Migrations Why We Cross the Border in El Paso
I felt my mom’s grip tighten around my hand as dozens surged across the Rio Grande, the water waist-high. Adults held children in their arms or carried them in rebozos across their backs.
On the river
When I was a child, in the late 1980s and ’90s, my mom would drive our family across the border from my hometown of El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, where my Tío Beto and cousins live. To reach the Santa Fe International Bridge, one of the official crossing points between El Paso and Juárez, we drove down Paisano, a road that parallels the Rio Grande. I saw Juarense families lounging under umbrellas, and the mothers and fathers holding their children’s hands as they waded ankle-deep into the fast flowing water of the Rio Grande. On days when the waters flowed more calmly, I saw families floating on rafts made of tires tied together with rope.
I begged my mom to park the car along the side of the road. I wanted to call across the river to the Juarense children and ask them to send a raft over so that we could cross to the other side and walk to my tío’s house. This was the reason I gave my mom for wanting to cross the river. I didn’t yet have words to explain that crossing in the raft would save us from having our car searched by Mexican border officials once we crossed the bridge. These officials, then and now, try to stem the flow of arms into the country by conducting random searches at their immigration checkpoint. I felt dread when the stoplight on the Juárez side of the bridge turned red, signaling that we had to pull over so that an armed guard, usually a man, could approach my mom to ask her the purpose of our trip to Mexico. The guards opened our trunk, and sometimes asked me and my two brothers to get out of our seats so they could check underneath. I felt my shoulders tense as I watched my mom politely answer their questions. When I asked her if we could instead cross the river on a raft, she said no, and that she’d explain why when I was older.
A few miles upriver from Paisano, the Rio Grande serves as the divider between Texas and New Mexico. Locals call the neighborhood the Upper Valley, a name that seems to describe the five-bedroom stucco homes, the pecan orchards, and the cotton and alfalfa fields. Now, in my thirties, there are vineyards I like to visit. I sit on a terracotta patio, sipping local white wine beside a fluorescent green alfalfa field, bare Mt. Franklin in the near distance. I was raised a few miles away, at the base of Mt. Franklin, the desert silent and hard beyond my backyard.
Even in the summer, when clouds block the sun every afternoon and release a rain dense and pelting, the desert’s rainwater has never been enough to nourish the orchards, fields, and vineyards in southern New Mexico and El Paso. In 1916, when construction of New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Dam was completed, US farmers began diverting water from the Rio Grande for American crops. Irrigation canals extend from the river like veins. Today, as drought caused by climate change worsens and the Rio Grande flows less full, the irrigation canals empty the river before it reaches the US-Mexico border, a few miles downriver.
I should have grasped the meaning of the change in water levels on a summer day in 1995, when my older brother Sergio’s Boy Scout troop gathered without their parents’ permission to swim in a part of the Rio Grande that runs through the Upper Valley. They chose one of the least trafficked overpasses that arches over the Rio Grande and rejoiced for half an hour in the cool water, a group of teenage boys with nothing to do on a hot summer day. There was a sign nobody noticed. A boy named David, who used to push me around on his skateboard when I was very small, dove into the water from the riverbank. The water was too shallow, even though it shouldn’t have been, not in the summer. Sergio remembers a friend running to the nearest corner store to call an ambulance, and the boys pulling David’s body out of the water and trying to resuscitate him. They realized only when the paramedics arrived that David broke his neck in the shallow waters. I remember my brother sobbing in our mom’s embrace, and my ghost-like sadness, tears I mimicked but didn’t comprehend, because I hadn’t yet learned that life gone never comes back.
Under the bridge
While walking across the Santa Fe International Bridge in the early ’90s, my mom, Abuelita, brothers, and I witnessed families rush across the Rio Grande. We heard a whistle, the signal from the coyote leading the people. We looked through the chainlink fence, down to the Rio Grande. A few Border Patrol agents positioned themselves on the US side, ready to stop the wall of people. I felt my mom’s grip tighten around my hand as dozens of mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons surged across the Rio Grande, the water waist-high. Adults held children in their arms or carried them in rebozos across their backs. We watched as the Border Patrol agents caught and detained some people while dozens more ran past and disappeared into the streets of downtown El Paso.
