A Comparative Border Trip: El Paso, TX

El Paso Day 1:

For the first ten years or so of its existence, Border Studies was based in El Paso, Texas. When violence began to increase in Ciudad Juárez, the program moved to Nogales, Arizona and then finally Tucson where we are today. In order to compare the border between the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to the border we see in Arizona—and partly due to the sentiment of BSP’s old roots in El Paso—our group took a four day trip to El Paso.

Leaving Tucson early Wednesday morning, we make a brief stop in Columbus, New Mexico for lunch. In 1916, Columbus was raided by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, an event that raised American fears of Mexican radicalism and prompted some of the first border militarization. We visited Columbus’ tiny museum before pushing on to El Paso.   Welcoming us to El Paso is Naomi Fertman, a Border Studies alumni and former BSP instructor now teaching Women’s Studies courses at the University of Texas El Paso, who lead our visit to El Paso. Our home in El Paso is the First Christian Church, where we attempt to arrange the couches and cushions in a comfortable manner to avoid sleeping the floor. After a struggle with the coffee machine, we head up the Franklin Mountains to see the city.

El Paso 1

Downtown El Paso, with Ciudad Juárez behind it, as seen from Franklin Mountain.

As we look over El Paso and just south of the Rio Grande River we see Ciudad Juárez; Naomi explains the background of the two cities. El Paso is dwarfed by Juárez, a city nearly three times its size, yet the cities remain closely connected. This makes for a unique border unlike anywhere else along the US-Mexico border. Up until 1994, the border was open here. Even after NAFTA, only a driver’s license was necessary to cross. It wasn’t until after 9/11 you needed to show a passport to enter El Paso from Ciudad Juárez. Many people have family in both cities, particular those who live in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood. The new requirement for passports has made it prohibitively expensive even for US citizens in El Paso to visit Ciudad Juárez.

El Paso Day 2:

Our first stop on Thursday is the El Paso Farm Workers Center, located just across the street from a bridge connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Carlos Marentes, co-founder of the center, describes for us the daily life of a farm worker. At midnight, farm workers wake and begin looking for work. The earlier you wake up, the better job you can get. By 2am, they will be on their way to the fields, arriving between 4am and 5am. After waiting for enough light to see the plants, the workers begin their workday. Between 3pm and 6pm, the workers return to the center to eat, talk and organize before going to bed at 9pm.

The main product in the region is chiles. Last harvest season workers were paid $0.65 to $0.75 for each 5 gallon bucket they filled. To make New Mexico’s minimum wage, a farm worker would need to fill 100 buckets a day—an utter impossibility. On average, a farm worker will earn $6,700 a year. 80% of all farmworkers in the US come from Mexico. Carlos explains the goal of the center is recovering the dignity of these workers. To change the working conditions in the fields, Carlos argues we need to change the US food production system. Movingly, Carlos points out that if we feel driven to wash our vegetables before eating them, what about those who handle the food while picking, handling or shipping it?

After a few hours to explore downtown El Paso, find a burrito for lunch and visit Cinco Punto Press, we arrive at the Annunciation House. Carmen, a recent graduate from Swathmore College, gives us a tour. The Annunciation House or A-House is one of the few migrant shelters in the US. Started in the 1980’s to help house refugees from El Salvador; the house today is filled with asylum seekers fleeing Mexico and Central America, recently released detainees and a few migrants who successfully crossed the border.

Six volunteers currently live in the house, along with anywhere between 30 and 100 migrants. A-House does not accept long term grants, instead depending on the generosity of the community of El Paso. During the massive increase in families migrating last summer that overwhelmed ICE’s detention, A-House coordinated additional housing among a network of churches and local organizations. 175 people arrived in the first week alone seeking housing, with over 3000 in the last year. Unlike the shelters we’ve visited in Mexico, the A-House is a long term shelter, providing families a place to stay during the months of waiting that accompany an asylum case.

El Paso Day 3:

We start off day 3 in El Paso with an early morning run to Bowie Bakery in Segundo Barrio for some delicious pastries. Next we meet with Taylor Levy of Las Americas, a legal aid organization. Taylor has been in El Paso for five years, first as a volunteer with A-House and now working with Las Americas. When ICE became overwhelmed last summer in Southern Texas by the sheer number of families migrating to the US, it first tried shipping everyone to Arizona for processing and then release because it had nowhere to detain them all. After a backlash, ICE then started sending families to El Paso, where they would be released to A-House. Again, pressure mounted on ICE to be “tough” and start detaining these families.

In response, on July 24, 2014, ICE opened a temporary family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. It was completely arbitrary who was released to A-House and who was sent to Artesia. ICE needed to prove they were doing something by filling detention center beds. For the first three weeks, no structure had been set up to provide legal aid to the detained families. The US government is not required to provide a lawyer to immigrants and as a result, most families had no idea how to answer the complicated questions about their asylum and were deported.

Taylor, Las Americas and several other organizations stepped in to end that absurdity. Lack of childcare for mothers, lack of translators for indigenous languages, refusal to set bail and having to conduct court over Skype were only some of the countless obstacles to helping these families stay in the US. Many of the young children, immensely stressed by their long time in detention and drastic change in diet, stopped eating, became sick or engaged in self-destructive behaviors. Artesia has since closed, replaced by new family detention centers in Karnes, Texas and Dilley, Texas—both converted prisons. 78 women in Karnes recently went on a hunger strike, demanding to be released.

