EL PASO, Texas and CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – When Pope Francis visits Ciudad Juárez on Wednesday, city officials hope that the international attention will change its reputation as the homicidal, lawless capital of Mexican drug violence.
Five years ago, at the height of the city’s instability, it registered over 3,000 homicides annually. But that was before a renewed push for less corrupt policing, the local victory of the Sinaloa cartel and a retreat by the current Mexican government from a militarized approach to defeating drug cartels.
But it’s not just Juarenses who hope the papal presence can rebrand the city. It’s also El Paso, which lies just across the border, and which is one of the safest cities in the United States, even at the height of the violent battle between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels. In fact, Beto O’Rourke, who has represented the 16th Congressional district that includes El Paso since 2013, had hoped to work with Mexican officials to use to visit to highlight U.S.-Mexican relations on a far grander scale.
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“There was an attempt that we were part of, short-lived, that was ambitious, to construct at small bridge across the [Rio Grande] to allow the Pope to sort of walk across and put his hand on the border fence,” O’Rourke said in an interview late last month. “I spoke to the diocese, to the bishop. I think that would have done so much to bring home to people how connected our two countries are. It would have been a powerful message.”
Though the plans fell through, O’Rourke will attend this week’s papal mass in Juárez, and he hoped that many El Pasoans will have a chance to see Francis, the first Latin American pope, as he drives along a border that divides one community into two cities that belong to two countries, the Apollonian yin of El Paso counterbalancing the Dionysian yang of Juárez.
In snowy New Hampshire, voters endorsed another view about the U.S.-Mexican border last week when Donald Trump swept to a crushing victory in the Republican presidential primary. When he announced his candidacy for the nomination last June in the lobby of Manhattan’s Trump Tower, the businessman attacked Mexico as an enemy of the United States, a country “killing us economically,” and he painted the vision of a southern border overrun with immigrants “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime,” labeling many would-be migrants as “rapists,” even while conceding that some “are good people.”
“If you are living on the border and you know the history, that propaganda is very evident,” said David Dorado Romo, a local historian who wrote a local history of the Mexican Revolution from the perspective of both cities. “It’s just so clear the contrast between what we’re seeing with our eyes and what we’re hearing with our ears, you know it’s just a huge disconnect…. The center intervenes in the periphery, using that propaganda, and makes things worse, without understanding the complexities.”
There’s a long history of American cultural sensationalism about life along the U.S.-Mexican border. In Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, a 1958 film noir improbably starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican prosecutor, Heston’s character states that “all border towns bring out the worst in a country.” In last year’s crime thriller Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve paints a region overrun by drug violence and a Juárez where shootouts routinely happen in open daylight and where the bodies of innocent victims hang from bridges in the center of town by the half-dozen, an image that met with fierce criticism from Juarenses and Mexican Americans alike.
But if the image of Juárez today is outdated, so is the state of migration across the border. Statistics show that Mexican immigration started to wane in the mid-2000s and accelerated in 2008 and 2009 during the Great Recession. Even today, more Mexicans are still leaving the United States than arriving. An in-depth study from the Pew Research Center published at the end of 2015 calculated net migration of 140,000 from the United States to Mexico between 2009 and 2014. More fundamentally, it’s hard to square Trump’s dystopian description of U.S.-Mexican relations and Mexican immigration with everyday life in El Paso and Juárez. Studies show that cities with relatively higher numbers of immigrants have lower crime rates, and El Paso is no exception.
El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, a Democrat, has spoken out often about the disconnect between the reality along the border and the rhetoric in American politics.
“For a long time, that’s what the border represented for these candidates: an opportunity to incite fear,” she said. “What has already been frustrating for all of us who live on the US-Mexico border, and for people who know and understand the US-Mexico border… it’s not what xenophobes would make it out to be. But facts frequently just don’t matter to them.”
El Pasoans are not, as you might expect from the rhetoric of a Trump rally, living under armed guard to protect against would-be rapists and criminals. Rather, the two cities function as a symbiotic, bi-national metropolis. El Paso’s current mayor, Oscar Leeser, was born in Chihuahua, and many Juarenses have family in El Paso and vice versa. El Paso is neither completely “American” nor is Juárez completely “Mexican,” and the borderlands have given rise to a unique community that transcends both worlds in complex ways. Gloria Anzaldúa, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and became a leading 20th century scholar of Chicano/a studies, queer theory and feminism, famously wrote that the border is a “herida abiera,” an open wound, “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture.”
