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More Than A Line In the Desert
Flow of People and Trade Conquers 2,000-Mile Border Between U.S. and Mexico

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.

In El Paso alone the same year, there were more than 680,000 pedestrian crossings. The walkers spill straight into downtown on something approaching a regular morning rush-hour schedule, and return in the evenings with sacks of groceries and briefcases over a bridge dedicated during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Many of those crossing each day have been granted 10-year visas for short stays in the United States, proving they have jobs or other strong roots in Mexico.

Visas and courtships and business ties send crosscurrents over the length of the border. Soccer referees in McAllen come up from Mexico; the bulk of patients in Reynosa's doctors' offices come down from McAllen. Spanish is a prerequisite to move efficiently in downtown El Paso; English is a must for success in Ciudad Juarez.

Flores, at least in the context of this borderland netherworld, is a typical 21st-century American with a typical family. He came from Mexico in the 1960s when crossing the border was a snap. He attended a segregated school for blacks in El Paso, and like tens of thousands of other Mexican Americans, got a job in construction and started a family that conducts its affairs in almost equal measure in Texas and Mexico. He became a U.S. citizen in 1995 and proudly displays his certificate in a frame next to the television.

Bernal, the El Paso home-care worker, is one of his daughters. She gets her hair cut in Ciudad Juarez, goes to the doctor there and buys most of her groceries there because the U.S. dollars she earns and converts into pesos have more buying power in Mexico. But she works in Texas and her three children attend Texas schools. She is divorced from her children's father, who lived in Ciudad Juarez before meeting her and gaining legal residency, then citizenship in the United States.

Bernal's oldest daughter is a typical borderland American, too. Esperanza Chabaria, 18, is married. Her husband, Jesus Jose Chabaria, lives in Ciudad Juarez -- theirs is just one out of many cross-border relationships. They're trying to get him U.S. residency, but the paperwork tangle has taken months, and they are not sure when -- or if -- they'll be together in the United States. Still, Esperanza could not imagine moving full time to Juarez. "It's a place to go for fun," she said, wrinkling her nose. "But there's too much violence. I'll stay in El Paso."

Esperanza Chabaria's mother has a sister named Margarita Flores. Flores is in a cross-border relationship, too. Flores's fiance -- with whom she has two children -- lives in Ciudad Juarez. Flores said she is "too lazy" to go through the trouble of marrying him and bringing him to El Paso.

All three generations of this family cram into the same car most Fridays and push through traffic across the border into the rutted streets of Ciudad Juarez. Hector Flores, who lost a leg to diabetes a few years back and walks stiffly on a prosthetic limb, prefers socializing with his old neighbors in Ciudad Juarez's Colonia Emiliano Zapata.

Hector Flores knows almost everyone within blocks of the little cinderblock house his family still owns there. Yet he could not imagine moving back to Mexico -- and leaving his medical benefits in the United States -- even though he knows almost no one in the trailer park where he lives in Sunland Park. Maria Bernal lost her best friend in the United States -- "my only friend" -- to AIDS two years ago, and making friends in Texas has been hard. So her social life, too, is in her old barrio in Mexico.

"Over here, I'm not really an American," she said one recent afternoon while waiting in El Paso for a bus to take her across the border. "Over there, I'm not really a Mexican."

She said she is "something in between."

Businesses morph into "something in between," too. Mexican entrepreneurs talk about going north to McAllenear -- a Spanish verb they coined that roughly means to shop, do business and buy second homes in McAllen.

Echartea's body shop in a row of dilapidated garages across from the McAllen airport plays by U.S. business rules but conducts its business in Spanish, the language all his customers speak. He buys fresh, handmade tortillas from a shop nearby.

Echartea tried living in the United States, but it was too expensive. He thought about opening a business in Mexico, but it seemed too complicated. He found a sweet spot, a compromise: live in Reynosa, work in McAllen.

Agapito Cepeda Gutierrez's back-and-forth compromise took another shape: live and work in Reynosa, shop in McAllen. Gutierrez, a dermatologist who crosses the border regularly for professional conferences and gets more than half his patients from the United States, worries that the cross-border balance he maintains could be disrupted by stricter border policies.

"If they close the border, they will take 50 percent of my business," he said. "And if they tell me one day I can't go to the United States, that would hurt me."

But from the jagged hillside of Colonia Rancho Anapra, outside Sunland, N.M., that possibility seems unfathomable. Crossing is just so easy -- it's almost a game. Children even kneel, pointing toy guns and training binoculars at the U.S. Border Patrol agents on the bluffs in the distance.

The United States is touchable here. The hills are craggy and the ravines deep. There are so many places to hide. At sunset, a big white cross up on the hill takes a shading of red. Beneath it, one recent evening, four figures picked their way up the hillside, backpacks giving them away as illegal immigrants.

Another group of four, led by a jaunty man named Arturo, squatted at the hill's base, waiting to ascend.

"Not long from now, I'll be making breakfast for them," Arturo said, boasting that he would have a restaurant job across the border within days.

Above them, high up on the hill, the other group of immigrants surfaced, their heads dark dots peeking over a rocky crag. But they vanished as quickly as they appeared, slipping out of sight, deep into the hills.

Nancy Garcia crested those same hills every day for years, eventually meeting an American hotel owner who became the father of her youngest child and now visits her in Cuidad Juarez every few days. It only took 15 minutes to make her way from her house in Rancho Anapra to the downtown El Paso hotels she cleaned, and she persisted even though she was caught and returned to Mexico more than 100 times.

Her kids are part of the pack that kicks soccer balls across the border. The Border Patrol agents do not seem to mind. So each night in Anapra, as the desert heat burns off and the hills fill with desperate immigrants, there are Mexican kids from a poor colonia playing soccer in America.

Moreno reported from McAllen.

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