Throughout the 1990s, these strategized crossings happened daily, no matter the water level. Crossings increased throughout the decade as Juárez received refugees from southern Mexico and Central America, most of them indigenous and mestizo farmers from villages whose crops perished from drought and who suffered political violence caused by US Cold War policies. They arrived in Juárez because the passage of NAFTA, in 1994, saw dozens of maquiladoras, American-owned factories, open in Juárez, creating thousands of assembly line jobs. The building of the maquiladoras coincided with widespread drought, crop failure, and a collapsing Mexican economy, and many believed job creation would help Mexico’s poorest citizens, most of whom rely on subsistence farming, the informal economy, or a combination of both. Ciudad Juárez grew from a town of 500,000 to over two million in less than a decade. But subsistence farmers and laborers who hoped the maquiladoras would provide a stable life discovered the wages were not enough to pay rent or feed their families in this expensive border city. The government failed to build enough subsidized houses for the incoming families, and many resorted to building cardboard house colonies—which the government has not replaced with subsidized housing, twenty years later—at the edge of the desert, with no access to the city’s amenities.
Surging the Rio Grande was a tactic that allowed thousands of families to enter El Paso each day. Border Patrol agents always caught a few hundred people, but the people seeking asylum from violent governments and the consequences of climate change always outnumbered the agents. Operation Hold the Line, a Border Patrol initiative that upped reinforcement along the river between 1993 and 1995 to stop the surges, ultimately failed because the groups of crossers simply grew too big to stop.
Several of my tíos and tías left Juárez in the 1950s because they couldn’t find work. They moved to California and east Texas, and my tíos provided for their families on the tips they earned as servers in restaurants and their hourly wages as taxi drivers. My abuelos moved to the farming community of Delicias, a place they saw as an opportunity to make a living in their country. Their farm became successful and they saved enough money to send their only child to medical school in Guadalajara. There, my mom met a man from the US. They fell in love and married, and she eventually became a US citizen. Even after my mom and her husband divorced, she remained in the US, choosing to settle in El Paso. She wanted to live within driving distance of her parents, who remained in Delicias, but make her life in the US. I was born in El Paso. Even though she raised us to see ourselves as American, my mom made sure my brothers and I understood our story was connected to the people rushing the Rio Grande.
In the river
Families knew to avoid crossing in the summer, when the rains caused the river to flood low-lying land. Mexicans know this river as the Rio Bravo, a name which warns of the river’s dangerous undercurrent. But families often risked the river’s strong undercurrent and flash floods. Crossers drowned in the Rio Grande, even in places where the water only came up to their knees. The undercurrent, more forceful than many predicted, knocked mothers and fathers and children off their feet. Some evenings, I looked up from my homework to see family pictures, school portraits, and snapshots on the local nightly news, the names printed in white letters at the bottom of the screen. I noticed children my own age, the gaps in their smiles where they lost a tooth, the little girls’ hair neatly braided and the tiny gold studs in their ears.
Many of the bodies were pulled from slower waters near the International Bridge of the Americas, a couple miles downriver from downtown El Paso. The connectors between El Paso and Juárez are busy with border crossers throughout the day. But sometimes the bodies floated unnoticed under the bridges, past the parallel downtowns, the high rises on one side and the vendor-filled streets on the other. The waters carried them through the quiet neighborhoods east of downtown. Ranch owners and Border Patrol agents often spotted bodies downriver, beyond the city limits, drifting through the desert.
The water levels in the Rio Grande changed dramatically in the early 2000s, when New Mexico and Texas agreed to hoard more rainwater in southern New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Dam. Drought was further diminishing the river’s and reservoir’s water levels, so New Mexico and Texas devised a plan to let the Rio Grande flow only during the spring and summer, when the sprouting fields in southern New Mexico and El Paso need hydration most. Because the Rio Grande begins in Colorado and flows through New Mexico and Texas, the US has prerogative to control the river, even if it means stymying the Rio Grande once it touches Mexican soil. In 1906, the US promised Mexico 60,000 feet of water a year from the Rio Grande in exchange for Mexico waiving claims to the Rio Grande above the town of Fort Quitman, Texas. Farmers in Juárez also relied on the Rio Grande to nourish their crops, but as the river began to dry, the US broke the promises signed in a treaty.
Today, the dam only releases enough water—about one third of what the Rio Grande should hold—to sustain the pecan orchards and fields in the US. Then, in the winter, when a thin layer of snow covers the Chihuahua Desert, the dam withholds nearly all the water, leaving a 60-foot wide trench through farm country.
As farming in Juárez became obsolete, the city relied almost exclusively on the maquiladoras. Indigenous and mestizo men and women, who once lived from the land, stand in assembly lines for double shifts, fitting a handle, a lid, a chip, a screw with the kind of precision that causes their necks and backs to strain.
