What Life Is Like in the Town Where Trump Is Actually Building His Wall
El Paso, Texas, has become a laboratory for the administration's immigration policy—much to the anger of many residents.
The author standing next to a steel border near Anapara, a village outside Juarez. All photos by Zach Nelson
Victor Medina-Razo wants to shave before we take his picture. He walks across the sunlit courtyard of Casa del Migrante in Juarez and into the cinder block bathroom. With a 99-cent razor and soap, he expertly slices the bristly five o’clock shadow he’s grown over the last week, leaving only his preferred goatee. He puts on a tough guy face when my friend Zach shoots his portraits. After a few minutes, Victor waves his hand. That’s enough.
It is late September and still over 90 degrees most days in El Paso and Juarez. Victor has just arrived at Casa del Migrante—the only migrant shelter in all of Juarez, a sprawling, dusty, and polluted city of some 1.3 million souls—after an eight-day journey. It began in the Sonoran Desert, which Victor walked through to cross the border with a handful of other migrants. They walked the desert for 14 hours, living off bottled water, cans of tuna, and crackers. In the early morning light they came upon a ranch. The dogs began to bark and soon, six men on motorcycles arrived and arrested Victor and the others. They were taken to a jail, then another jail, a prison maybe. Victor isn’t sure. He signed paperwork he didn’t really understand and was taken back to the jail, or the prison, whichever it was. Then he was put in a van and taken back to Mexico, to Juarez. Now, he is at Casa del Migrante, deciding what to do next.
It is a simple decision.
“I will go back,” he said. “Tomorrow.”
Victor’s determination to seek a better life in the United States, born of economic desperation, is typical of migrants. Like many, he wants to cross the border not just for himself but for his family: If Victor’s son is to achieve his goal of becoming an aeronautical engineer, Victor will have to live and work in the US and send money home. This dynamic predates Donald Trump, but what has changed since—and especially in the last six months—is made apparent by the brief timeline of the story of Victor’s most recent crossing. Where Casa del Migrante used to see 30 or 40 migrants dropped off a few times a week by Mexican immigration authorities, the shelter is now seeing 100 or so. On Monday, more than 200 milled about the shelter, playing soccer and basketball.
Trump’s detention machine is bigger, faster and stronger than ever before. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is holding 44,000 people in detention each day on average, a record high. But the agency plans to do even more in 2019 and has asked Congress to provide more funds in this year’s budget so ICE can detain a historic high of 52,000 people each day.
The increased capacity of the machine is evident across the border as well, and the stressors on the system have been exacerbated recently by a surge in Central American migrant families seeking asylum here. Federal courtrooms were packed over the summer with first-time, nonviolent offenders—many of them those same Central American families—arrested for illegally crossing. The migrants prosecuted under "zero tolerance"—the Trump administration’s policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally instead of just those with a criminal history—continue to fill up jails and other local holding facilities as well as private prisons across the country.
The consequences of these policies are evident everywhere you look. At El Paso’s Fort Bliss, construction has been ongoing for months on a facility there. Over the summer, ICE put out a request for information from contractors on construction of a facility or facilities that could hold 12,000 migrants on a military base. (It's unclear how many of these beds will ultimately be at Fort Bliss.) Just outside the city’s downtown a portion of Trump’s famous wall is being built—against the wishes of many in the community. The four-mile, $22-million wall is being erected alongside the railroad tracks and the river that separates El Paso from Juarez, one of the most heavily patrolled border crossings in the entire world.
“Of course, it’s completely unnecessary,” Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada told me Monday.
All of it—the effects of the deportation machine, the wall, the troops sent in on Trump’s orders, the border guards patrolling in riot gear at the busiest crossing between El Paso and Juarez—feels like Washington forcing its policies on El Paso from 2,000 miles away.
“There’s no chaos at the border,” said El Paso County Commissioner Vincent Perez. “No one from the federal government came here and asked us how we feel about these policies.”
Perez knows a few things about how Washington works. Educated at Georgetown, Perez worked under former Congressman Silvestre Reyes—who was replaced in 2013 by a then-little-known El Paso city councilman named Beto O’Rourke—before being elected to the El Paso County Commissioners' Court in 2012. Not only is he vocal about Washington’s interference in borderland communities like El Paso, he’s fighting an uphill battle in his own community to change policies he says are against the wishes of El Pasoans.
As part of a decade-old agreement the federal government pays El Paso County $20 million a year to hold immigration detainees at the county jail, according to Perez. He says this relationship should end not only because it’s unclear if the county is actually making money as a result of the deal, but because most El Pasoans don’t support the Trump administration’s “anti-immigration policies.” He first raised the issue in June 2017, then did so again at the height of the family separation crisis last June, when the jail was holding more immigrant detainees as a a result of the increase in prosecutions thanks to Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border-crossers.
“A lot of folks who are on the opposite side of this issue say, ‘Well we treat them better here at the county jail’,” Perez said. “Which is bullshit, because all of them end up deported anyway.”
