In October we had our first visitors to Ciudad Juárez – my dad and stepmom L. My dear friend K visited last spring, but stayed in El Paso because she was road-tripping around the southwest with a big dog and no Global Entry card; my dad and L were the first to actually come into Juárez. When I suggested several months ago over the phone that, pandemic depending, V and I were planning a fall trip to Playa del Carmen and they should come with us, I didn’t think they’d necessarily want to go that far into Mexico or spend that much money doing so. It’s over 2,000 miles southwest of Juárez and on the Caribbean Sea where we’d spent our 2013 honeymoon.
But I hadn’t considered two things. One, my dad had made frequent scuba diving trips to nearby Cozumel over the past 30 years and was familiar with the area. And two, that 18 months of pandemic isolation had made them just as lonely and excited as we were about vacationing in a luxurious venue with ocean, sand, and unlimited cocktails, particularly after they’d relocated from the California coast to rainy Washington state in 2018. It occurred to me that not seeing them between August 2019 and October 2021 due to the pandemic is about the length of a standard Peace Corps Volunteer service – definitely too long to not see your parents, especially at this age.
To my delight they not only agreed, but made reservations. We decided first they’d spend a few days in Juárez with us, and then we’d fly south together. Then we all crossed our fingers that the pandemic wouldn’t interfere. Somehow in the luckiest streak of a rough 2021, I got boosted and they visited during what I now see was the lull between the Delta and Omicron variants.
It’s always exciting when your family comes to visit you at a Foreign Service post, because you can show them your life and favorite things in a different country. It takes their ability to relate to your daily routine from just imagining what you experience in an unfamiliar place, to actually getting out of their comfort zone and living it with you, at least temporarily.
In October, there were many places south of the border still open only on a limited basis, and my dad and L were more interested in chilling out than running around to visit places I suggested, like Juárez’s revolution museum (MUREF) or the Plaza de La Mexicanidad with the big red X. I am ashamed to say most of the places I suggested I hadn’t yet been to myself and was trying to play tourist a bit. But downtime was also essential, particularly when they only had two full days. I felt like a bit of an inept host because in most regards we haven’t seen Juárez ourselves – something under normal circumstances would have never happened more than a year into a tour.
I also had to assess my comfort level with our risk in being out and about in Juárez, both from a security and a health perspective. There had been a prominent assassination shooting in our neighborhood in the preceding weeks, in addition to a local restaurant being shot up in an armed robbery, and three of the four of us are in our 70s and/or immunocompromised. The goal was to get to the sand and cocktails in good shape! L had wanted to go to a well-known local restaurant called Viva Mexico for dinner and an equestrian show she’d heard about. Unfortunately it was a weekend thing and they were only staying from Tuesday until our onward flight Friday morning, so it would have been fun but didn’t work out.
But they did arrive safely to El Paso’s small airport where I found them no worse for wear. They endured their first border crossing into Mexico with me in a rush-hour traffic jam. Pedestrians and vendors weaved their way through the bridge traffic and I stared straight ahead, my consulate placard on the dashboard, hungry and waiting to reach Mexican customs and immigration.
Later we enjoyed a dinner of delicious tacos across the street from our neighborhood at our favorite baja taco shack. We laughed when the beers we ordered inadvertently arrived in the drown-your-sorrows size, but I’d warned our brave guests that our español is subpar for food ordering. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve sat in a restaurant in 2021, on either side of the border. But we enjoyed some delicious food and even when we weren’t sure what we were ordering, we loved everything that came to the table.
Temperatures ended up being in the 90s during my dad and L’s visit – welcome to autumn in the Borderplex! It was too hot for them to want to spend time in unshaded outdoor areas like the El Paso Municipal Rose Garden or the Keystone Heritage Park, even though I was elated the temps had recently dropped 10 degrees. They probably would have been interested to see White Sands National Park in nearby New Mexico had it not been for the four-hour round trip and needing to rise extremely early to beat the tourist crush and the heat of the day.
We also decided to forego the Mission Trail to see San Elizario Presidio Chapel, Socorro Mission, and Ysleta Mission to do our adventuring in a low-key way around El Paso instead. Their penchant for sleeping in let me get up at my usual time and work out in our garage for a good 90 minutes before I had to think about what to make everyone for breakfast, which was a nice change from my usual rat race of running out the door to work.
We shopped for new sandals for my dad, ate delicious Tex-Mex, checked out some vantage points high over El Paso and Juárez to get perspective on the border, and visited the National Border Patrol Museum, the country’s only museum dedicated to the exhibition and preservation of artifacts, vehicles, and photographs related to the work of the U.S. Border Patrol during the last 100+ years.
It does make sense, after consideration, that such a national installation would be here in El Paso rather than in DC. It receives no federal funding and is actually a non-profit 501(c)(3), relying on donations. Perhaps more importantly, the origins of today’s Border Patrol (often misstated as Customs and Border Patrol, which is an incorrect way of saying Customs and Border Protection, a separate part of the Department of Homeland Security) originated not just in Texas, but in El Paso itself.
It’s also interesting to note the museum’s extensive exhibits on the history of the Bracero Program, a bilateral U.S.-Mexico agreement that began in 1942. Under the Bracero Program, the U.S. government contracted Mexican laborers (braceros) to legally perform guest work on U.S. farms, providing valuable income to hard-working field hands so they could send remittances to their families in Mexico.
