Life Along the U.S.-Mexico Border Robert Siegel visits the communities of Del Rio, Texas, and Ciudad Acuna in Coihuila, Mexico, to find out how the national debate on immigration plays at the border. The two towns straddle opposite sides of the Rio Grande -- and are linked by language, history and commerce.
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Life Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

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Life Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Life Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Today President Bush called on both sides of the immigration debate to bend a little to get the matter resolved. Senate and House versions of an immigration bill must still be reconciled. All the discussion about strengthening this country's frontier plays differently in towns along the U.S./Mexican border than it does elsewhere, towns such as Del Rio, Texas, and the Mexican town just over the Rio Grand, Ciudad Acuna.

SIEGEL: People who live along the border will tell you things are different there. People like businessman Roberto Garza Crosby.

ROBERTO GARZA CROSBY: People decide in Washington, D.C., and in Mexico City, and they don't know anything about the border.

SIEGEL: One example of the difference is Roberto Garza Crosby himself. He is a graduate of Texas A&M. But he is Mexican, not American. The river separates Del Rio, Texas, from Ciudad Acuna, in Coahuila state, Mexico. But, fittingly enough, the symbol of Del Rio is a bridge that goes over that river.

DORA ALCALA: The City of Del Rio Regular International Bridge Board meeting will now come to order. Ms. Chapman, may we have our roll call.

SIEGEL: The bridge links one end-of-the-road town in America to one end-of-the- road town in Mexico. Crossing it is quick and easy going either way. Until her recent electoral defeat, the mayor of Del Rio, Texas, was Dora Alcala.

ALCALA: The city of Del Rio owns the bridge. We call it our golden goose.

SIEGEL: They call it that because lots of $2 and $3 bridge tolls to enter the U.S. add up to more than $4 million a year, roughly a quarter of Del Rio's general fund revenues. Dora Alcala took us on a walk through downtown Del Rio. Her city thrives on legal border crossings, and illegal crossings are not unknown here, either.

ALCALA: I happen to know of a lot of different folks that hire maids that come from across the border to do their house cleaning, to do their babysitting, to work here illegally.

SIEGEL: How many people in Del Rio have roots in Mexico, their families have roots in Mexico?

ALCALA: Oh, gosh, let's say that we have 80 percent Hispanics in our community.

SIEGEL: Language in the town?

ALCALA: I'm going to say that 90 percent of the folks here in Del Rio are bilingual.

SIEGEL: And in Ciudad Acuna?

ALCALA: Ciudad Acuna, maybe 25 percent of the folks are bilingual. All your business folks are going to speak English. And a lot of them go to school here. They pay tuition, and they really want to be able to be educated across the border.

SIEGEL: Language, commerce and history make them sister cities, but not identical twins. In Del Rio, the action is in strip malls, downtown is moribund. Acuna's downtown is alive. It even has pedestrians.

Years ago the two cities were also joined together in the enterprise known as border radio. In the 1930s, a doctor from Kansas peddled goat glands medicine free of U.S. regulation by basing himself in Acuna.


SIEGEL: Now, if you have any trouble that had its origin in a sluggish system, I want you to try Crazy Water Crystals with the definite positive understanding that they must help you or your money will be refunded.

SIEGEL: After patent medicine, there was entertainment. The border station in Acuna blasted its signal north into the American night with power that the FCC had never approved.



From coast to coast, border to border, wherever you are, wherever you may be, when you think of real fine entertainment, think of XZRF, the station you are now listening to, located in Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila, Mexico. Our mailing address is Del Rio, Texas. This is Paul Callenger, your good neighbor along the way.

SIEGEL: For border radio, each town needed the other. And they still do.

ALCALA: We have a standing joke that says that if we sneeze, they probably catch a cold or if they catch a bad cold, we're probably going to catch a pneumonia.

SIEGEL: Which, according to Acuna rancher and bar owner Jaime Garza, is an equally popular saying across the border in Mexico.

JAIME GARZA: We always say if Del Rio catches a cold, we sneeze, or if we sneeze, they catch a cold. We're interrelated.

SIEGEL: And if you do catch a cold in Del Rio, Texas, a trip across the toll bridge to Acuna may be just what you need.


SIEGEL: Ciudad Acuna is a city of under 50,000 people. In addition to a great many souvenir shops, several good restaurants and a lot of cheap bars, the city has enough pharmacies, doctors, dentists and opticians to service two cites, which they do.

Americans with and without insurance come across for healthcare services and for a variety of goods and services that are cheaper in Acuna than in Del Rio. For example, a bottle of beer at the Corona Bar, which Jaime Garza owns, costs only a dollar. I asked Mr. Garza which side of the border is sneezing nowadays. And he says, neither.

GARZA CROSBY: Tourism is back. We had a big fishing tournament on the American side.

SIEGEL: You say it's back. It went away for a while?

GARZA CROSBY: Well, it slowed down with all the bad publicity that the border towns and Mexico have gotten a big, big bad case of bad publicity.

SIEGEL: Like the killings in Nuevo Laredo, for instance?

GARZA CROSBY: From the media, newspapers. You cannot say that everything along the border is dangerous.

SIEGEL: Acuna is not an especially lawless place. But if you want some negative media images, you need look no farther than Mr. Garza's own Corona Bar, which was used as the set for the movie Desperado.


SIEGEL: He says it provided some work for the locals. Mexicans move to Acuna to work at maquiladora plants that manufacture goods for American companies. And people in Acuna can get visas from the U.S. Consulate that let them cross 25 miles into the U.S. Those visas are essential, because a lot of Mexicans from Acuna, go across the border into Del Rio, Texas, to shop. For example--at Wal-Mart. In Del Rio, at the Wal-Mart parking lot, you see license plates from both the states of Texas and Coahuila.