Less complex is the divide over a wall nearing completion in the Chihuahuita neighborhood near downtown El Paso, one of the few places where Trump’s wall-based rhetoric is also reality. On one side of the argument is Perez and his fellow county Democrats. On the other: the only Republican elected official in the county, Andrew Haggerty; law enforcement; and border hawks in the community.
In late September, the commissioners court was unusually packed for its Monday morning meeting, as the court was expected to sign a resolution officially declaring its opposition to the wall. The court passed the resolution 4-1, with Haggerty the lone no vote. He said his decision was less about support for the wall than his obligations to deal with county business, not national immigration policy.
“After my Monday vote, I got 50 emails, text messages and phone calls, and not one of them was anything but ‘thank you for staying out of this, it’s not your job,’” Haggerty said.
“The people of El Paso County elected me to fix their roads and their schools, not to dictate immigration policy,” he is fond of saying.
But there are few issues more local than putting up a wall in someone’s backyard, according to Perez.
“When it comes to these matters that have significant impact on border communities, very rarely are voices from these communities sought,” Perez said. “El Paso has consistently ranked among the safest cities in the nation for the longest time. There isn’t this problem where waves of undocumented immigrants are coming over here and wreaking havoc on communities such as ours.”
It is precisely the walls, and the thousands of law enforcement agents in the area, that keep El Paso safe, according to Haggerty. Without them, El Paso might succumb to the chaos and violence of Juarez, which saw more than 700 murders in 2017 compared to 19 in El Paso that year. Perez disagrees, saying spillover violence doesn’t occur in El Paso because Mexican drug cartels know bringing their daily battles to the city’s streets would only increase US intervention in their affairs, and that it’s the destination cities for drugs like Los Angeles and Chicago—not the “transit point” of El Paso—where violence occurs.
Still, immigration hawks in Washington are getting their way in places like El Paso. Not only is a portion of Trump’s famous wall going up there, but the city was home to a test run of zero tolerance policies in the spring, perhaps the most recognizable instance of El Paso being used as a test site for immigration policy. In another display of El Paso as immigration laboratory, migrants on the main pedestrian bridge between El Paso and Juarez who were waiting there to apply for asylum were kicked off by Mexican immigration authorities—apparently at the behest of the Trump administration—in October. The controversial child detention facility at Tornillo just outside of El Paso has only recently started to wind down its operations as it's started to release its 3,000 young detainees to sponsors.
“I think a lot of policies that you’ve seen come out about immigration at the federal level and some of the policies that have come from the state level are the result of a lot of exaggeration and fear,” Perez said.
That fear is justified by what’s on the other side, says Bob Pena. The lifelong El Pasoan is the executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party and my informal travel guide in Juarez.
A 15-minute walk from Perez’s comfortable office in the gleaming glass building that houses much of El Paso County’s government lies Benito Juarez Avenue. To walk across the main pedestrian bridge—known as either Paso Del Norte or the Santa Fe Street bridge—will cost you 50 cents. Beyond that you'll find an always-bustling intersection jammed with shoppers, street hawkers, cars, busses, trucks of migrant workers bound for the US, and people begging for change. Every hour of every day, someone is standing at that intersection waiting for someone they know to come back from where they cannot go—across the bridge and into the United States.
It’s here that Pena picks me up one evening in late September. We hop in his Toyota Avalon and start driving, Pena pointing out landmarks you can see and those you can’t, the ghosts of Juarez’s past from the time before. Back before NAFTA and the drug wars of the mid-2000s, Juarez was a fun place, Pena says. Soldiers from Fort Bliss would drink at the Kentucky Club and other bars on Benito Juarez Avenue. El Pasoans would walk across the bridge to party, or get cheap goods and dentistry work.
Now, Pena won’t stop telling me not to come here.
“You shouldn’t be walking around here by yourself. No American should. It’s different for me. I’m Mexican and I speak Spanish. I can blend in a little,” he says.
Pena, whose father was born in Juarez before becoming a US citizen and who grew up bouncing across the border, still owns a few properties in Juarez, mostly small, cheap apartments his tenants rent for a few hundreds dollars a month. His daughter lives there; she married a man from Juarez. Pena walks across the bridge or drives to Juarez a few times a week, on each trip updating his mental spreadsheet of what’s changed, what’s missing, what’s fallen down, and what new has replaced the old.
He talks a lot about the “bureaucratic red tape” that prevents him from making improvements to his properties. “The joke is, you go to the government with all these papers to do something and they turn you away because you didn’t have the dog’s death certificate,” Pena says. Listen to Pena talk about the difficulties he’s faced as a property owner in Juarez, hear him rant about the rampant corruption among every level of Mexican government from the president down to the cops on the street, and you begin to understand how he became who he is today: a full-throated, Trump-loving, bleeding-red Republican.
“We Mexicans—and I say we because they are my people and I consider myself one of them—have wooed, screwed, and tattooed the Americans,” Pena says.
