More Than A Line In the Desert

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 21, 2006

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- One hard kick launched the soccer ball around the rusted edge of the metal fence, down the sloping grade into a flat expanse of grass. Kids, giggling and jostling, bounded past the end of the fence line. Out of Mexico. Into the United States. No big deal.

It happens every day here in the rocky folds of desert hills where the Texas city, El Paso, and the New Mexico city, Sunland Park, rub against the Mexican city Ciudad Juarez. In this remote, dusty neighborhood called Colonia Rancho Anapra and all along the nearly 2,000 miles of U.S.-Mexican border, lives have been constructed for generations -- legally and illegally -- to straddle the border.

When 6,000 National Guard troops, whose deployment was announced by President Bush last week, arrive along the border, they will encounter something more complex than simply a line in the desert. They will find a place that feels and acts like a country unto itself, a place where countless people do not consider their lives complete on either side -- so they live them on both.

In El Paso, a home-care worker named Maria Bernal leaves her apartment each weekend to pray at a church in Ciudad Juarez. Eight hundred miles to the southeast, an auto body shop owner named Ramiro Echartea commutes each day from Reynosa, Mexico, to McAllen, Tex. At the end of his drive into Texas, "it's as if we were in Mexico," Echartea figures. He listens to the same radio station, playing the same rancheras , on each side.

The National Guard is being sent in to support the U.S. Border Patrol, freeing up more agents for the field. Bush has declared that securing the borders must be a top priority in any debate over what to about illegal immigration.

But here in Texas, the state with the longest border with Mexico, the concern goes beyond security. A string of major Texas cities sits directly on the border, creating what may be the region's strongest cross-border connections. Some worry the new attention to border security could impede business and hurt the international reputation of the United States.

"Our position has always been that you're so concerned about illegal immigration that what you're doing is making it more and more difficult for legal visitors to come here," said Steve Ahlenius, president and chief executive of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. "Every time somebody mentions a wall, it drives me crazy. It's a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem."

Hector M. Flores, a retired construction worker whose home is just up the road from the squat, chain-link fence that separates Sunland Park from Rancho Anapra, can sit on his stoop most nights and spot illegal immigrants slipping past.

"Nothing is going to change, except we're going to look like East Germany with its wall," Flores, 62, said. "They're going to keep coming from Mexico, and we're going to look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world."

The border is not monolithic. It takes different forms: heavily barricaded stretches in California; vast, unpeopled deserts and mountains in Arizona and New Mexico; bustling, tightly intertwined sister cities facing each other across the line in Texas.

Even though parts of the U.S.-Mexican border are imposing zones of heat-detecting sensors and triple-layered fences, the daily flow -- north and south -- of merchandise, people and traditions can be overwhelming at almost any legal or illegal crossing point.

Bridges clot with commuters traveling by car and by foot -- there were more than 24 million legal pedestrian crossings in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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