(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We barrel through New Mexico in our RV — all travelers except those from Hawaii must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival — making no stops for 225 miles across empty desert along the U.S.-Mexico border, seeing few other vehicles save a steady stream of Border Patrol SUVs. Our destination is more open but no safer: El Paso has fewer available ICU beds than most of New Mexico’s counties, and its positivity rate stood at 11% a few days prior. Republicans run Texas, Democrats run New Mexico, and the virus runs rampant in both.
In El Paso, my wife Laurel and I head for Chico’s Tacos. A colleague, Sam Koppelman, recommended the spot for a “grotesquely gorgeous” meal. The line is out the door and around the building, managed by two security guards. Very orderly. About 25 diners sit inside at red plastic booths, feasting on fried taquitos in bowls of red sauce capped by heaping mounds of grated cheese. Sam was not wrong. I place our order, get a number and wait, standing in a corner but unable to dodge customers who pass by at close range. I hoped it would be only a few minutes, but the wait stretches on for 20. All I can think is: I can’t believe I’m going to have to tell people I got Covid because I wanted to go to Chico’s Tacos.
We take the food back to our parking spot for the night, the Walmart nearest downtown, the same store where a gunman opened fire on Aug. 3, 2019, intent on killing as many Mexican immigrants as he could. He murdered 23 people. We park near the memorial to the victims, at the back of the lot.
Before dinner, I had met Persis Beaven, who was born in El Paso and grew up across the border in Juarez, Mexico. “As soon as I heard the location of the shooting, something in my gut told me that it was a racist attack on our community.” The killer’s manifesto proved her right. “The Walmart where it happened — it’s known for being the closest to the port of entry, to the Bridge of the Americas, and it’s a very common place for Mexican nationals to shop. A big part of the economy in El Paso relies on people from Mexico. And I remember going to shop at that Walmart with my grandma for school supplies every year. And that is exactly when it happened. It was the tax-free weekend when most people are shopping for their school supplies.” The week after the attack, she joined Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention group that is supported by Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg News.
The next morning, I walk over the Rio Grande to Mexico on a bridge flanked by a wall and barbed wire. There is no identification check to leave the country, only a toll: 50 cents. I walk for 15 minutes along a main thoroughfare, as shopkeepers open up for the day, though many businesses appear shuttered. On the way back, there is a line of vehicles waiting to cross into the U.S. Men with rags rub car hoods, then ask for money. The passengers keep their windows up. At least in New York City, the squeegee men used water.
At the U.S. Customs check, an agent with a Mexican surname and strong accent asks me: How long were you there? Are you carrying any drugs or weapons? How much money do you have with you?
About $100, I tell him.
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to take it. This isn’t Mexico.”
He laughs, I laugh, the agent beside us laughs. But he isn’t kidding, and tells a story about how corrupt the federales are.
Walking out onto El Paso Street, many of the shops on this side of the border are closed, too. The head of the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Cindy Ramos-Davidson, tells me that 27% of small businesses have closed. She mentions an Italian restaurant, Sorrento, that had been in business for decades. “Shut down completely. Just can’t make it.” Another, Carlos and Mickey’s, has been around since the 1940s and is barely hanging on. “Pre-Covid, she was doing anywhere from $18,000 to $20,000 a day. After Covid, she’s lucky if she’s doing $1,500 a day. No way she can sustain that business doing just drive-up orders.”
Some businesses received help from the first stimulus bill, but many did not — either because they weren’t eligible, didn’t have the wherewithal to complete the paperwork, or didn’t wish to take a handout.
“In the Hispanic market, people are very prideful. They don’t like to ask for help. They like to do it on their own. There was a gentleman who came in that does carpet cleaning. Has a van. Slammed big time by all this Covid stuff. Came in and said he needed money.” The chamber is running a grants program. “And when he came to get his check, he cried. This is a man that looks like he might be 61, 62 years old, Hispanic. In the 19 years that he’s had his carpet business, this is the first time he’s ever had to ask for help. And he cried.”
Downtown retailers may be the hardest hit, with some pulling in only a few hundred dollars a day, compared with $10,000 to $12,000 before Covid. “They’re very dependent on the Mexican shopper. And the bridge restrictions are not allowing that to happen — it’s only essential people” who are allowed to cross.
It hasn’t helped that as shutdowns occurred last spring, big box retailers were deemed to be essential businesses. Mom and Pop? Not so much. As Main Street America fights a mostly losing battle against big box retailers and online shopping — I’ve seen it all across the country — the pandemic has left them even more battered.
I get a cab back to Walmart. The driver grew up across the border in Juarez. I ask him the difference between it and El Paso — “From here to the moon,” he says. How so? “Everything. In Juarez, there is so much poverty, crime, insecurity, garbage.” He says he knows he is lucky to have gotten out, and legally — his family got green cards.
We begin to make our way across west Texas, with a first stop in Marfa, an old railroad and Army town in the desert that has become a magnet for artists and tourists, as well as a Covid hotspot. Two local artists recently decided to send a message to out-of-towners, placing a neon sign in a window declaring “Everyone Here Hates You,” and a poster announcing: “This Town Chooses Your Dollars Over The Safety Of The People That Live Here. So Make Sure You Get a Tote Bag.”
While the artists blame visitors for the spread, contact tracing suggests a different story, with local interactions — in homes, bars and workplaces — the more common culprit. Tourists are an easy villain, as outsiders always are. And perhaps the artists’ view of visitors is not so different from the way many Americans view illegal immigrants: If only we could keep them out, we could keep out the problems they bring. The border wall and neon sign appeal to instincts not because they are effective, but because they are cathartic, affirming a sense of siege.
