn’t take financial aid, or any other kind of welfare. He just wants to go to school and have a job. Erving says the United States runs on undocumented and documented Mexican labor. They do the “ugly jobs” that others don’t want to do.
El Paso in particular has a unique relationship with Juárez. Schools start soon, so people are coming across the bridge to spend the money they earned from the US-run maquiladoras in Mexico. He says the same companies that employ them end up taking back their money in El Paso when the Mexican workers buy the goods they themselves produce in Juárez.
Linda Rivas works for Las Americas, an immigrant advocacy center in El Paso. Her job is to represent people who have no constitutional right to representation – immigrants who want to stay in the United States. She tells me she was born in Mexico, but was lucky to have a mother with US citizenship. The US census counts 75% of El Paso as being Chicano – of Mexican descent.
The history of the US southwest is one of conquest and war. The people who lived here before white settlers arrived in the 1800s were Chicano or Indigenous, sometimes African. The story of Texas itself is one of settler pride. The Texas Independence movement was largely a response to the Mexican government’s abolishment of slavery it in 1829. White settlers wanted to be recognized as having the right to own enslaved people. After the Mexican-American war, the northwest part of Mexico became the southwest part of the United States.
To Linda and many others, the border between El Paso and Juárez is imposed. Linda’s father was from Mexico, but her mother’s family had been in El Paso since “before the wars.”
“I think when you look at us historically, you have this large part of the United States being Mexico. So many times you’ll hear people talking, and some of the narrative that has come out is ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.'” People in Mexico used to move back and forth across the Rio Grande for work or visiting with no problems, she said. El Paso was safe, just as it is today. This was a way of life until Operation Hold the Line “beefed up” militarization around the border.
Originally called Operation Blockade (this name was dropped for PR purposes), Operation Hold the Line “beefed up” the militarization of the border between El Paso and Juárez starting in September 1993. In January 1994, NAFTA went into effect. The rich were still able to go to El Paso, but the poor were left out. They are not, after all, wealthy people who end up in ICE detention centers.
“I think so much has been so politicized that there’s some idea that this isn’t going on. It’s been happening. We have a fence. Before anybody said they wanted to build a wall, we always actually called it a wall.”
In addition to the barriers already in place between the United States and Mexico, Linda says around 3 million people have been deported during the Obama administration. Hundreds of thousands are being detained.
“Families are being separated on a daily basis. Families are being detained. Mothers and infants are being detained.”
“You meet people who have been victimized by gang violence in Central America, horrible cartel violence in Mexico, they’re coming — fleeing for their lives — [and] they’re immediately detained upon arrival. Release is now near impossible, even if they’ve passed what they call a “credible fear exam” that’s issued by Department of Homeland Security.”
“They call them detention centers. They’re jails. They call them removal proceedings. They’re deportation proceedings. They make these words seem kinder. But they reality is these people are being treated very poorly, considering they’re asylum seekers; there are international laws that are supposed to protect them.”
“I don’t think the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] policies are being publicized or being looked at.”
One of the DHS policies Linda feels is underreported is the bed-space quota for immigrants. The US Government requires 34,000 people to be detained in ICE facilities per day, up to half a million per year. The majority of these beds are privately operated. This, combined with the quota system, means that the two largest private ICE contractors have netted $163,644,000 in profits since 2008.
Families are sometimes separated depending on these bed space quotas, violating UN protection guidelines. The mother and her children will be put in a shelter while the father will be detained in a privatized facility. While the father will most likely be deported immediately, the woman and child will be stuck at a shelter for years while waiting on a decision from the El Paso ICE courts — which deny 95.4% of asylum cases anyway. Grandparents fleeing violence with their grandchildren are being separated. Children go to shelters and grandmothers go to detention centers.
Many of these asylum seekers come from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, countries that have been impacted significantly by the US State Department. Between 2012 and June 2016, the DHS identified 214,982 unaccompanied children arrested while coming into the United States.
“Unfortunately, the border is very much a reality. There is movement back and forth. We are incredibly binational.”
She says that El Paso and Juárez are sister cities, stronger together than they are separate. “The reality is that the laws make it very painful for those who have been separated.”
“It’s the people who are very poor, who are very disenfranchised, they’re stuck. And if they have any deportation history, any negative history affecting their immigration, they’re not going to get that visa.”
Would she like to see freedom of movement?
“Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. I do believe migration is a human right.”
“A lot of money is invested into this ‘border security’, when in reality we should be investing in the bi-nationality of these two cities.”
But then how to keep people working at maquiladoras in Juárez for $2 an hour? After NAFTA, companies like Leer and Delphi could take advantage of those unemployed and now trapped in Mexico. Capital enjoys relative freedom of movement between the US and Mexico — labor does not.
Does Linda think that things will change in the United States depending on who is elected in November?
“Mass deportations? Family detention? I can only hope it doesn’t get worse under either one of them.”
“I think the main disenfranchised are going to be the undocumented. I absolutely believe it’s taxation without representation. I think we absolutely know that undocumented people pay into the system quite a bit regardless if people want to believe it or not.”
“Organizing, at its core, for this group, is very important.”
Linda has been a lawyer for 3 years, and considers herself a “baby attorney.” But she hears horror stories from older, seasoned lawyers about their clients being deported and then, when they reach their country of origin, murdered.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna deal with that. I’m sure that if I continue to do this work, that unfortunately that will happen to me as well.”
“It’s a really, really hard and sad reality that we’re dealing with.”
Spanish translations for this article are indicated by in italics if not in quotations.