EL PASO, Texas – The cameras and lights were ready. We were about to start our TV news program when, suddenly, behind me, two migrants jumped the metal wall that separates the United States and Mexico.
They went up and down the five-meter high barrier in less than a minute. They slid softly into the US side, on one of the posts that holds up the wall, and ran when they hit the ground. Minutes later, two more did the same. And two more did it later, for a total of six. A Border Patrol truck about 200 meters from the spot didn’t even try to stop them. That’s a normal day along the border.
In the last fiscal year nearly 2.4 million people entered the United States illegally along the southern border, according to official figures. That is a record. And while the new immigration restrictions imposed by the Biden administration have reduced the crossings by Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Haitians by 97 percent, others continue to arrive. Like always.
No wonder this region shared by Mexico and the United States has been known for centuries as El Paso del Norte – The Pass to the North. There, in front of the Sacred Heart shelter, is where I met Jennifer, a 25-year-old single mother of three from El Salvador. When did you arrive, I asked her. “About an hour ago,” she replied, apparently a bit disoriented. “I came by train from Mexico City” to Ciudad Juarez, she said, and then crossed the border “through a mountain. Her story is like everyone else’s. In her country, she did not have enough money to pay the bills, so she came to work and help her children. When she’s settled in, she’ll send for them.
For Daliana, a smiling 39-year-old cook from Maracay in Venezuela, her crossing was much less dramatic. She walked in on an official border crossing, legally, with her mother and son. Taking advantage of the new immigration regulations for Venezuelans, she downloaded an application on her cell phone, filled it out, found a sponsor and one month later crossed into the United States. “They gave me an appointment for two years,” she said, gripping the blue bag where she kept her asylum petition. “You don’t know how much this has cost me.” The border was the end of a six-month trek that started in Peru and passed through the hellish jungles of the Darien Gap. What’s more incredible is that Daliana did it while carrying four small white dogs. They remained in Ciudad Juarez, waiting for someone to help them cross.
Reality check: It is absurd to believe that the border between Mexico and the United States can be totally closed. The line that separates the two countries was arbitrarily drawn after the war of 1848. Because of its geography, history and design, the border is therefore porous and imperfect. People, products and ideas cross it regularly. And one frequently hears references to “my brothers on the other side.”
Is it possible to shut off the border to all undocumented migrants, I asked Judge Ricardo Samaniego, a top political leader in El Paso County and part of a family strewn for decades across both sides of the Rio Bravo/Grande. “For me, that is ridiculous,” he told me. “People are going to look for ways to cross. Right now there’s a lot of desperation.”
Samaniego believes the El Paso area can process up to 1,200 migrants per day, humanely and to the benefit of the US economy. And that is his philosophy. “We don’t control who comes. What we control is processing them, and doing it better.” He complained that neither President Joe Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris met with local leaders during their recent visits – beyond the usual photo-ops – to hear about possible solutions to the border crisis. “This is not an invasion,” he told me at the end of our conversation. “I’ve been here my whole life. And people have always looked for a way to cross.”
We have to look at the border situation in a different way. What is normal, what we have seen during recent decades, is that the poorest and the most vulnerable move to countries that are wealthier, more stable and safer. With the violence and inequality that prevails in Latin America, with the dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and with the economic aftershocks of the Covid pandemic, the south-to-north flow of migrants is livelier now than ever.
The government of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has only made it more difficult – with National Guard patrols and secret negotiations with the United States to keep migrants in Mexico – for the peacefull, necessary and historic Pass to the North. The Mexican government can help, by getting out of the way. It’s difficult enough to leave your country, without having to face complications as you pass through Mexico.
No wall, no toughened immigration laws, can keep a mother from searchingfor a better life for her sons in another country. Even if she has to cross the hellish Darien Gap with her family and four pets, like Daliana.
We have warned about this before: Migrants will continue to arrive, and in even bigger numbers, with the end of Title 42 (which has allowed for speedy deportations). So we need to be ready. We need to listen to Judge Samaniego. After all, jumping over the wall, like those six people, is the easiest thing to do.