El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston, closer to three other state capitals than its own, 12 hours from Brownsville, Texas. It is part New Mexico, part Tejano, part Mexico, part Wild West, all frontera. With a population of 700,000 and separated from a 1.5 million city by a tiny rivulet called the Rio Grande, El Paso melds with Juarez in culture, language, music, food, and la gente.
11 University of Minnesota Law School students arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, January 4. We came as part of the Asylum Law Project to volunteer with nonprofit groups such as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Las Americas Advocacy Center. We came to volunteer, but as always, we assuredly will gain more than we give.
Our first day in El Paso, we attended immigration court and saw the inside of a client interview room. The immigration court was informal, the judge joking about Burn after Reading and giving informal history lessons about Ellis Island. The hardest cases were the pro-se ones, where we had to watch a 19-year-old boy with oversized clothes sit silently in front of the judge as he was told he had to wait for the LA judge to reopen his case. Beside him, a Korean man was whispering prayer upon prayer, eyes closed. Inside the interview room, the circle chairs and the square table were stainless steel. A woman from El Salvador had been transported from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Arizona to Houston to El Paso. Her son was watching her younger children and attending Stanford, and this meeting was to gather some last-minute details so that she could apply for a change of venue. The steel room was empty and echoed, her small voice enunciated each word of Spanish thoughtfully and deliberately.
That same day, we were told by numerous attorneys and well-meaning citizens not to venture across the bridge to Juarez. Granted there were more than 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008 and a group of hueros would generally attract a lot of attention; however, it is that same sort of terror that has depressed the economy on both sides of the river and has lent credence to the drug dealers and thugs like the Zetas. It is that same fear that led Congress to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the same fear that drives Bill O’Reilly’s ratings, the same fear that enables shows like ABC’s “Homeland Security USA” to exist. As we crossed the El Paso del Norte Bridge and were greeted by the smell of tacos al pastor and the sight of cheap meds and fast surgeries, none of us felt threatened. Even as we walked by the federales with their automatic rifles and teenage faces, it was impossible to see much of a difference between one side of the river and the other. We watched Texas beat Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl as we sat in the Yankees bar, across the centro from the Kentucky Bar where Marilyn Monroe bought drinks for everyone the day she divorced Arthur Miller. Both sides of this river are hopelessly interconnected.
We are staying in the Gardner Hotel/El Paso International Hostel, a hotel from the 1920s that has hosted John Dillinger and Cormac McCarthy. An old PacBell phone booth stands sentry at the doorway, and an old-time telephone switchboard stands next to the check-in booth. With its high ceilings and transoms, old charm and new faces daily, many languages and few rules, this hostel is as good a metaphor for El Paso and Juarez as one can imagine.
Tonight we visited Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house. Dreamed up by 5 Christian men more than 30 years ago, this organization operates in the historically most impoverished portion of El Paso. It serves as a home for immigrants, whether for one night or for 8 months. Families, abused women, single teens, mothers and babies, fathers – the house is full to the brim with immigrants seeking shelter and a change. This particular night Juan Carlos cooked dinner for all 55 tenants and all 11 of us. We sat next to immigrants from Guatemala and Sinaloa, El Salvador and Lebanon, Juarez, and Honduras. After dinner, I washed dishes alongside Federico as everyone worked together to clean the facilities. Although the house was raided by ICE several years ago, it still continues to offer hope to many seeking a better job and life.
The border towns of El Paso and Juarez serve as a microcosm of worldwide immigration patterns. When goods are freely transportable in a globalizing world, it only stands to reason that people will desire to move freely legally or not. Border lines are human conventions, and as one looks at the picnic cloth of stars between the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains that is El Paso/Juarez at night, it is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins. Perhaps that would just be a perfunctory exercise anyway.