Border Jumping to Mexico: A Journey Across Imaginary Lines

In the midst of the raging immigration debate, there's no better way to get a pulse on the issues than riding a tourist trolley across the invisible line to Mexico. A few weeks ago I boarded the "Border Jumper" from El Paso to Juarez. I was traveling with passengers on opposite ends of the immigration spectrum: my older, conservative brother, a major in the United States Air Force, and my boyfriend, whose family immigrated illegally to this country in the early 1980s.

My older brother Rahul has been living in El Paso for the past few years. Each time I visit, I urge him to take a trip into Juarez with me, insisting on seeing the biggest metropolitan area - populated by some 2 million people - on America's southern border. He usually shoots me down. Last year, there was no discussion. "It's dangerous there," he said grimly. Instead, I spent an afternoon at the National Border Patrol Museum, a small concrete box where a whole wall is dedicated to sharp shooting awards earned by Border Patrol officers.

Rahul and I are pretty different political animals. I'm an anti-war, Green Party member living in San Francisco. My brother began his slow drift to the right as a reaction to the over-liberal atmosphere at his Ivy League university. He joined the Air Force in the late 1990s, just before entering medical school, when it was a benign way to get medical school paid for and a guaranteed four-year job. Now, my brother is considering volunteering for duty in Iraq, where his skills as a trauma surgeon might come in handy. He epitomizes the country-serving immigrant who believes that his benefits will be preserved by closing the doors to others.

My boyfriend's father came to the U.S. in the early 1970s from India and earned an MBA. But tightening immigration policies during the Vietnam War prevented him from being able to get citizenship, so he moved to Canada instead - where my boyfriend, Robin, and his sister were born. After a few years in Toronto, my boyfriend's father decided it was the American dream he was after, not the Canadian one, so the family drove across the Canadian border and never went home. Unlike today's anti-immigrant policies, in 1986Republican president Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to 2.5 million illegal immigrants who 'd been living and paying taxes in the United States. Robin and his family qualified and they are now all U.S. citizens.

This year in El Paso, I insisted that we cross the border before a 700-mile fence guarded by aerial drones seals it for good. Again, I was met with resistance and was intrigued by my brother's notion of danger in Juarez, a place he told me was "run by drug lords," a place where he said "we could be murdered in the streets." Granted, Juarez is a dangerous place, but for who? If my brother, a second-generation Indian who has traveled to much poorer parts of the world than Juarez, had such strong notions of a city barely a mile from his home - I wondered what less traveled people must think.

My brother agreed to the trip but only if we took the Juarez trolley - ironically named the Border Jumper - a transportainment industry which shuttles tourists across the border in a green and red trolley, making seven stops at shops, restaurants, markets and finally, a pharmacy. As soon as we passed into Mexico, you could see a palpable difference. The streets were in disrepair, the soot-stained buildings did not mirror the shiny high rises of downtown El Paso. "I can't believe how much it reminds me of India," Robin said to me, amazed. Every establishment we passed seemed to be either a bar catering to El Paso's underage drinkers or a dentist's office offering cut-rate root canals.

But it was also a lively, fun town. At one of the stops, I struck up a conversation with a young man, selling paintings depicting traditional Mexican landscapes. I asked him if he spent a lot of time in El Paso and he vigorously shook his head no. "It's boring there," he said. "Most people come here for fun." He told us which nightclubs were good, where he went to skateboard and listen to Juarez's growing punk rock scene and pointed us down a street where we walked past the Hollywood-style mansion of singer Juan Gabriel. After wandering around in a tourist market for a few hours, we got back on the rickety trolley carrying its load of mostly white tourists. I asked my brother if he had seen any drug lords . He ignored me.

As the trolley creeped across the heavily-guarded border, we watched the steady stream of people walking along the bridge between the two countries. When I asked my brother what he thought the solution to the immigration issue is, he said he didn't know but that illegal immigration was a serious problem. He talked about the strain illegal immigrants have on the health care system, the public schools and the general safety of the area. He said the majority of patients he treats were undocumented immigrants. When we went through the actual border check, where our driver's licenses were barely perused and the majority of the people didn't have their goods x-rayed, my brother couldn't believe it. "That was border security?" he kept asking as we drove back to his house. "That guy behind us probably smuggled three small children into the country inside that giant Spiderman piñata."

Later that night, Robin told us about his vague memory of coming across the Canadian border with his family when he was five years old. He said his family could only pack a few suitcases, because they wanted to appear like they were only going on vacation, meaning they had to leave almost everything behind. He said that before they crossed his parents told him and sister not to say anything.

He could clearly remember how scary it was when the border patrol looked into the car at them. Robin's family's experience and my brother's daily life in El Paso make me realize how many families out there are struggling to survive without papers. "My father just wanted a better life for us," he said. In the post-9.11 world, it would have been impossible for Robin's family to cross the border into America.

Riding across the border in a trolley full of Americans eager to buy up Mexican handicrafts and discount prescription drugs made me also realize how connected these two countries are. I think a lot of Indian Americans think that the immigration debate doesn't touch them as a model minority community. But our family's spectrum of experience, from my brother's military work to my boyfriend's border crossing experience, made me realize that this issue touches all of us, no matter what generation we came here or how we got here.

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