I walked across the border at the San Ysidro crossing, took out my phone and called for an Uber. The driver, Carlos, picked me up at the coffeeshop in front of the massive Border Outlets mall. He lives on the other side, in Tijuana. “A beautiful neighborhood,” he says. “I live on the beach. I live like a king.” He starts his workday by riding his motorcycle over to a paid parking lot near the border and crossing by foot. No delays that way, generally. He keeps his car in another paid lot on the American side. In a typical day, he makes one to two hundred dollars driving. Earning in the US, spending in Mexico.
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More than 100,000 people cross the border from the US into Tijuana daily . Most are Americans with money to spend. They visit friends and family, shop, get dental and medical care. The dollar goes far.
The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce reports that an equal number of people travel north from Tijuana into the U.S. Some are middle-class Mexicans coming to shop – not at lower prices, but for more various and upscale goods. Many are heading to work. Some are coming to school.
Jason Wells of the San Ysdro chamber tells BordeReport.com that “because San Diego is so expensive to live in, Tijuana really has become a bedroom community for the workforce in San Diego.”
With the blue US passport, that can work. Without that status, it’s almost impossible. Carlos – the Uber driver – is a US citizen. But like many borderland families, his includes history on both sides of the border, and both sides of the law. His parents came from Mexico without papers, and settled in California, where he was born. They’re still in the US but don’t cross the border – they’d be unable to return, They pay a higher rent than they can afford; Carlos helps. He has the passport. He lives like king on the beach in Tijuana and pops in on his parents often, as he winds down from a day driving in the San Diego metro area.
He recognizes his privilege as an American, and understands that it was his parents’ actions that led to it. He is a grateful son. But he has trouble thinking of his parents as law breakers, because he knows how decent they are – good parents, hard workers, good neighbors. He doesn’t want to think poorly of them, or of the law. He likes being an American, particularly in contrast to friends he has in Tijuana who live in neighborhoods that can feel lawless. He likes American laws. He thinks we need a strong border. He tells me as we drive that he’s seen groups of migrants without papers throwing rocks across the border. “You’ve actually seen that?” I ask. “Well, I’ve seen it on YouTube,” he says. I wonder how he votes. If he votes.
Valeria Padilla is in a similar situation. An American citizen, she lives in Juarez, right across from El Paso, Texas, where she’s a full-time student at the University of Texas campus there. The Atlantic published a piece about her in January of 2016, not long after Donald Trump made his infamous “They’re not sending us their best” comment as a just-announced Republican candidate for that party’s nomination.
She drives most days with little delay from Juarez into the US – she’s part of a trusted-traveler premium-status program. She takes the fast lane. Coming back, she waits one to two hours. Mexico has no fast lane, and while Mexican border agents don’t expect to find undocumented migrants in the trunk, they look particularly hard for American guns that continue to flood into Mexico illegally.
Padilla’s parents live in Mexico as well, but lack the blue passport. She was born in El Paso, when her parents lived there, though they’re both back in Mexico. The Atlantic reports that “her father can’t cross into Texas anymore, since someone stole his passport and used it to run drugs. Her mother simply doesn’t want to.”
“Padilla’s daily life, and indeed that of many people who live on the U.S.-Mexico border, makes vivid the weight of the fates that are determined by accidents of birth. Padilla has more freedom to move around than many of the kids she went to high school with in Juarez because of where her mother gave birth.”
There are, Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic, “indignities. Padilla overheard a student call her mother a wetback when the two went to an admitted-students’ weekend. Latinos in Texas can be just as judgmental about Mexicans as white people, she says.
“ ‘Even though we’re on the border, people are racist against Mexicans,’ ” she sighs. But you’re American, I point out. “They still stereotype you anyways. They see the last name, they hear the accent.”