The comment is a microcosm of the complexities of borderland life. Ethnicity and nationality do not determine your politics. There are Mexican-American Republicans in El Paso—lots of them, to hear Pena tell it. There are first-generation Americans whose parents were born in Mexico who work for ICE, Border Patrol, and other immigration authorities. Some refer to themselves as the matasuenos, the dream killers, for a job that requires them to crush the hopes of migrants looking to make it into the United States just like their own parents did, sometimes legally, sometimes not. There are also many white Americans who are vehemently pro-immigration. One man in El Paso who is a passionate advocate for migrants has basically told me that it’s time for an armed revolution on behalf of those swept up in the immigration system.
In Washington, the debate over immigration policy can seem abstract, but here it’s part of the fabric of life. Each day, people walk from Juarez into El Paso to buy clothes at sidewalk stores, then head back to Mexico without thinking twice of trying to illegally stay in the US. Migrants camp out on the bridge, desperate for a chance to apply for asylum. Meanwhile in Juarez, many men and women live their entire lives perfectly content to never even try to come to America, happy to live out their days in the country they love.
Then there are those separated by the border, the families in Juarez with loved ones on the other side. A few times a year, they’re given the opportunity to meet in the dry riverbed that separates the two cities in an event called Hugs Not Walls. The Border Network for Human Rights, a nonprofit migrant advocacy group that sponsors the event, raises money to pay for travel expenses for those who can’t afford to make it El Paso. Most attendees from the US live in the area, but some come from as far away as the Midwest and Northeast. The event has been held in an area underneath an overpass in Chihuahuita. That changed this year when Trump’s wall started going up. Instead the event was held just outside El Paso in Sunland Park, New Mexico. There, border agents opened a gate in order for families to have a few minutes with each other.
“It is very emotional,” said Fernando Garcia, director of Border Network for Human Rights. “The intent of it is to humanize immigrants. I think that people think that if America is not white anymore, than that is a threat to this country. It’s not. It is very difficult if you’re from Kansas to understand the reality of life at the border.”
The area isn’t far from Anapra, a poor village on the western edge of Juarez. There is no wall there, just a small mountain range acting as a natural barrier between the two countries. People live in homes they make themselves out of homemade bricks, scrap wood and metal, and whatever else they can find to construct four walls and a roof. West of that is endless desert and an area littered with the detritus of migration—discarded water bottles, shirts, jackets, hats, shoes, backpacks. Anything and everything one has to leave behind at the last minute when a smuggler tells them to. West of that as far as you can walk is some of the most brutal territory in all of North America, the Chihuahan and Sonoran deserts. There, thousands of migrants have died trying to make it to the United States. Just as many or more survive the journey, crossing an invisible line in the sand separating destitute poverty and economic opportunity, hope and despair.
This is where Victor Medina-Razo made his most recent journey to America, and it’s likely where he’ll try again.
While Trump’s hardline anti-immigration policies provoke debate in El Paso and DC, those who are hoping to cross the border illegally care less about the broader issues than they do about the pressures in their own lives that cause them to migrate.
For almost two years Victor Medina-Razo lived in America. He was one of more than 100 Mexicans working at a tree farm in Oregon run, Victor said, by two dozen white Americans working in the office who all knew their laborers were undocumented immigrants. He lived with another man in a garage that had been converted to an apartment and worked six 16-hour days a week. On Sundays he ate menudo with the other workers and walked to a nearby school where he ran laps around the track. For 18 months this was his only leisure activity. He earned $7.35 an hour and every dollar that didn’t go to rent or food went back to his wife and child in Mexico. He’d promised her he wouldn’t miss Christmas that year, 2003, so he went home.
Victor had earned enough money in Oregon to buy land and build a home in Guerrero. With the leftovers he took his wife on a vacation to Acapulco. Then Victor went back to work as a sound engineer, rigging up PA systems for parties and events in the nearby towns. But he couldn’t earn enough. His son was getting close to finishing high school and wanted to go to college so he could become an aeronautical engineer. Victor knew he’d have to go back to the United States to earn enough money to make that dream become a reality.
He saved up his money to pay a smuggler about $2,000 to guide him across the desert. What was a journey of three days and three nights when Victor first came to the US now only took 14 hours—they had a better route. Victor’s goal was to get to a town and make contact with a family member who had promised him a job at a car wash in Colorado. Victor would make $14 an hour there, at least twice what he made in Mexico.
But that dream began to fade when the dogs at the ranch started barking. It died when the men on the motorcycles showed up and arrested Victor and the others. He cries when he tells this part of the story. He was so hopeful.
But there is life in the dream. Victor wipes his eyes and says that the family member in Colorado will help him get across this time. Someone will be there waiting for him—where he does not yet know—when he crosses the invisible line. This time, he won’t fail.
“I know God is ahead of me, and with his help I know I am going to cross.”
Justin Glawe is an independent journalist based in Dallas. He writes a newsletter, Where Do We Go From Here.
Zach Nelson is a photojournalist and videographer based in Brooklyn.