What do all these people who cross the border legally and routinely make of those who cross the river covertly without visas? Dr. Jesus Carvahal is a GP from Acuna, who was loading up his car with the things that he had just bought at Wal-Mart. He says many things are cheaper here.

JESUS CARVAHAL: (Speaking foreign Language)

SIEGEL: As for immigration, he says, you have to understand the economic situation of each country. The U.S. is more powerful economically and industrially. So, there are more opportunities for the people here.

Another Wal-Mart shopper, Ana Contreras, was loading her car, which has Texas plates.

Illegal immigration?

ANA CONTRERAS: It's a complicated issue. It's a hot- button issue, certainly in a border town. My husband happened to be illegal when he came to live in the country and had to return to Mexico to get his, you know, legal citizenship. So, I don't know. I think you can't make them all go home, you can't prove how long they've been here. Like they said now, that if they've been here more than two years, they can stay. Well, they didn't check in when they crossed the border, so how you going to know? My husband is in the Border Patrol now.

SIEGEL: And the Rogers family, Trisha and the two youngest of her eight children, Dan and Elena. Mrs. Rogers says she's concerned about illegal immigrants.

TRISHA ROGERS: They're taking our money back into Mexico, you know -

SIEGEL: Right.

ROGERS: - instead of keeping it here within the United States, the money they earn here goes back to Mexico, instead of being used to better things here.

SIEGEL: Do you folks go across to Mexico often?

ROGERS: Not as often, but we're getting ready to cross over, yeah.

SIEGEL: Why is that?

ROGERS: To get her eyes examined.

SIEGEL: You're going to an eye doctor, an optician, on the Mexican side?


SIEGEL: Why over there, rather than here?

ROGERS: Well, let's see it's $30 for the eye visit and $90 here. So we will be leaving our money there too.

SIEGEL: And a few parking spots away at a car with Coahuila plates, Alba Salazar was loading her groceries.

ALBA SALAZAR: (Speaking foreign language)

SIEGEL: She says Americans need workers from Mexico. Señora Salazar owns a restaurant in Acuna, and she buys the food that she cooks in the restaurant in Del Rio, Texas. It's cheaper.

This is boneless, plate, skirt steak. And you bought this to make the fajitas?

SALAZAR: (Speaking foreign language)

SIEGEL: She says the price of this cut of beef, converting from dollars and pounds to pesos and kilos, comes out to 71 pesos a kilo. In Mexico, she says, it would be 85.

These two border towns depend on easy passage between them, for commerce, for revenue, for company. One of the things that worries Mexican merchants like Roberto Garza Crosby is a new rule coming from Washington. Americans entering the U.S. from Mexico will have to show a U.S. passport.

GARZA CROSBY: We have a lot of people that travel through the country and just stop here in Del Rio and want to come over and visit and have dinner or have some drinks and buy things over here. They won't be able to come over here because they won't have their passports. It's a measure that I think will greatly affect the border region.

SIEGEL: So much for legal traffic across the border.

Out in the desert along the Rio Grande, Mexicans and Central Americans also cross into the U.S., but without visas. They're not looking for bargains but for jobs. Late last year this region became the model for tighter border enforcement. Agent Hilario Leal is spokesman for the Border Patrol in Del Rio.

HILARIO LEAL: Back in December of 2005, the Del Rio sector Border Patrol in cooperation with the U.S. federal courts, the U.S. Marshall Service, ISIS, Office of Detention and Removal, and started an operation called Operation Streamline.

And this operation was in direct support of Secretary Chertoff's secure border initiative to end what the term that was coined the catch and release. The catching of Central Americans and then due to the lack of funding for bed space, processing them, giving them a notice to appear and an order of recognizance and letting them loose on the street.

SIEGEL: Under Operation Streamline, Central Americans who enter illegally through Mexico, as well as Mexicans, are all detained and charged with illegal entry. With conviction almost certain, nearly everyone pleads guilty.

LEAL: So far since December there have been over 4,700 complaints filed and over 4,500 convictions.

SIEGEL: Now in the year previous, how many cases were filed?

LEAL: I want to say it was somewhere about, maybe the whole year was like 1,700, under 2,000.

SIEGEL: And already in half year, you're way over that.

LEAL: We're almost at 5,000.

SIEGEL: One result of this operation is a huge increase in the dockets at the federal courthouse in Del Rio. This was the scene last Tuesday in U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green's courtroom as recorded on the court's equipment.


DENNIS GREEN: At this point, I'll remand you to the custody of the United States marshals.

SIEGEL: The judge is on the bench facing a television monitor. He addresses detainees who are sitting on folding chairs and who are wearing surgical masks and gloves. They are in a privately owned jail a couple of miles away and they are under quarantine. One of them was thought to have chicken pox. Seldom has a room full of aliens appeared so alien.


GREEN: Do you any of you have any questions?

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

SIEGEL: Part of the theory of so many criminal trials, we're told, is getting this message across to Mexicans and other would-be migrants. Enter illegally in the hopes of making money and instead you will spend at least 15 days in jail making nothing, and then you'll be deported.

President Bush wants this program to be expanded the length of the border. Will it actually work? Well, the 5,000 arrests since December that Agent Leal spoke of represent less than one year and less than 200 miles of a 2,000-mile border. Do the multiplication and the numbers of jail beds, prosecutors doing nothing but illegal entry cases, plea bargains and deportations, the task becomes mammoth and expensive.

We don't know which will prove more powerful, the money that Washington will put into that effort or the money that draws job seekers north across the border illegally.

In either case, the pull of commerce is likely to continue to exert its force on the people of both Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila state, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, in the United States of America.

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