Across the border
When I reached my teenage years, my mom warned me to never go near the border. She reminded me of David’s death, of tensions between refugees and the Border Patrol, and of news reports about Juarense women murdered and found in the desert. All of this violence, she said, was related to the border. This is the year that I mark as a turning point in my family’s relationship with the Rio Grande. My mom stopped speaking of the river and instead warned us about the border.
By then, my mom was struggling with Sergio’s tendency to head across the border with his friends. After David’s death, Sergio gave up swimming in the river and instead began crossing the border to visit the bars that didn’t ID, causing our mom anguished nights as she prayed for his safe return. Late in my high school years, I began crossing too, often returning at four a.m. Despite the recent 9/11 attack and the increased scrutiny at the border, I downed cocktail after cocktail in Juárez bars. I accepted drinks in clear plastic cups from men, fluorescent concoctions that stained my lips and left a sickening aftertaste. Sometime after midnight, I walked down Avenida Juárez with my friends, the bouncers in front of clubs enticing us with cervezas 2X1, no cover. Pounding music spilled onto the street and followed us all the way to the international bridge, strangely lit and silent except for the Border Patrol agents asking their questions. At the immigration checkpoint, I tried to walk straight and say “American.” I dared the Border Patrol agents to restrain me—force me to take a breathalyzer and call my mom to pick me up. To the officers who asked if I had a boyfriend, I laughed and demurred. Each time the agent waved me past, I allowed myself to walk haphazardly, laughing and linking arms with my girlfriends.
The bars on Avenida Juárez exist to cater to US citizens looking for the novelty of a wild night in Mexico. When I was in high school, many Juarense service industry workers relied on Americans to become hooked on the fantasy of partying in Mexico. Juarense bar and club owners looked at Americans with disdain, even as they advertised foam parties and ladies’ nights in their clubs. I didn’t see myself as one of the Americans who escaped to Juárez for wild nights. My history and experiences on the border run too deep for me to ever consider myself fully American. But to Juarenses who rely on tourist dollars and who risk their lives to reach El Paso, my drinking and disregard for the Border Patrol’s power must have made me seem arrogant.
By the fence
I returned from college in 2006 to find miles of steel fence erected along Paisano Drive. President George W. Bush’s Secure Fence Act commissioned 700 miles of an eighteen-foot steel border fence, designed to “make our borders more secure.” He called this measure “an important step toward immigration reform.” A tall fence today runs through my two cities, following the path of the Rio Grande, so that anyone driving along Paisano sees the river and our neighboring city through a thick steel mesh.
Many El Paso and Juarense families decried the Secure Fence Act, calling for bridges instead of walls and an open border. Citizens on either side of the border argued that our people deserve to visit our families even if some of us don’t have enough money to pay for the border visa. Congressman Sylvestre Reyes, who served twenty-six years as a Border Patrol agent in El Paso and designed Operation Hold the Line, voted against the Secure Fence Act because he had learned a barrier “doesn’t come close” to addressing undocumented immigration. He had learned that refugees will arm themselves against Border Patrol agents, risk drowning in the Rio Grande, and walk the desert in 120-degree heat for a chance to provide for their families. My family, too, opposed the fence. El Paso and Juárez depend on each other economically, but even more importantly, families cross back and forth every day to visit one another. We knew the fence was a violence to our binational culture. We knew the fence would create a distance between us and our family in Juárez, when what we wanted was for all of us to live peacefully.
It’s December 2017 and my husband and I are walking with our baby across the Zaragoza International Bridge from Juárez to El Paso. It’s a bridge sitting near the edge of El Paso, close to the desert opening eastward, toward the major Texas cities. We’re commuting from my in-laws’ home, where we’ve spent a week, to meet my mom in El Paso.
As we climb to the apex, where the river sits dry directly below and a graffitied plaque declares the dividing line between countries, the stench of sewage fills my nose. I glance at my husband, who has pulled his hood over his head even though it’s not cold, even though the desert sun flushes our faces turned pale after months of weak light in the northern state we’ve chosen to make our home. The stench is rising from the dry riverbed, and when I look over the bridge’s wire fence I see the border’s steel fence and drain pipes emptying into the river. When the river is dry, people descend the cement banks to drink and rest in the shade of the steel fence.
Here, far from the city center, families once waded across the Rio Grande in search of a country that would treat them with dignity. But now the drought and dam have stopped the flow of the river. A steel fence has risen by its banks. The Border Patrol stands guard, ready to turn families away. The night is drowned by streetlights spreading across the desert.