Crackdown separates sister cities on Mexican border Illegal crossers barred at El Paso

EL PASO — EL PASO -- Out of economic and social need, many people in El Paso and its Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juarez, ignored the international border that separates them.

With relative ease, people from Juarez came to El Paso each day to work in low-skilled jobs where they were paid less than the typical U.S. wage but up to three times more than what they could earn in a Mexican factory. They would spend the bulk of their money in U.S. stores, where food and clothing costs less than half of such goods in Mexico.


Americans went to Juarez to play. They gulped down dollar margaritas and beer at discos. They bought cases of cigarettes or antibiotics that are only available by prescription in the United States.

Many people from El Paso have relatives in Mexico and vice versa, so there was constant traffic across the border for weddings, birthday parties and funerals.


A small percentage came to steal cars or household goods or to sell drugs.

Most crossed legally, but each day thousands came illegally.

But on Sept. 19, the U.S. Border Patrol set up Operation Blockade. Some 450 officers were posted along a 20-mile stretch of the border to keep out the illegals.

The operation enjoyed unprecedented praise during the first weeks.

"For the first time, someone has responded to our calls for help," says Fred Morales, who grew up in a neighborhood named Chihuahuita. "For the first time someone has had the courage to send someone to protect the people that live on the border. We were being terrorized by the Mexican gang members. But that has stopped. And we appreciate that."

But serious economic troubles have brought increasing criticism.

At a meeting of business leaders from El Paso and Juarez, one banking executive was heard shouting at the chief of El Paso's Border Patrol.

"This is an economic disaster," he said. "The relationship between these two cities is vital. . . ."


"Take this blockade to San Diego or McAllen. But get it out of here."

Mexico has submitted formal protests to the State Department saying that military action is not the solution to immigration problems and warning the United States to respect the rights of Mexicans who cross the border.

"A blockade is something done against enemies," said David Arelle, president of the Commission for the Economic Development of Juarez. "This operation sends the wrong message to Mexicans who thought their relationship with the United States was getting better."

Silvestre Reyes, chief of the El Paso Border Patrol, calls the criticism "crazy" and cites polls that show some 90 percent of the people in El Paso support the blockade. And it has dramatically reduced the number of undocumented migrants apprehended each day by the border patrol.

Crime down

Before the operation, agents say, about 1,000 arrests were made each day. Now the number is 100 to 150 a day. Border Patrol officials in nearby areas say that so far their arrests have not increased.


Officials at the El Paso Police Department say crimes such as shoplifting and car theft, particularly in downtown El Paso, have been cut by 30 percent.

"I believe that maybe in 15 years from now we can remove all borders and be one world and one people," Mr. Reyes said. "But that is idealistic. In the real world there are borders, and we have to protect the people who are under siege by people who cross those borders illegally."

Residents of U.S. neighborhoods near the border have taken coffee and food out to the officers. Almost all of the residents are Latino, and just last year these same communities viewed the Border Patrol with contempt, often accusing officers of driving through their neighborhoods and stopping people simply because of their brown skin.

Now, with all the officers stationed on the border, few are left to patrol neighborhoods. This has cut down harassment complaints.

Paul Strelzin, principal of Bowie High School, last year filed suit against the Border Patrol, accusing officers of beating some of his pupils and using his campus as a parking lot to watch the border.

Last week, however, he sat on a panel with Mr. Reyes and praised Operation Blockade.


"We have laws in this country," he said, "and Mr. Reyes is in charge of enforcing those laws."

Businesses suffering

Business leaders are less enthusiastic about the blockade.

Jesse Alvarez, president of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says he understands the importance of following the law, but he says he cannot help his concern for those businesses that are suffering because their Mexican workers can no longer cross the border.

"The truth is, a lot of people come and provide services no one else wants to provide," he says. "They clean houses and offices, they do gardening and construction work.

"And El Paso is such a poor city that many businesses would fold if they had to pay top dollar."


Mr. Alvarez said he and other business leaders would like to see a law that would allow certain types of workers to cross the border, do their jobs and return to Mexico. It would be similar to the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican farm workers to cross the border up until the middle of the century.

It is a law that one resident of El Paso's wealthy west side would support. She says Operation Blockade turned her world upside down because her housekeeper was stuck on the Mexican side of the border for two weeks.

Earlier this month, the maid sneaked into the United States and is back at work.

"I was not able to work because I had to stay home and take care of my children," the woman says. "Day care is not an option for me because, first of all, I don't believe they provide quality care, and on top of that they are too expensive."

Her housekeeper sends most of her salary back to Mexico to help pay college tuition for her four children.

"I feel like we were meant to be together," says the woman. "I help her; she helps me. We were meant to be together."


Streets deserted

Before the blockade, El Paso and Juarez enjoyed that kind of interdependence, say owners of businesses in downtown El Paso and Juarez.

The streets on both sides of the border were once bustling with pedestrians with cash. Since the start of Operation Blockade, the streets have been virtually empty.

Human rights activists on both sides of the border say that the resourcefulness and dire need of Mexicans make tactics such as Operation Blockade ineffective in the long term.

One 22-year-old, walking through El Paso with a shoeshine box, says he continues to sneak across the border each day because he generally earns $30 a day. Workers at Mexican factories earn about $80 a week.

"No matter how many police they put on the border, people will come because they are accustomed to making more money than they can make in Mexico," says the man, who identified himself as Roberto. "I have been arrested and deported, sometimes three times in one week. But I always come back."


'Racist' motivation

Jose Moreno, head of the office of migrant and refugee services for the El Paso Archdiocese, says he is surprised by the support El Paso residents have shown for the blockade. Some 70 percent are Mexican Americans.

"The motivation of the blockade is racist, and the reactions to it show that there are many racist tendencies in El Paso and Washington," he says. "The reaction of the community has been that now we are not going to have crime on our streets. Now we are not going to have beggars. Now we are going to have money to educate our kids.

"I thought El Pasoans really understood what this wonderful collaboration between countries was all about," he adds. "I can't believe how easy it is for us to forget where we came from."

Magdalena Garcia, who moved to El Paso from Mexico seven years ago and is now a U.S. citizen, resents such statements. She and other residents support the blockade.

"If you put a fence around your house, it doesn't mean you hate your neighbor," she said. "You can always put a door on the fence so that your neighbors can come in.


"It just means that you want to protect what is yours."