SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's illegal to enter the United States without passing through an official border crossing, but along an isolated stretch of the southern border, U.S. citizens are doing just that every day because of a shortage of basic services on the U.S. side, including health care. Lorne Matalon reports from the town of Candelaria, Texas, on the Rio Grande River.
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LORNE MATALON, BYLINE: What's happening here is a reversal of stereotypes. It's Americans who are breaking border laws.
LORAINE TELLEZ: We're citizens. We're U.S. citizens that have to go and get help in Mexico.
MATALON: That's Candelaria resident Loraine Tellez. There are two towns here - hamlets, really - both remote within their own countries, yet a stone's throw from each other across the Rio Grande - San Antonio del Bravo in Mexico and Candelaria in Texas. If you get sick or have an accident in Candelaria, there's a clinic in San Antonio where treatment and medicine is free, paid for by the Mexican government, even if you're a U.S. citizen. In the U.S., the nearest hospital is a long way away.
So here are her options.
TELLEZ: A 10-minute walk versus three hours to the hospital.
MATALON: With walls being strengthened and expanded, along with a crackdown on illegal immigration up and down the border, how is this happening?
MIKE SHELTON: Here's the situation.
MATALON: Mike Shelton is the U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge for Candelaria and a group of tiny river towns in the area.
SHELTON: The Border Patrol doesn't want to admit that things like this are going on, but the reality of the situation is it does.
MATALON: Shelton says agents don't need to be heavy-handed.
SHELTON: We don't want agents to put people's lives at risk simply because they're blindly following the letter of the law. It's about being human.
MATALON: All this back-and-forth has created a kind of unspoken but clearly understood relationship between residents and the Border Patrol. Because human and drug smugglers also use this area, residents say they'll tell agents if they have misgivings about faces they don't recognize.
EVELYN LOZANO: That's a way of us helping them in order for them to help us.
MATALON: Evelyn Lozano, a U.S. citizen, lives in both towns - school in Texas during the week, weekends with family in Mexico. Walking into Mexico is not a violation of U.S. law. Crossing back into Texas here is. The nearest legal crossing is an hour and a half away.
LOZANO: They know that we are crossing illegally.
MATALON: Lozano says residents have a give-and-take relationship with the Border Patrol.
LOZANO: But they do understand the fact that we need to cross sometimes in order to get help, in order for us to get food, in order for us to survive. So that's why we go to Mexico, because we don't get that help here in Texas.
MATALON: The help is reciprocal. Some Mexicans receive their mail in Candelaria because there's no postal service in San Antonio. Their American relatives bring the mail across. As for Loraine Tellez, she acknowledges what's happening here flies in the face of border enforcement.
TELLEZ: Down deep in my heart, it does make me feel guilty, but I have to do it sometimes.
MATALON: But not openly. Residents say they don't flaunt what they're doing. They say they understand the Border Patrol has a job to do, and that means the delicate dance between otherwise law-abiding U.S. citizens and border agents continues on this stretch of the Rio Grande.
For NPR News, I'm Lorne Matalon in Candelaria, Texas.
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