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Invisible lines: What’s it really like on the U.S.-Mexico border?

This article recounts my experience at the U.S.-Mexico border on my last trip to El Paso, Texas.

The view from Scenic Drive

The first time that I visited El Paso, my parents joked with me to take my passport on my morning runs in case I accidentally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Ironically enough, my boyfriend’s mother lives about a mile from one of the four international points of entry in the city connecting the countries. By running down the street, the American capitalist chain businesses and large, ranch-style homes that are prominent in El Paso morph into tortillerias, piñata shops, and modest homes with massive dogs that peer menacingly over their fences. Thankfully, when I hit the border, there was no way to blindly skip across; the fenced-off divide can only be crossed by cars and pedestrians by stopping at a security check-point before traversing the bridge.

By running up the street, the view of the border was equally telling. The farther I continued, the more picturesque the view became of the invisible line between our country and our southern neighbor’s. From a distance, the separation between lands looks more like a subtle transition of urban architecture than a walled-off divide.

I had crossed the border by car two holiday seasons in a row to visit Daniel’s extended family in Mexico. There were noticeably more drug searches leading up to the U.S. border this year compared to last. However, each crossing of the actual border has been rather anti-climactic, requiring only a quick scan of my passport to enter the U.S. side.

This spring, when I ventured to El Paso to pick up my puppy and my tattoo, I crossed the border by foot for the first time for a night of dancing in Ciudad Juárez. Yes, that’s the same Juárez was named the most violent city in the world in the early 2000’s – one of the regions that Donald Trump refers to when citing a “crisis at the border”.

Ciudad Juárez by day

Does Trump have any weight in his declaration of a border emergency or in his need to build a menacing divide between us and them? From the standpoint of yellow journalism, sure. Juárez is known for its history of government corruption, poverty, drug cartel-related violence, and violence against women. The city has historically been a destination for Mexican migrants to cross the border into El Paso, but in the 1970’s, Juárez entered an economic boom as more and more migrants began to stay. Within its era of entrepreneurial flowering, Juárez offered impoverished migrants shelter, food security, job security, and education for their children. Yet the city’s chaotic growth was not met with equal improvements in infrastructure, leading a generation of children who grew up in the streets. Gang formation accelerated, crime without punishment began to reign, and the Juárez cartel was formed within this era to control drug routes that crossed the city.

Ciudad Juárez by day

According to Amnesty International, 370 young women and girls were murdered in Juárez between 1993 and 2005 – over one third of these victims experiencing sexual violence. Juárez had the world’s highest murder rate in 2008 with 96 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Homicides were reported to have dramatically spiked to their peak of 3,766 in the city of 1.3 million in 2010, during the height of the drug war between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartel.

However, crime rates in Juárez have been greatly reduced with the dissolution of the drug war and the enactment of improved law enforcement. Homicides have fallen to 256 in 2015, and the city no longer ranks among the 50 most violent in the world. Also in 2015, 17,000 jobs were created. Businesses and public space have been reborn, including a Children’s Museum opened in honor of the 14,000 children who were orphaned in the city’s violence. The city holds promise to be reborn as a destination city for migrants rather than a dangerous passageway to survival.

Ciudad Juárez by day

Of course, it’s not quite there yet. I must admit, had I not been accompanied by a Mexican family, I may have felt unsafe entering the city. As we casually passed a Mexican security guard with a nod to set foot across the bridge, my ears perked up as I listened to Daniel’s family speak in Spanish about the city’s violence. “What did they say?” I asked Daniel.

“Just about the murders. Gangs are still killing people in the places where rich people go to dance, but we’re not going there,” he stated, nonchalantly.

We meandered beyond the bridge, past crowds of street-sellers and beggars, through a taquitoria that sold meals for dirt cheap before we finally arrived to a dance club. Natalia Lafourcade’s voice played so loud from the stereos that my ears buzzed, and middle-aged couples jovially danced cumbia in circles around the elevated floor. Daniel and I must have been the youngest couple on the dance floor by a few decades. After a few hours of watching his mother and the other quasi-professional dancers dominate the stage, I became convinced that cumbia dancers are like wine – they become better with age.

A few hours later and a few eardrums less, we made the trek home across the bridge. Crossing by foot seemed to be perfectly doable at midnight, but the line of cars to enter the country was backed up for miles. Daniel’s mother noted that the lines on the other side of the border had been worsening over time. His grandmother sadly couldn’t make the journey from Torréon to El Paso for Mother’s Day this year for this reason. Perhaps there is need for increased border security – not to push more people out, but to let them rightfully in. And perhaps the need for security stems not from Juarez but from our own nation’s hunger for drugs and our lack of limits on guns.

Daniel’s sister handed me a 5-peso coin. “For candy?” I asked, picking up a dime-sized toffee at the street candy stand.

“No, to cross the border,” she replied. I laughed out loud at the irony of the relative ease U.S. residents and citizens have in crossing the border compared to undocumented migrants. A quarter to cross the border, really?

The bridge that divides the U.S. and Mexico

At the end of the bridge, we scanned our documents, inserted our pesos into metal detector machines, walked through, and approached a few unfriendly-looking American cops. I was waved over to a tired-looking officer with blond hair. “What brought you to Mexico?” he asked, mechanically without a smile.

“I came to pick up a puppy – not in Mexico, but in El Paso. Her name is Blue and – ”

Unamused by my puppy stories, he waved his hand and said, “That’s enough. Next!” As Daniel approached, he droned, “What brought you to Mexico?”

“I’m with her,” he said, pointing at me.

“Okay, next!” the cop replied.

As we exited the security checkpoint, Daniel pointed at the fence to our left. “See that? That’s where they’re holding migrants.”

“Wait… those trash bags are… bodies?” I asked, aghast. Through the metal grid of the fence, I spied a fenced-in outdoor area where people were lumped into trash bags as protection against the cold as they slept through the night. Towards the edge of the facility, another group of migrants stood in a row facing an officer in what looked like a police line-up. “This is where migrants are detained at the border? This is where they sleep for weeks at a time?”

Peering through bars at sleeping migrants

“Not all of them. This is just one of the border checkpoints,” Daniel replied. “It looks like the holocaust, doesn’t it? These kinds of images are what make me want to become the next Elon Musk, innovating the world for the better.”

I mumbled under my breath, “These kinds of images are what make me want to write.”

The view from Scenic Drive

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