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El Paso's Border Students
INS searches have slowed northbound commute across the Rio Grande to a crawl

By Kathy Witkowsky
El Paso, Texas

Seven a.m. on a clear November morning along the Texas-Mexico border, and the sun is lighting up the rugged Franklin Mountains that wedge into the city of El Paso. As usual, 18-year-old Laura Montes is stuck in northbound traffic on the Bridge of the Americas.

Montes points to a woman applying lipstick in the rearview mirror of a Chevy Malibu one lane over. "Can you see that girl? You see that a lot."

These days, Montes has a lot of opportunity to watch people. Judging from the bright orange Fronterizo (border) license plates on the cars surrounding Montes, it's a good bet that most of the people she is observing are Mexican residents commuting from their homes in Juarez across the Rio Grande. They may be on their way to work, to shop, to visit family, or, like Montes, to attend school in El Paso, where she is a freshman at the University of Texas-one of about 1,750 Mexican students enrolled there.

Most are middle-class Mexicans seeking the best education they can afford; more than three-quarters qualify for the university's Financial Assistance Program for Mexican Students, or so-called PASE program. Since 1987, the program has allowed Mexicans to pay in-state tuition, and it is one of the reasons UTEP is so popular among Mexican students. They make up ten percent of the university's enrollment, and 14 percent of all Mexican college students studying in the U.S.

Seven other Texas colleges on or near the Mexican border offer the same tuition waiver, but UTEP's is by far the largest program of its type, and its acronym is no accident: Pase, pronounced PA-say, is a Spanish word meaning "pass"-as if to say, "come in."

The program addresses the importance of educating not just U.S. citizens, but all residents of the struggling region, said Diana Natalicio, president of UTEP. "It was a recognition that the Texas border economy was dependent on Mexico's development," she said.

"There are some people who probably believe that Texas public education is (exclusively) for Texas," Natalicio said. But Natalicio is not one of them. "The only answer to economic development is education. And that applies in Mexico as much as it applies on the U.S. side," she said. The educational investment appears to be paying off, at least in terms of graduation rates: Of UTEP's international students (most of whom were Mexican) who were first-time full-time freshmen in 1996, 38 percent earned a degree by August 2002, compared to only 25 percent of UTEP's general population.

UTEP has not actively recruited Mexican students, relying instead on word of mouth to bolster its enrollment. Last year, it gained an educational ally in its southerly neighbor, the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which began offering its residents 50 annual full-tuition scholarships to UTEP for both undergraduates (one-year scholarships) and graduate students (up to two years).

State policy clearly favors binationalism. But ever since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government has tried to ensure that passing into the U.S. isn't as easy as it used to be. Before the attacks, inspectors searched only about three percent of vehicles, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to keep waits under 20 minutes; now inspectors are under orders to search each and every vehicle, and northbound waits on the four bridges linking the two cities run anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, down from two to three hours in the weeks immediately following the attacks. "Honestly, we don't have a benchmark right now," said INS spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa. "But we do look closely if wait times go over 90 minutes."

The security crackdowns have drastically changed life here, and they have potential implications both for the area in general and UTEP in particular. "People don't grasp the notion of a binational community," said Charles Ambler, dean of the UTEP graduate school. That ignorance is more than just an academic concern, because the school-and the border economy-are vulnerable to new INS rules. Said Ambler: "The whole question of how national sovereignty and security is going to be pursued is going to be of critical importance to us."

From the air, Juarez and El Paso appear as one sprawling city with a narrow stretch of river, the Rio Grande, that flows through it, and their economies and cultures have long been intertwined. "You have 150 years of history of people interacting very informally on both sides," said Jon Amastae, director of UTEP's Center for Inter-American Border Studies. During the past couple of decades, that relationship gradually has become more tense as authorities sought to crack down on illegal immigration and drug smuggling. But the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks, Amastae said, "has been the biggest shock to that system."

Traditionally, Juarez residents have crossed to El Paso to purchase gas, appliances and clothes; inhabitants of El Paso favor Juarez for good Mexican restaurants and discos. There are personal reasons to cross as well: Many families have relatives living on both sides of the border.

And goods are crossing the border as well-many of them assembled at the nearly 300 plants, known as maquiladores, that have become a mainstay of the Juarez economy. Nearly all of the products assembled in Juarez are exported to El Paso, where they are warehoused, then trucked or sent by rail to other destinations. There also is a tremendous amount of drug smuggling, a fact that is tacitly acknowledged but not much discussed.

It still takes only 15 minutes, and costs a quarter, to walk from downtown El Paso over the toll bridge to Juarez, and on any given day, throngs of people, often laden with shopping bags, do so. But getting back across-either on foot or by car-is far more time-consuming. Many people have reacted to the increased delays by cutting back on their cross-border sojourns: The INS has reported that, within the El Paso district, 30 percent fewer vehicles entered the U.S. this year than last.