For centuries, the two cities that today comprise El Paso and Juárez were one city. It was only after both the American annexation of Texas and the cession of territory from Mexico at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War that the tiny splinter of land in Texas’s far western corner, wedged between New Mexico to the north and the Mexican state of Chihuahua to the south, became part of the United States. The settlement on the northern shores of the Rio Grande soon took the name of El Paso, stealing the Mexican city’s name, which in turn renamed itself in 1888 after Mexico’s first indigenous president, the liberal reformer Benito Juárez. Though history cleaved the city into two halves, the two never stopped interacting as one metropolitan community. Unlike San Diego and Tijuana or Tucson and Nogales, the centers of both El Paso and Juárez merge at the border. You can easily go from El Paso’s sleepy downtown business district, meander through the historic Mexican-American neighborhood of Segundo Barrio that abuts the river, cross the international border by foot, and make your way to Juárez’s Plaza de Armas in a leisurely hour’s walk.
Today, Juarenses study, work, live and play in El Paso, crossing the border on a daily basis, just as they have for centuries. Gary Edens, vice president for student affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso, says around 500 of the school’s 23,000-strong student body commute daily from Juárez and around 400 Juarenses live in El Paso in family or at the university. Under the Programa de Asistencia Estudiantil (PASE), Mexican nationals with demonstrated economic need are entitled to receive in-state tuition at UTEP and other public universities.
“It used to be a lot easier to cross between the U.S. and Mexico,” Edens said. “After [the 2001 attacks], it became much more difficult, and the security and the inspections that are happening on the bridge became tighter and the time to get into America, specifically, increased quite a bit.”
A Trump-style border wall would represent only the latest in a series of escalating border security hassles, though it’s unlikely those hassles would break the interaction that historically defined the two cities. Pancho Villa and other Mexicans and Mexican Americans helped plan the Mexican Revolution from El Paso’s sanctuary, and many El Pasoans took to the roofs of El Paso’s downtown to watch the Battle of Juárez in 1911, even as Juarenses fled their city to find greater stability in El Paso. Until 1917, however, there wasn’t even a formal border between the two countries. American worries during World War One about German infiltration at the southern border and the Zimmerman Telegram gave rise to stronger national controls that, over the years, became stronger yet, most recently after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Even in 1996, then-president Bill Clinton bragged during his reelection campaign about increasing the border patrol, specifically on the Mexican border, by some 40% in his first term.
But just as Mexicans found relief in El Paso from the revolutionary chaos of the 1910s, Americans found relief in the bars and saloons of Juárez in the 1920s during Prohibition. At the height of the cartel wars in Juárez, Mexicans sought refuge in El Paso, swelling the city’s population. El Paso’s economy depends on shoppers from Juárez, who often find lower prices for consumer goods on the American side of the border.
There’s a darker side to the symbiosis. American corporations employ Mexicans at low-wage maquiladoras that ring the sprawling outskirts of Juárez, often without the kinds of labor protection that American workers enjoy. At a facility operated by Lexmark International, a Kentucky-based printer company, managers fired around 90 workers shortly before the Christmas holiday after they pushed for a $0.35 wage raise. Both before and after the cartel wars, women working at maquiladoras have long been vulnerable to sexual violence and a decades-long wave of femicides, with the bodies of murdered, often abused, women left in fields not far from their factories. Many Americans today, even after the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, go to Juárez for dental and medical checkups, and dental clinics outnumber bars on the main avenues leading into Juárez from El Paso.
O’Rourke, a progressive who came to office after defeating long-time Democratic representative Silvestre Reyes in a 2012 primary contest, is one of just a handful of Texan officials who have not yet endorsed a candidate in the 2016 presidential contest (Texas votes as part of “Super Tuesday” on March 1). He argued that both parties, including Democrats, are responsible for misconceptions about the border.
“Even [President] Obama says that, ‘Before we can do anything else, we must secure the border,’ and so Trump is only singing the same tune, only louder and uglier,” he said. “I don’t think they are bad people for doing that. I think they are just really uninformed about the border. And it really is not easy to get here. There are no direct flights from D.C. We are very isolated, Austin is a nine-hour drive. The nearest city of any significance is Chihuahua to the south and then Albuquerque to the north.”
The distance between Austin, Texas’s state capital, and El Paso might explain why even state politicians, including Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who won the Iowa caucuses on February 1, has now echoed Trump’s calls for a border wall. Just one decade after a sitting Republican president tried to pass legislation for comprehensive immigration reform, the 2016 election has only made a policy path to reform more difficult, even while the Trump and Cruz campaigns perpetuate a vision of Mexico steeped in misconceptions.
“There are immigrants that we want in this country, and that business wants in this country, and there are immigrants who should be reunited with families, because that’s what America is about,” Escobar said. “There’s a solution I know we can get to, but escalating the fearmongering gets us further and further away from that.”
This piece is cross-posted at The World Post.