We stay only for the night and in the morning drive south to the border, passing desert ranches and little else, save a most unexpected road sign reading “Profile of Lincoln.” Sure enough, off in the distance, the Cuesta del Burro mountaintop forms a profile of old Abe. It’s the first we’ve seen of his image since San Francisco, and one of the few faces we encounter en route to Terlingua, an abandoned mining town that has been reincarnated as a refuge for offbeat personalities and adventure seekers, sitting just outside Big Bend National Park. Its full-time population is less than 100, and its economy, like Marfa’s, relies on visitors. At the village entrance, a handmade sign reads, “Everyone Here Loves You.” We stay two nights.
Big Bend National Park, larger than the state of Rhode Island, runs along the Rio Grande for 118 miles. There is no border wall, and the river is low. Hiking into Boquillas Canyon, we see Americans swimming in the river. On the other side, a Mexican man beside a horse yells out to me, “Tamales!”
I’m standing near a group of 20-somethings eating tamales, and they tell me they’re delicious. Six for 10 bucks. I yell back: “I’ve only got $4. Can I buy two?” He hesitates but mounts his horse and fords the river, crossing an international boundary to make the delivery. Who needs Seamless?
Later that day, Laurel and I hike to a perch overlooking the Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen. As the sun sets, we see two young Mexican men crossing the river in a canoe — not to illegally enter the country, but probably to retrieve the contents of cash jars that Mexican residents leave beside handmade goods they place on the U.S. side: walking sticks, crafts and beer cozies. They’ll take the money home and return tomorrow to do it again.
Further east on the Rio Grande sits the city of Del Rio, across the river from its much larger Mexican sister, Acuña. The number of individuals apprehended at the border here tripled last year, to more than 13,000. A mile from the border fence, I meet Tiffany Burrow, a volunteer with the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition.
“Most of the folks that we see will cross over the Rio and then give themselves up to Border Patrol before they ever reach that black fence.” They are families seeking asylum and processed through a short-term holding facility. “That can mean a couple of days. It can mean 10 days. And the longest I’ve ever heard in our area has been 23.” She has visited the facility. “It’s very, very cold. And it’s like a cell. There’s nothing in there. Nothing.”
Border Patrol repatriates most asylum seekers, but some are released into the U.S. pending a hearing, provided they can supply the address of someone who will take them in. Border Patrol was dropping these migrants at the Greyhound bus station by the hundreds, but many lacked the money or language skills needed to arrange their travel. Someone in the agency recognized the problem.
“Border Patrol reached out to all of the pastors within our city,” Tiffany tells me. “Only one responded and said, ‘I think we can do something.’” The pastor enlisted other churches to join him. “We take out the politics of it, and there’s no left or right, because it’s all faith-based — you’re showing God’s love to everyone.”
Since then, Border Patrol has dropped migrant families at a small building that the coalition set up as an assistance center. They have two phones and a computer and provide a small measure of what most migrants are lacking: clothing, shoes and toiletries, along with a hot meal, a hot shower and a bite for the road.
There are flags on the wall representing every nationality of migrant they’ve seen — 23 in all. Their biggest numbers are from Haiti, followed by Africa and Central America. What about Mexico? “I don’t see any Mexicans,” Tiffany says. If Mexican families are seeking asylum, they are being turned away.
I ask her: How do Africans end up at Del Rio? “They come over to Brazil. And then from Brazil, they travel through the jungle” — a dangerous, harrowing journey. “Some of them have traveled with people who have died along the way. I’ve been in the hospital with a pregnant mother, and the father passed on the journey.”
Pregnancy is a common trait across nationalities. “We see a lot of women in their third trimester. They’re either having babies here at our hospital or they’re having babies right after. That’s what drives them to cross” — citizenship for the child. One day last week, they saw four adults: “Two couples and they were both due. One was 39 weeks and the other was 38 weeks.”
Tiffany is a mother of three and began volunteering when her church became involved in the coalition. “I had no idea what was going on. A lot of this community was not aware of what was happening” — at the border, or at the center. “I’m a mom and wife and I wanted my own kids to be a part of volunteering and to see what was happening in their community.”
About two dozen volunteers staff the center, but four were hit by Covid after Thanksgiving. A church group that came down from Waco helped keep the operation going. Chick-fil-A donates meals once a month. Walmart gives $100 semi-quarterly, but the money doesn’t go very far: “We spend double that to feed folks in one day.”
We drive a mile to the border fence. On the way, I ask if there is talk of a larger fence going up. “No. I don’t think there’s any money” for it — and besides, she says, “there’s so many [open] spots in our Texas border” that it won’t work. But we soon see a construction site for a new, much larger fence that is being erected, the same kind that I saw in Arizona.
Laurel and I later drive by the new fence again, and are stopped by Border Patrol.
“Are you lost?” the officer asks.
I laugh. “No, just visiting.”
He’s in on the joke — he knows why we’re there.
“That’s the new wall. Not much to see,” he says.
“How far does it go?” I ask.
“Only as far as the other wall” — which ends not far from where we are. “And it might not even go that far, depending on what happens,” after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
We drive off to the RV park, which is a mile from the border fence, stopping to pick up dinner at a Mexican restaurant along the way, only to find it closed. Guess we’ll be cooking tonight. I make a wrong turn and end up at a spot where the fence ends. I put the RV in park and walk up to take a closer look. I could have easily stepped around it — and might have, if only someone were selling tamales on the other side.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.
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