Administrators at UTEP expected they would see a similar trend. Much to their surprise and delight, enrollment of Mexican nationals, which had been on a steady upward trend, increased again this year, by between four and five percent.

"We were shocked," said Rebeca Suarez, coordinator of UTEP's English as a Second Language program, which most of the Mexican students need before they can move on to content courses taught in English. "We thought they would be discouraged by the long lines and scrutiny they were going through and they would just say, 'Forget it.' But these kids are resilient."

They are also remarkably patient. Laura Montes, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt and wearing a slicked-back ponytail, passes her time on the bridge by listening to a local rock-music station and watching vendors weave among the idling cars, hawking burritos, chocolate doughnuts, cigarettes and candy to the captive customers. Several grown men roam the lanes with mini-mops, hoping to earn a few pesos by washing windshields; one man wears a sandwich board advertising electronic announcements; a couple of "Dollar Boys" dressed in bright orange uniforms function as walking currency exchanges. "I tell people this is like a little market," said a bemused Montes.

But midway across the bridge, the retail activity abruptly stops: The vendors are not welcome north of the border. It is a stark reminder that Montes' drive to school takes her from one nation to another, from a developing one to the world's lone superpower.

On this particular morning, it took only half an hour before Montes reached the U.S. inspection booth, where an INS inspector gave Montes' passport, student visa and 1992 Ford Taurus a quick once-over, then waved her on. That's pretty typical nowadays, she said, as she accelerated out of the checkpoint. She was on campus in plenty of time to hit the computer lab before joining a couple of dozen other students-mostly Mexicans, though a handful are U.S. citizens who were raised in Juarez-in her 8:30 am English as a Second Language class.

Some of those students said they get up as early as 5 am to avoid the worst of the traffic; if they arrive on campus early, they sleep in the university parking lot or in the student union before class. Others catch a ride to one of the bridges, then walk across-the pedestrian line generally moves pretty fast-before hopping a public bus to school.

Those who can afford it have forked over about $400 ($120 to the U.S. government; the remainder to the Mexican government) and agreed to an in-depth background check to obtain a pass to the Dedicated Commuter Lane, an express line where the waits, if any, are rarely longer than five or ten minutes. (Not surprisingly, the DCL program tripled after September 2001, to 14,000 users.)

INS and U.S. Customs inspectors working the DCL lane are also reputed to be much friendlier than their counterparts at El Paso's other ports of entry, because they come to recognize the familiar faces of the DCL commuters. Which is not to say they don't take their jobs seriously, as a photographer from this publication learned recently, when, unannounced, he tried to accompany a DCL pass-holder across the border.

Both the photographer, Rod Searcey, and the DCL pass-holder, UTEP graduate student Veronica Encinas, were detained for about half an hour while she was subjected to aggressive questioning by two bridge inspectors who threatened to take her pass. Eventually a supervisor arrived on the scene and a chagrined Searcey and Encinas were released with just a warning.

Some students try to avoid dealing with the border issue at all by staying overnight with relatives on the U.S. side, or even by renting apartments in El Paso for the semester.

However they choose to cope, they remain convinced that they are making the right choice. UTEP, they said, has more prestige and better facilities than the public university in Juarez. "In Juarez, we had 30 computers and two printers for the whole campus," said Encinas, a first-year MBA student at UTEP, and a recipient of one of the Chihuahua state scholarships. "It's a lot easier here."

Easier, that is, in terms of equipment. The academics-particularly the language demands-are a real challenge, Encinas said. Like many of her Mexican counterparts at UTEP, Encinas speaks English very well. But when it comes to her reading assignments, she said, "I cannot even go through one page without my dictionary by my side."

It is painstaking, but the opportunity to study in English was a draw for Hector Pacheco, a sophomore in computer science. "If I study in Juarez, I don't need to learn the English," said Pacheco, 20, who believes English is important if he wants to succeed professionally. But at UTEP, he said, smiling, "If I don't learn the English, I don't graduate."

In order to ensure he does graduate, Pacheco gets up at 5 am so he can cross the border before 6. Then he sleeps or does homework in his car until his 7:30 am class. Sometimes he brings a blanket, though he still is in need of an alarm clock. He shrugs off the inconvenience. "I think it's better to come early and get a break," he said.

"It's really a pain but worth it because I really want to study here," said Arcelia Soto, a freshman who, armed with music, books, homework and coffee, leaves her house at 6 am in order to make it to her 8:30 am classes. "It's a beautiful school."

