The Ground Zero of Immigration: El Paso by Reed Young

3 minute read

When viewed from the Franklin Mountains in southern Texas, El Paso and Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez meld into one expansive metropolis. Call it a Texan trompe l’oeil. Look closely, though, and the illusion is disrupted by the Rio Grande, the natural border that snakes through the two cities, carving out very distinct realities.

That proximity is what first drew photographer Reed Young to El Paso, in particular to the city’s Chamizal neighborhood, which he refers to as a sort of “ground zero” for the national debate on immigration. Here, where North officially meets South, the terrain gives rise to something all its own: frontera culture, with its distinct food, music and identity.

“We thought it was important to hear from people who are affected by the United States’ immigration policy today,” says Young. “National debate doesn’t always take into account the complexities of the people’s situations.”

If Washington D.C. is the political epicenter of the immigration debate, then Chamizal is arguably its human face, a place where the nuances of a thoroughly complex issue crystallize into the tangible. Take Araceli, for example. She has not seen her extended family in Juárez since 2009, although they live a few miles away. Claudia, who is transgendered, is another case in point. She is Claudia on the U.S. side of the border but always crossed the border as Ricardo, the name on her ID, until the violence in Juárez convinced her to end the treks.

Ciudad Juárez is the second most murderous city in the world. In 2010 alone, it witnessed over 3,000 deaths. The historic violence has instilled migrants with a special urgency when attempting to cross into El Paso, the safest big city in the United States. On their journey, they will encounter the most tightly enforced border in modern history. The number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border — 20,000 — has doubled since 2004. And the $18 billion the federal government spent on enforcing the border last year was more than it spent on all other law enforcement agencies combined.

But that didn’t matter much to Araceli. She waded through the Rio Grande with her four children in search of a better life for them. Now she cleans houses and scraps metal after work to supplement her income. And it didn’t dissuade “Goldie,” who crossed into El Paso when she was 16 and now owns Goldie’s Bar, a cantina in El Paso’s industrial section that pays homage to her hero, Marilyn Monroe.

Goldie’s story — and those of virtually everyone profiled in Young’s photo essay—attest to the strength of family ties. In Chamizal, at least, the commitment to one’s family, to the improvement of children’s lives, has proved stronger than billion-dollar physical barriers.

Reed Young is a photographer based in New York City.

Alfonso Serrano is a senior editor at

Rosa and her makeshift ice cream truck delight the neighborhood kids.Reed Young
Hector Arredondo runs the San Pedro Pharmacy on Alameda Avenue. Many El Pasoans go to Juarez for cheap prescriptions and medical care, but Hector has found that over the past few years, more people have been filling their prescriptions in the United States because they are scared to cross into Mexico. Hector has always known how porous the border can be.Reed Young
In the 1980s, El Paso was known as the blue jean capital of the world. Ana Gomez came here in the early 90s and worked at a lavandería contracted to "age" jeans. The jeans were sandblasted and placed in dryers filled with rocks and chemicals. Though the sandblasters wore dust masks, none of the other workers who handled the jeans did; today Ana and her husband both suffer from respiratory problems. The North American Free Trade Agreement decimated El Paso's garment district as factories moved across the border; Ana and 300 of her coworkers were fired one day without notice. Now she heads the kitchen at La Mujer Obrera, a community center run by women who lost their factory jobs to NAFTA. Reed Young
Araceli came to El Paso from Juarez by wading through the Rio Grande with four of her children. "When we finally found an apartment, the landlord said, 'Okay, you can move in all your furniture now,' but all we had was the shirts on our backs." The whole family shared one mattress; though she was pregnant at the time, Araceli often slept on the floor. Now she works cleaning houses, and supplements her income scrapping metal after work. Her kids do exceedingly well in school; their awards hang in a large frame above their bed. Reed Young
Claudia was born and raised in the Chamizal neighborhood. After seeing the way drugs had affected her family and community, she decided to become a drug counselor. She bikes to work and runs daily at the Chamizal National Monument. Claudia is transgendered. In high school she named herself after the most beautiful girl in her class, but her ID still says Ricardo. Claudia doesn't go to Juarez anymore, but when she used to visit, she always went dressed as a man. Reed Young
During Prohibition, Victor Delgado used to hear gunfights in what is now the Chamizal National Memorial. Back then it was No Man's Land, a disputed territory between Mexico and the United States where people grazed their goats and ran tequila across the border. Though the national boundaries are now official, Victor still lives in a transitional space: up until the border fence was built, he'd often find people in his yard, hiding from the Border Patrol. Reed Young
One day, while sitting in front of his church, Saul Sustaida saw a black van pull up to a spot across the street where sidewalk grates kept going missing. Someone pulled up the floor panel of the van while another person lifted out the sidewalk grate, so Saul notified the police. It turned out that drugs were being smuggled through an underground tunnel from Juarez to the Chamizal neighborhood. This particular tunnel is now mortared shut. Reed Young
Alameda Avenue is the unofficial piñata district of El Paso. On nearby side streets you can find big papier-mâché forms drying in backyards. Josefina buys the forms wholesale and then dresses them herself. Reed Young
“Goldie” crossed the border when she was 16 and started dancing at a topless bar where most of the dancers were illegal immigrants from Juarez. She soon left that life behind, and now she owns Goldie’s Bar, a tiny cantina in an industrial section of south central El Paso. The walls of Goldie’s Bar are littered with pictures of her hero, Marilyn Monroe: “I like that she often said that women should be liberated, that men shouldn’t limit them, that a woman should be the way she wants to be.”Reed Young
A group of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Chamizal neighborhood. Even during the height of the violence in Juarez, Jehovah's Witnesses went door to door across the border every day; some were killed in the line of duty. Reed Young

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