Seen from above, El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are a single city. Only on the ground can you see it split by a tall fence – a "wall", if you like – running directly through the urban landscape, dividing families and a border culture that largely considers itself one.
Travelling from the central capital of Austin to the western reaches of El Paso takes two flights and nearly four hours of travel. Such is the scale of Texas. From the air, after stretches of flat, almost extra-terrestrial expanse, high desert mountains emerge out of nothing.
Yet on the streets of El Paso, the idea of a barren border frontier is not reality. The fence runs directly beside the highway, along the Rio Grande, the historical border established in 1848 after the Mexican-American War (or what Mexicans call the War of North American Aggression). Now in drought, this stretch of the Rio Grande is more of a thin stream.
Walking up to the border fence at mile marker 357, three young children approach from the Mexican side. This is something they are accustomed to, and they know what they’re after. With a cheeky smile and easy manners, a nine-year-old boy offers to climb the 8m fence for a dollar. He is gently warned against it.
After years of over-reliance on an industry of cheap labour, El Paso is now experiencing a boom, with the resulting influx of young professionals from around the country. Through the fence, in Juárez, the children stand before poor structures and ground strewn with uncollected rubbish.
When asked what they want to be when they grow up, the children answer in soft Spanish, “a doctor”, “a lawyer”. They look through metal bars that might make these dreams impossibilities.
These kids can see the products of privilege – winners of the geographical lottery – right in front of them: a veteran border reporter, a cameraman, and a visitor from Ireland. They can reach out and take our hands. Yet day by day it seems less likely that they will make it to the other side of the divide.
Policing the border
As the three children talk through the fence, showing off their companion, a stray dog, a Border Patrol truck rolls slowly down the hill toward where we stand. The interaction is surprisingly pleasant. The agent, who tells us he is from Chicago (it is in fact common that Border Patrol agents are from nowhere near the border), chides the kids. In Spanish, he tells them they ought to be studying. Again, they suggest a dollar might induce them to abandon the fence and hit the books. Laughing, the agent checks that everything is okay, that nothing is being passed between us through the fence. He nods and drives on, resuming his perch on the sloping hill above mile marker 357.
Hundreds of children have still not been reunited with parents or guardians, instead remaining in temporary tent cities under guard
When the Trump administration sent hundreds of active-duty military personnel to the border, it was not to fend off Mexican children living in Juárez. The intention was to stop what the president called an "invasion" of Central Americans travelling from Guatemala and Honduras through Mexico to the US border, seeking asylum.
The administration implemented a policy of family separation, splitting children from their parents. The policy is meant to be a deterrent; the UN has characterised it as child abuse. Hundreds of children have still not been reunited with parents or guardians, instead remaining in temporary tent cities under guard. On December 8th, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin of Guatemala died of dehydration in Border Patrol custody in El Paso, after being apprehended on the US-Mexico border. A second Guatemalan child (8) died of causes not yet known in US government custody in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on Christmas Day.
John Morán González, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says "The quasi-militarisation of the border has only highlighted how the movement of commodities – including illicit drugs going north and illicit arms going south – have taken precedence over the movement of migrants, the vast majority of whom have the right to seek asylum in the United States.
“The tragic death of Jakelin Caal Maquin should be fully investigated, especially when viewed in the context of a decades-long project by the Border Patrol to funnel migrants into extremely hostile desert terrain while denying any responsibility for the predictable ensuing tragedies.”
President Donald Trump claimed that he would be “proud to shut down the government”, and then did so, to try to force the Democratic minority to approve spending on his proposed border wall. While it is doubtful that such a project would have any impact on the numbers of migrants travelling through Mexico seeking asylum in the United States, it is certain that enhancing the physical structures separating border communities like El Paso-Juárez would further scar this landscape, separating families and communities that hardly recognise the division.
As González points out, these policies continue to “diminish or disrupt the historical ties between people on both sides of the border”.
In Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s apartment near downtown El Paso, almost every surface is covered with books and arresting art. Many of the paintings and books are Sáenz’s own work.
Sáenz is acknowledged as one of the great poets and novelists of these borderlands, and his life’s work demonstrates the internal divisions symbolised by the border fence that runs through his city.
Over a dinner of homemade tamales, beans and red wine, Sáenz begins a conversation that carries over into the next day.
There are no borders for the rich
“El Paso would not exist without Juárez,” he says. “No border town can do without the sister city. How can we conceive of one without the other? We took its name. Juárez used to be Paso del Norte. Then it became Juárez, and we became Paso del Norte. We give each other identities.” The poet’s tone turns from matter of fact to grave.
“I know one other thing we should all tell the truth about: borders exist for the poor. There are no borders for the rich. That’s why we say we need borders: we know who we are keeping out.”
‘All we’ve done is give’
Tears well up in Sáenz’s eyes and his voice shakes. “The Mexican-American people have helped make this country great, and they have never been properly thanked. They treat us like we take, and all we’ve done is give. That’s the truth. I work out of that truth. When I write about the border and its people, I want to say, ‘do not dismiss us”. And I don’t give them an opportunity to dismiss me.”
In the mid-2000s, in the midst of devastating drug cartel violence, Juárez was known as the murder capital of the world. Today its sister city El Paso, just hundreds of yards across the bridge known as El Paso del Norte, is the safest city in the United States, and Juárez has seen a revitalisation. Paying 50 cents to cross the footbridge into the Mexican city, I walk to the famous Kentucky Club, reputed to be the birthplace of the margarita.
On the street, Mexican music blares from shop fronts. A mariachi band of elderly men plays on the footpath. Only a decade ago, I would have been accused of having a death wish for making this journey, but today, walking from the Kentucky Club deeper into Juárez to its stately cathedral, I am as relaxed on this side of the border as on the other. There are poor people here, but I see no invaders.
Back in El Paso, a Mexican-American native of these borderlands, Joel Barron, drives through the streets of his beloved city. He is stout and strong, a former security professional. "I am incognito," he says. "People think of me as just a driver. I am a single father. I do this job to raise my 10-year-old daughter. But I'm an English major." He warns of the shortcomings of monolingual people and cultures.
“One’s perception is one’s truth,” Barron says. It is a reminder that “reality” here on the border is too often shaped to fit political ends and ideologies. The truth is something quite different.