Ashley Esquivel’s alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m. in Juárez, Mexico. It’s a Friday in November, and she’s heading to high school in Texas, which means football. She pulls on blue sweats branded with the frowning bear mascot of her high school, stuffs her cheerleading skirt into her backpack, and gets in the car. Her dad drops her at the U.S. border on his way to work.
Although the days are still warm, dawn in the desert hovers around 30 degrees. A yellow mist settles across a motionless line of cars that seems to stretch from the horizon to the border checkpoint. Vendors hawk newspapers and burritos to commuters bound for El Paso, who can wait three or four hours to cross the bridge each morning. A stream of children with backpacks, earbuds in, hands shoved in pockets, weave between traffic and funnel onto a pedestrian walkway.
Every day, Ashley makes this crossing to get to high school. An estimated 40,000 children cross the U.S. border each day for school, not just into Texas, but also California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Most of these cross-border students, known as transfronterizos, attend elementary and high school. Even as the U.S. plans to add 450 miles of border wall this year, life between Mexico and the U.S. remains fluid. On average, more than 35,000 passenger vehicles make this northbound journey into El Paso each day, along with nearly 20,000 pedestrians. Annually, more than $80 billion in international trade moves across this part of the border and into Texas. Ashley is just one student amid the daily back and forth of people crossing between the U.S. and Mexico to shop, work, visit family, and get an education.
Perhaps no other two cities represent the overlap of nations like El Paso and Juárez. By population, it’s the second-largest urban area on the U.S.-Mexico border, after San Diego and Tijuana, but it’s arguably the most tightly connected part of the 2,000-mile boundary. From a bird’s eye view, the two meld together seamlessly. El Paso, with its quiet suburbs, and Juárez, with its lively plazas, have a combined population of 2.5 million people, many of whom lead lives that straddle both sides. At ground level, though, an increasingly militarized border divides them.