Just after 8 a.m., Soccoro Laguna is on her way to work. Fashionably dressed and made up, gold earrings sparkling in the early morning light, she makes her way along the river bank, waiting for a man to ferry her across.
Four days a week she makes the trek from her home in Juarez down to the Rio Grande and across to El Paso, where she says she has worked for the same American family for the last 15 years, earning $21 a day.
She is like millions of others who commute to work in America, except for one thing: apparently lacking immigration papers, she crosses the river illegally, ferried on someone's back to stay dry.
Laguna's route to work is not unusual. She is only one in a procession of undocumented commuters who make this daily journey from Juarez to El Paso--and back across the bridges, because it is legal to cross into Mexico. It is a bizarre spectacle that begins each day around dawn, west of one of the downtown bridges linking the cities.
Alan E. Eliason, chief of the Border Patrol here, estimates that his agents apprehend about half the undocumented workers who cross the border heading for other U.S. cities. But as for these "illegal alien commuters," he said only that "some of them know our operations better than our younger officers do."
The scene on the river illustrates the curious culture of the border, the porosity of the barriers between the countries and the consensual nature of the relationship between these intertwined cities.
The Rio Grande rolls through downtown El Paso in a concrete chute fenced in by the "Tortilla Curtain." But a few hundred yards west of the series of bridges that span the river, the fence ends. Along here, Rio Grande is a misnomer: it is but 30 yards across in places, and often runs shallow.
An adult can wade easily across in knee-deep water. No one knows how many people make the trek daily, but in a three-hour period several hundred are likely to cross.
Across the river, a number of Mexicans walk west along the river bank to a point where a few men are waiting. The men are "burros," and for 50 pesos or so--roughly 30 cents--they ferry commuters across on their backs.
From her bicycle on the Juarez side, a woman runs a small concession stand for commuters. On the American side, a man in a red baseball cap sells burritos from a big white bucket to the daily travelers.
Once the commuters get to the American side, they must navigate safely into downtown El Paso. The Border Patrol appears rather tolerant on the river banks, but officers regularly patrol the entry points to the city.
Most of the commuters follow a path through a fence that separates the railroad tracks from a housing project. Like most of the fences along the border, it has gaping holes.
From there, the commuters make their way along the narrow streets, taking cover around corners of buildings until all seems clear for a dash into the downtown area. Then they go to work--as maids, gardeners, construction workers, busboys.
By now, undocumented workers have become an integral part of the El Paso economy, and, while the Border Patrol attempts to prevent undocumented workers from escaping into the U.S. interior, there appears to be considerably less concern about apprehending the commuters.
Later, on the American side, two young men approach me near the Tortilla Curtain. One of them is a 25-year-old from the interior of Mexico who says he is heading for Dallas, Denver or some other city to find work. He is the kind of undocumented worker the Border Patrol is most interested in catching, and he is nervous.
He speaks some English, and we talk for a few minutes until we hear a warning shout. Two hundred yards to the east, a Border Patrol van appears. A group of Mexicans near us gathers to watch. We are all in view of the van.
A short time passes and the van disappears in the opposite direction, then reappears. A second van suddenly comes into view, speeding directly toward the nine undocumented workers who have retreated to a gap in the fence.
But at the last minute the van turns and stops beside me. A young Border Patrol agent gets out and asks me who I am and if I am authorized to be there. I identify myself and tell him no.
"This is government property," he says politely, "and technically you are trespassing." But there is no problem, and we stand and talk about the phenomenon of the commuters. We are looking directly at the nine undocumented workers at the fence. "A lot of the commuters who come across are good people," he says.
After a few minutes, I decide to leave. The agent climbs back into his van and drives past the group by the fence. I turn back to look and wave. Smiling, they wave back. It is part of a day's work.