For lunch we went to Mercado Mayapan and were met by Rubi Orozco. El Paso is historically a textile town, with 30,000 mostly immigrant women employed at its height. These women came together in 1982 and founded Mujer Obera. In the 1990’s, El Paso’s textile industry collapsed and the factories left. Mujer Obera, already organized, was able to successfully sue Levi’s for the loss of their jobs. The funds went to create Mercado Mayapan, a market and café to celebrate their Mexican roots and begin rebuilding the neighborhood the factories had left behind.

Rubi returned to El Paso after grad school, creating nutrition programs that emphasize the importance of traditional Mexican foods. Rubi explained that the usual stereotypes of Mexican food—greasy, lots of cheese and frying, unhealthy—are all post-colonial changes. Before the conquistadors, the Mexican indigenous diet was much more balanced, with more vegetables and no dairy.   Amaranth, a grain and staple of the diet, was even banned by Spanish colonists because of its military and religious importance to indigenous Mexicans, resulting in the destruction of the knowledge system of raising and cooking it.

Rubi’s goal is to link food to history, culture and medicine. As part of this, she has begun blogging traditional recipes and commentary on food. For white foodies, traditional Mexican foods like amaranth and chia are just the new fad. For Mexicans, Rubi explains, these are foods we’re trying to reclaim as important and meaningful parts of our diets. The region surrounding El Paso grows mostly cotton, hay and pecans, but over the last five years El Paso women have been leading a push for more locally grown food.

Our last stop of the day is to talk to Shalini Thomas at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services. Shalini originally came to El Paso for labor organizing before beginning working at Diocesan. As immigrants are not given lawyers, Diocesan helps provide legal aid, including trainings in detention centers and visiting unaccompanied migrant children at shelters.

We often hear the old comment “Why don’t they come here legally?” To help us understand how wrong that question is, Shalini walked us through the impossibility of the US immigration system. Current backlog for visas for family members means that currently applications from February 1995 are being processed including some visas for Mexicans. These applications are processed in such a way that for legal residents originally from Mexico to receive a visa for a child over 21 it would take an estimated 115 years. How long can we ask people to wait?

Asylum cases face similar impossibilities. The criteria are strict and even successful criteria can be denied as risking letting too many people in. The most forgiving judge in El Paso denies 92% of the asylum claims he hears. Somehow the Soviet Union consistently manages to rank above Mexico or any Central American country in number of asylums granted (see page L2). Shalini makes it clear the system is designed this way and according to the desires of the US, functioning well. The US spends $126 a day per detained immigrant, for $5.5 million total every day for adult detention and removal alone.

Why does the US willingly spend so much? First, there is money to be made in those prison contracts. Private prisons are big money makers right now and US law mandates a certain number of beds be filled, ensuring a constant flow of money. Even in “public” prisons, nearly all the staff, the phones and even the religious services are outsourced to private contractors looking to make a buck off the detention of immigrants. The companies that run these prisons and contract these services work hard to lobby against any reform that might reduce the number of detainees. Second, there are votes to be won by looking “tough” on immigration. Both Democrats and Republicans compete to see who calls for the strongest, most secure border because talking about scary, criminalized “illegal” immigrants who threaten to change what American looks like is good politics.

For our last night in El Paso, we join what seems to be a good portion of the city in cheering on the local minor league baseball team, the Chihuahuas. Despite their disappointing performance, losing 5-13 to the Tacoma Rainers, the city is so excited to have the team it demolished its own city hall to build the stadium. The city envisions the publicly funded stadium sparking new downtown development of condos and Starbucks with the goal of creating a “downtown experience”. So far it’s raised fears of gentrification and lined the pockets of many consultants.

Border Studies at the new Chihuahuas stadium!

Border Studies at the new Chihuahuas stadium!

El Paso Day 4:

Before returning to Tucson, we meet with Jesus Alvarado, a local muralist who gave us a walking tour of Segundo Barrio’s murals. Jesus started with graffiti before taking up murals at the urging of his high school art teacher. The murals capture the deep pride Segundo Barrio takes in its culture and history, depicting local religious leaders, folk heroes, the complexities of identity of being Mexican (American) and living in El Paso and the AIDS/HIV crisis. Jesus explains these murals are community “development”, a different type than the development represented by the new stadium.

Jesus Alvarado in front of a mural he painted.

Jesus Alvarado in front of a mural he painted.

 El Paso 4

El Paso 5


El Paso 6

El Paso 7


El Paso 8As we left El Paso, we stop in Sunland, New Mexico to see the border fence there. Ten feet tall, lined with flood lights and made of climb proof chain link, it represents the point where the border stops being marked by a river and becomes just a random line in the sandy desert. The permeability of the wall is demonstrated by several children from Ciudad Juárez who wander over to chat with us.

The border fence in Sunland, New Mexico.

The border fence in Sunland, New Mexico.

In Tucson, despite the ever present impacts of the border, it remains 60 miles to the south. The border in El Paso is some ways more visible—the wall can be seen at the end of every street, the crossing bridges hang over the city and trains rattle north constantly—but at the same time is more invisible, as El Paso’s neighborhoods feel so similar to Mexico and the connections between the two cities remain so strong.

–Luke Mielke


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