And it is an unusual one. Although ten percent of UTEP's 17,000-plus students are Mexican nationals, a whopping 69 percent are Hispanic. Outside the classroom, Spanish is spoken at least as much, if not more than, English, and, in the Mexican tradition, students often greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. The Hispanic influence also is reflected in the conservative fashion: There is not an exposed belly button or pierced eyebrow in sight.

But the dominant architecture is Bhutanese.

The campus's imposing stone structures with overhanging hip roofs, red brick bands and colorful mandalas are the legacy of Kathleen Worrell, wife of the school's first dean. She had never been to Bhutan, but in 1914 she read a National Geographic article about the tiny Asian country. Two years later, when the present-day UTEP campus was being established as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, she convinced her husband that Bhutanese-style buildings would fit perfectly in the rugged landscape.

Aside from the architecture, El Paso would seem to have very little in common with Bhutan. But like that isolated Himalayan kingdom, this border region is in many ways a world apart. People from El Paso don't have a Texas drawl. They rarely eat Tex-Mex food. And in the 2000 presidential election, most of the voters here spurned their own governor, George W. Bush, in favor of his Democratic opponent, Al Gore.

"I don't think that El Paso or Juarez are really part of Mexico or the United States," said Hector Mercado, 20, a junior who has dual citizenship. "It's a fusion of two cities that created their own culture."

But amid heightened security measures, that culture faces challenges. "We depend for our social and economic health and for future development on a close relationship between El Paso and Juarez and the state of Chihuahua," said Ambler, the graduate school dean. "If this kind of relationship and interrelationship is threatened by security measures, that means something more than simply having to wait in line on a bridge. If there are huge lines, will companies invest in Juarez, or will they think it's easier to go somewhere else?" Ambler fears that if the companies go, so, too, will some of the students.

Ambler suffered through some anxious months last year, when the INS announced that it planned to enforce a rule requiring foreign students to hold a student, or F-1, visa. Since only full-time students qualified for an F-1, that rule essentially outlawed part-time commuter students from Mexico. For years the INS had ignored the rule and allowed part-time students to cross the border with either a border-crossing card or a three-day tourist visa. Suddenly, between 150 and 200 UTEP students found their academic careers at risk. Seventy-seven of them were graduate students, most of whom also held full-time jobs.

"I almost wanted to cry," said Antonio Dominguez, 32, a mechanical engineer with Delphi Technical Center in Juarez who was in the midst of a master's program in manufacturing engineering when the INS made its announcement.

Faculty also were upset. Grumbled one UTEP faculty member, who stood to lose half the students in his graduate program, "The same bureaucracy that granted (September 2001 hijacker) Mohammed Atta a visa six months after 9/11 came up with this!"

The INS wound up extending the date it planned to begin enforcing the rule, and in August, part-time students became eligible for F-1 visas. Permanent relief came in October, when Congress passed legislation to create a new category of visas for part-time border students. But the law was not passed soon enough for Dominguez.

Along with half a dozen of his colleagues, he decided to bite the academic bullet: He enrolled in school full-time, even though he also was working full-time and his wife was pregnant (she gave birth in August). "I decided to follow the rules," said Dominguez, who received his master's degree in December. "But it's been tough because I haven't had any sleep at all."

It has also been demoralizing. "This was just one big family, the people from the border. Now it's different. They question everything," said Dominguez, who twice was detained at the border while immigration inspectors phoned UTEP to check out his story.

School administrators also are deeply frustrated with new rules requiring them to enter information about all foreign students into the INS's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a data base known as Sevis. Schools will also have to notify the INS if a student who has registered does not show up for classes.

"It's just crazy," said Eric Piel, UTEP's director of international programs. "It's making us enforcers of INS policies and border patrol while we're really here to advise students culturally and about what classes to take." This fall, Piel was in the process of hiring two temporary full-time employees to enter the data, and he said he may wind up having to purchase a new computer system as well. The estimated cost is between $20,000 and $40,000.

"A true administrative nightmare," was how Tim Nugent, vice president of student services at El Paso Community College, which enrolls about 2,000 Mexican students each semester, described the new tracking regulations. "They have really thrown up a barrier to our ability to offer educational pursuits to our neighbor across the river."

The problem, said Nugent, is that policymakers rarely consider the border region as they are hashing out these issues. "All of these rules were written thinking these students are going to come from Germany or the interior of Mexico and go to school in the heartland of the U.S.," he said.

In general, Nugent and UTEP administrators said they have an excellent relationship with local INS officials. But the lack of sensitivity among INS higher-ups and legislators clearly rankles. And while Nugent and UTEP administrators believe the worst is over, there are concerns about the future, especially if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq.

"Whether a border can on the one hand be a relatively impregnable line of defense against everything you want to keep out, and can somehow at the same time, be used to facilitate trade, and contribute to economic development and to human development, is the question," said the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies' Amastae. "I don't see how it's possible to do both."


Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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