The program was billed to the American public as an alternative to illegal migration and expanded after World War II; however, there were more applicants than available jobs. Texas ultimately opted out of the program in favor of what the museum described as Texas’s “open border policy;” Texas often resisted compliance with the federal wage and housing requirements for migrant workers required by the program. Unauthorized migration chaos continued with workers performing labor outside the scope of the contracts, particularly in the southwest of Texas where farms had plenty of cheap labor and poor working conditions.
Some U.S. Border Patrol agents detailed to the interior of Mexico – with the permission of the government of Mexico – to assist Mexican applicants in properly registering for the program to facilitate their legal entry to the United States. However, many Mexican citizens who did not qualify for farm laborer contracts continued to migrate to the United States without permission hoping for work. The program eventually ended in 1964. It remains the United States’ largest experiment to date with guest workers, and more than four and a half million braceros signed contracts. You can watch a couple of videos totaling 12 minutes about the bracero experience on the UCLA webpage at this link.
[As an interesting side note, in late May 2021, the government of Mexico amended its constitution to say that children born overseas could derive Mexican citizenship from their parents as long as either the mother or the father were Mexican. Previously the law had said as long as the mother or the father were born in Mexico. The law is retroactive, but not automatic, which means someone with a potential claim to Mexican citizenship can now gather their documentation and apply, even if they previously hadn’t qualified. This more lenient interpretation of citizenship law potentially opens the door for generations of children with Mexican heritage born in the U.S. or otherwise outside of Mexico to derive Mexican citizenship from one or both parents, even if their parents were born outside of Mexico themselves to ethnically Mexican parents… perhaps braceros.]
Another tangential thought I had during the visit to the National Border Patrol Museum was about congressional passage of the 1872 Chinese Exclusion Act (which didn’t end until during WWII) and the former immigrant detention center at Angel Island in San Francisco near where I grew up, and the similarity with Australia’s immigration history around Asian migrants. After a 2018 visit to Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, I wrote briefly about Australia’s shifting and complicated perspectives on immigration and social cohesion. Australia’s early immigration policies were literally referred to as “White Australia.”
The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, also known as the White Australia policy, affected migrants who came to Australia between 1901 and 1958… At the end of the 19th century, Australian colonies had concerns about who was migrating to Australia. With a rise in the number of migrants from China and the Pacific, many colonies passed tough immigration legislation. The Immigration Restriction Act was one of the first Commonwealth laws passed after Federation. It was based on the existing laws of the colonies. The aim of the law was to limit non-white (particularly Asian) immigration to Australia, to help keep Australia ‘British’.National Archives of Australia, source: https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/immigration-and-citizenship/immigration-restriction-act-1901
I give credit to the Immigration Museum and the National Archives of Australia for acknowledging publicly the truth of things that have happened in Australia’s past, and putting them out there in clear and simple language to be reconciled and healed. I also talked about this in 2019 when I wrote about Australia’s Stolen Generation and the tremendous strides Australian has made in Reconciliation. I wish we could find ways to do this without getting tangled up in politics, both in terms of formally correcting the treatment of indigenous peoples, and creating immigration policy that serves both the interests of the nation and its people better.
I don’t believe our borders should be open; we guard the borders to facilitate lawful travel and keep dangerous materials and activities out the best we can. But I also don’t believe migrants should be subject to implicit bias based on the color of their skin they were born with, can’t change, and which has nothing to do with the individual skills and talents they could offer a merit-based society like ours. It would be wonderful if we could find a better and more just way in immigration policy to build the kind of society we all deserve, and exemplify the ideals this country sets forth for us to aspire to. I guess we’re doing better than yesterday, and I hope tomorrow we can be more inclusive still.
A member of my family is a Border Patrol officer, and I know firsthand both personally and professionally how much these officers put their own lives on the line to prevent anyone or anything unauthorized from breaching the borders. As I walked through the museum with my dad and L, I couldn’t help but note unsurprisingly, very little focus on our shared border with Canada; the economic and criminal realities to the north and south that drive travel and the movement of goods are of course very different. There were plenty of displays of weapon and vehicle seizures, and exhibitions about the seizure of illicit funds used to bankroll very nasty activities, surveillance detection and riot readiness, and stories of lives lost in the line of duty stretching back to the 1800s.
During my dad and L’s visit, we also had a couple trips back and forth over the border to do drugstore runs, or get dollar bills for tipping at the resort. We drove them around a little bit in Juárez – by the consulate and a few different places so they could get an idea of how our surroundings look. Driving up to El Paso’s Scenic Overlook and waiting until nightfall was a particularly cool way to see that there’s no easy way to distinguish between the two countries.
But that’s pretty much all we had time for. After that, it was Friday morning, our taxi showed up and we were off to the airport. I was thinking it was going to be an actual shuttle and instead it was a sedan, so we had to carry our giant suitcases on our laps, crammed in like sardines as we rode uncomfortably for 25 minutes through the red (off-limits) zone part of town I’d never seen, and that we’re only allowed to travel to and from the airport through. It made me pretty mad at first since I’m the one who organized it, but ultimately it was a little funny and I told myself, What are you mad about? You’re going back to the Iberostar Grand Paraíso!
And so we did, for the first time in eight years!