Two children are born on the same day, and live two hundred feet from each other. They speak the same language, and are maybe even related going back a few generations. And yet, these two children will have completely different lives. One will have opportunities the other cannot even dream of. And this is all because they each live one hundred feet from – and on opposite sides of – an imaginary line.
Such is the reality here on the US-Mexico border, and especially in El Paso, Texas and its sister city of Juarez, Mexico. Those children fortunate enough to be born on the American side will – in any realistic set of circumstances – be wealthier than their Mexican counterparts, be better educated, have access to better medical care and other human services, have more freedom of movement internationally, and have generally a higher quality of life.
Until 1835, when Texas gained independence from Mexico, there was no border here. For more than a century, what is now two cities in two countries was one city, El Paso del Norte, located on both sides of the Rio Grande, which marks part of the border through this area. And for all of human history before that, there was no border on this continent at all, as people migrated freely. The concept of borders is in itself a modern invention, as earlier human civilizations and countries still allowed free movement for the most part. It was possible to get in a boat, or on a road, and go somewhere new to start a new life. That is not the case now, and especially not here.
Today, the US-Mexico border traces its way along the Rio Grande to El Paso, then turns and angles off through the desert to the Pacific. That it exists at all is human invention, in a world that feels the need to divide at any possible instance. Here in El Paso, where the Rio Grande is barely a trickle in a concrete ditch, it is especially stark. From above the city, the border is marked by slightly brighter orange lights snaking their way along the “river” path, looking much as I would have expected a divided Berlin to look, an artificial line through what was once – and could be again – a single metropolis.
This article is not going to advocate for a removal of all borders between all countries. That is an unrealistic goal, at least in the immediate term – although I do think humanity would be better for it, and hope that we arrive there one day. But here in the middle of El Paso is a monument to the utter absurdity of the border: Chamizal National Memorial.
While today the Rio Grande is but a trickle, a result of drought and damming, it was once a raging river, subject to intense flooding. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which had ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, accepted the Rio Grande as the border here. However, between 1852 and 1868, these seasonal floods had caused the course of the river to change on several occasions, and by 1873, more than 600 acres of what had been Mexico ended up on the American side of the river, an area called Chamizal. The US, unsurprisingly, claimed the land, which was home to Mexican citizens, and Americans began to move in. (A similar area that had once been part of the US ended up on the southern side of the river, but it was mostly unpopulated, so was subject to less tension.)
So now, what was to be done? Did the border move with the river, or was a sudden shift like this an exception? The visitors center at Chamizal National Memorial traces decades – literally decades – of tension, of near war, and of intense negotiations that ultimately settled the issue in 1964. (It was negotiated by the Kennedy administration, though Lyndon Johnson signed the treaty and seems to get most of the credit.) The area to the north of the Rio Grande would be American, and to the south would be Mexican, and a permanent channel would be dug to prevent any future movement of the river. Those Mexican families living on the northern side of Chamizal were, in that instant, now American, their fates forever changed.
In 2022, the US-Mexican border is one of the most highly militarized in the world for two countries that have been completely at peace for nearly 200 years. The imaginary line has been marked, and the land marred, by the Trump Border Wall. (The most recent addition to parts of the wall is coiled barbed wire at the top, despite the former President’s devout assertions that it was unclimbable.) On either side of the wall, a single ecological habitat, a single watershed, and people who can trace generations of common ancestry. The heavily armed local, state, and federal police along the border exist for one reason: to keep people of Latin American descent out of what they prefer to be a majority white country.
You might argue with me that they are only there to prevent illegal immigration, but that legal immigration is completely fine. You would be wrong. More than 1.6 million people tried to reach the United States via the southern border in 2021. Of these, 1.2 million were turned away using Title 42, a 1944 law designed to prevent foreign communicable diseases from reaching the US by temporarily restricting immigration from countries with active pandemics of diseases that we did not have here. That law has been co-opted to be used during Covid, claiming health risks by immigrants possibly carrying Covid into the US, a place where it is already pretty universal, and where it is possible to detect with a simple and rapid test. Title 42 is NOT being used to any noticeable extent for whites from Europe, where Covid rates are higher than in many Latin American countries. (Note: the Biden administration tried to end Title 42 but was blocked from doing so by the courts.)
I crossed the US-Mexico border for a day on foot, to experience what it was like. (Click here to read about my experience in Juarez for a day.) What I saw was, frankly, disgusting. On the walkway back over the Rio Grande into the United States, a customs and border patrol (CBP) agent – fully armed – was stationed about six feet on the American side of the border. His job – according to immigrant advocates – is to immediately turn around anyone who tries to claim asylum in the US. If true, this is patently against American law, which states that anyone can present him/herself at a valid port of entry and claim asylum, a claim that must be taken seriously and head to a hearing (the seeker would be detained while the process plays out). Because this agent is on the American side of the border, at a valid port of entry – indeed, the largest in the country – turning people away is illegal. But it is apparently done, and because the would-be asylum seekers don’t have immigration attorneys with them, there is likely nothing they can do. (It is important to note here that I did not witness this happening, and that my assertions are based on those of immigration advocates and local news stories. I did have a brief conversation with an immigration attorney who informed me that turning people away before they claim asylum would be legal, if unethical. If, however, they specifically ask for asylum and are then turned away, that would likely be illegal. Obviously there are nuances here that cloud the issue.)
I do witness a group of approximately fifty deportees being escorted back into Mexico. They walk single file, masked, and not a single one has shoelaces. Apparently it is CBP policy to confiscate the shoelaces of all detainees so that they cannot be used to hang themselves. Just on the Mexico side of the border, a woman sells shoelaces to those returning. It is heartbreaking, infuriating, and more intense feelings than I can accurately describe.
From a touristic standpoint, it is impossible to visit El Paso and not have the border be part of your experience. Highway signs directing traffic to various crossings are everywhere. The wall cuts a hideous scar through the city. Mexican license plates are common, as day laborers and others with work visas make their way in and out, with even American minimum wage being enough to support life back in Juarez. Armed patrols of CBP are commonplace. And Spanish is spoken all over, as all of this was once part of Mexico (and Spain before that).
But dig a little deeper, take a look from above, learn about the shifting border and corresponding disputes, or cross for yourself and observe what actually takes place, and you’ll find yourself – like me – questioning both American immigration policy, and the morality of the border in the first place. This is the El Paso/Juarez region. This is life on the border, where these things are part of the fabric of life.
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