Traffic from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, stopped for U.S. customs and immigration inspections at the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas. Photo by James Tourtellotte/U.S. Customs and Border Protection
EL PASO, Texas, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- Reports of an immigration enforcement crisis on the southern border and drug war violence may make the adjacent cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, seem perpetually lawless and out of control.
But people who live, work, shop and play on both sides of the international boundary find that image tiresome.
"In pop culture and political rhetoric, the border is portrayed as a violent, lawless frontier," said Jon Barela, who leads a non-profit organization dedicated to economic prosperity in the region and strengthening U.S.-Mexico relations. "Nothing can be further from the truth. In many respects, it is a false narrative."
Almost 3 million people call Ciudad Juárez, El Paso County and Las Cruces, N.M. -- an area Barela calls the Borderplex region -- their home.
Headlines may focus on people illegally crossing the border or violence in Juárez but journeying between the two countries and two cities on the four international bridges is a commonplace, lawful activity for thousands every day.
Almost 20,000 pedestrians a day join crossings by 35,000 cars and 2,500 cargo trucks between Juárez and El Paso. For 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation calculated 41 million northbound non-commercial crossings from Juárez to El Paso, a tally just more than California's population.
"Many of the stereotypes that exist of the border are simply rooted in misperceptions," Barela said.
While the Tijuana, Mexico-San Ysidro, Calif., region ranks as the world's largest land border in terms of crossing volume, Juárez/El Paso is the world's largest urban border region. The two cities' immediacy -- separated only several hundred yards by a wide, concrete river bed -- makes international border crossing a fundamental part of life for residents on both sides.
There's a strong, interdependent relationship between Mexico's powerhouse manufacturing city of Juárez and El Paso, which is strategic to U.S. security interests and a transportation hub for trains, trucks, buses and cars, midway between the west and east coasts.
"For every four low-paying jobs created in Juárez, there is one high-paying job created in El Paso," Barela said. Almost 300,000 people work in Juárez's manufacturing sector, composed of about 300 maquiladoras, factories run by American companies.
"In retail trade, 20 to 30 percent in the Borderplex region is done by Mexican nationals who come to eat, shop or play," Barela said. "That's a significant contribution to the economic health of our region."
Retail is the third-largest source of employment in El Paso, providing about 34,000 jobs. At any day of the week, cars with Chihuahuan license plates fill the parking lots at the city's malls.
Some people go to shop in Mexico, too. People who live in El Paso are wise to what Juárez has to offer.
"Sure, I go to shop in Juárez. There are some things that are better there and less expensive," Xochitl Valencia said.
Born in the United States, Valencia is a registered nurse with three decades experience working in intensive-care units. When she was 10, her parents moved the family to Juárez. Her childhood memories hold near-daily bridge crossings. Valencia moved back to El Paso in 1970. She still crosses once or twice a week to Juárez.
"Yes, we have to cross the border but there is no border in my mind," said Valencia, who has siblings in Juarez. "And it's not the shopping; it's family and friends I go to Juárez to see ... And they come over here to see me."
She also goes for the arts: "There is not much theater in El Paso and I like to go see plays in Juárez."
Even for those who cross routinely, waiting on the international bridge to pass through customs and immigration inspections is more than an inconvenience.
"For the last four years of my mother's life, I traveled to Juárez almost every day to see her," Valencia said. "I was driving and driving and driving. Sometimes I would get lucky on the bridge and it would be 30 minutes, other times it would be two hours. Mostly it was about an hour. I would have rather spent that time with my mother or at home. But that's part of living on the border. That's life. If you have to do it, you have to do it. Eventually, my sister and I paid for the pass on the express bridge."
The Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection pass is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection service for eligible border crossers to receive expedited processing if they pass a background check, an in-person interview and pay a fee of $125 for five years.
Valencia, though, has built the bridge into her worldview.
"The bridge is the bridge and it is an inconvenience, but it's not something that is uncomfortable," she said. "But if they close the border, that would be something else. That does worry me. Not being able to go see my sister, my family."
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to shut down the border over a migrant caravan moving from Central America through Mexico, aimed at the United States.
Old bridges lose money
Barela said hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity are lost to wait times at the aging international bridges in El Paso. They were retrofitted decades ago and need significant investment. For freight cargo entering the United States and across the entire border almost $2 billion are lost in productivity.
"It is time for the federal government to step up its infrastructure improvements at ports of entry in the country -- and arrange for more Customs and Border Protection officials to process cargo and people in a much more expedient fashion. We continue to see a relatively flat budget for infrastructure and personnel along the southern border," he said.
Emily Bonderer manages a pest control company in El Paso but once lived in Juárez. She traveled the bridges every day for 7 1/2 years so she could live with her husband, a Mexican national.
"It's horrible. In 2010, the bridge wait times were really long. It improved when they put 'Ready Lanes' on the bridges -- you can use these if you have a biometric passport," Bonderer said. "I moved to El Paso when I got a promotion and took on more work. Now I find bridge wait times extremely irritating, and I'm more impatient now because I only go on the weekends and come back on Sunday afternoon and that wait is very time-consuming."
Bonderer could not have applied for SENTRI when she was regularly commuting.
"We wouldn't have qualified for it. For the longest time they weren't issuing them to anyone whose spouses had immigration violations, which my husband had," Bonderer said. Her husband isn't eligible for a U.S. visa until 2020.
Bonderer is upbeat about the region: "We have access to cheaper medical care and medicine in Juárez. Great food, too."
But she also has her reservations about what it means that 1 million people in Juárez, including her husband, cannot come to El Paso.
"The region is fabulous if you can cross both sides of the border. But if you are on the other end of the spectrum, and you can't come into the U.S., like my husband, it is kind of a horrible feeling. It's like dangling a carrot for somebody that can't come over to the United States."