4.1. A Picture of the Migrants in the Juárez Exodus
In this section, we provide a typology of who is represented in the Juárez exodus. We categorized the migrants represented in the Juárez exodus into three mutually exclusive groups—the Business Elites, Refugees without Status, and the Return of U.S. Citizens and U.S. Legal Permanent Residents (LPR) (documented immigrants to the U.S.)1
. Below we begin our discussion with an illustration of why people are migrating, followed by a description of migrants in each category.
The people of Juárez encounter daily threats of violence. For instance, Rosa, a teacher, describes the fear and the subsequent exodus of Juarenses:
We live in a lot of fear that something will happen to our family. Thank God nothing has happened to our daughters… We don’t go out at night. We are completely insecure. There is no security here as long as there is so much violence in Juárez that affects everyone. Many jobs have been lost because of the violence. A lot of people, most people, I believe almost everyone is already leaving for other places.
Rosa described the strategies to cope with the violence such as not going out at night and migrating. Below we describe the typology of some individuals represented in the Juárez exodus.
4.1.1. Business Elites
A group represented in the Juárez exodus is what we call the “Mexican Business Elites” which we define as Mexican nationals that migrated with U.S. business investor visas. While the majority of the U.S. was undergoing an economic recession or economic stagnation, El Paso, Texas, U.S. was experiencing economic growth due to “refugee businesses” that migrated from Juárez. The Mexican drug war and the unrest that followed caused an estimate of 10,000 businesses to close in Juárez from 2007–2011 [7
]. In Juárez many businesses, from small informal businesses to formal business establishments, are extorted for money, or they are vandalized, and/or the owners (and/or their families), employees, or clients are held hostage or killed. Consequently, business visa applications have risen by 6% from the time that Mexican President Calderón declared the war on drugs [49
]. The El Paso Chamber of Commerce estimated that about 400 new businesses from México have re-established in El Paso [50
]. Thus, among those represented in the exodus is what we call the Mexican Business Elites.
Only the privileged have access to migrate through an investor visa (E1). Recently the financial requirements for an investor visa are $100,000 to $150,000 (USD), plus they must have a business plan that proves they would generate jobs [7
]. These visas are renewable on a year-to-year basis, so they are only temporary. The revenue to relocate a business and consequently attain an investor visa is beyond the reach of most Juárez residents and as such, this migration stream represents the elite.
The presence of the Mexican Business Elites is notable through their impact on the local economy and their group’s organization. They have even established an organization called La Red (The Net) for Mexican business owners who are resettling in El Paso. The mission of this organization is to gather Mexican-origin business leaders to achieve economic and political success while preserving their values and culture. Many of the Mexican Business Elites are members of this organization but it also includes U.S. citizens (and to a lesser extent individuals who are LPR) who were living in México before the violence escalated who then established businesses in El Paso.
4.1.2. The Return of U.S. Citizens and U.S. Legal Permanent Residents (LPR)
Another group represented in the Juárez exodus are U.S. citizens and to a lesser extent those with LPR status, or what has historically been called a green card holders, both of which are authorize to reside and work in the U.S. Although there are more rights extended to U.S. citizens than those who are LPR, members of both of these groups have transnational capital given they have the authority by the U.S. government to reside and work in the U.S. This group consists of small business owners, students, and non-elites that have lived in Juárez most of their lives, despite having the necessary citizenship status to live and work in the U.S. This living arrangement is not unusual along the Mexican-U.S. border. Indeed, México’s foreign-born population largely consists of U.S. citizens that are concentrated along the northern Mexican border such as Juárez. As such, they freely cross through both the U.S. and Mexican borders.
There are some important distinctions to make between the Mexican Business Elites and U.S. born business owners who lived in México most of their lives: (1) Mexican Business Elites have more resources and their businesses are more lucrative; (2) Mexican Business Elites had established businesses in Juárez prior to the escalation of the violence while the U.S. citizens/LPRs may be trying entrepreneurship for the first time or may have a less established business; (3) the business investor visa that the Mexican Business Elites possess is only temporary versus those of U.S. citizens/LPRs. As such, these two groups of migrants are distinct from one another.
4.1.3. Refugees without Status
A third group of migrants is what we call “Refugees without Status” (RWS) which we define as people who migrated because of fear of violence or persecution, but who are not recognized for political refugee status or political asylum. These are individuals who may genuinely need refuge but may not legally qualify thus we follow Zolberg et al.
] who suggests that the definition of “refugee” needs to be changed to reflect the current realities. While the migration of Mexican Business Elites is significant as evident by the 400 businesses they have re-established in El Paso, most of our respondents are in the Refugees without Status category.
During the period of the drug-related violence (2006–2011), the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review reported that it has received 23,715 applications from Mexican nationals seeking political asylum in the U.S., yet only 388 individuals, less than 2% of all Mexican applicants, had been granted asylum during this timeframe (Table 1
). On the other hand, Colombians who have also been subjected to drug-related violence and subsequent militarization similar to México, had 39% of their asylum applicants granted during this same time period. In particular, the U.S. had 7,257 Colombians apply for political asylum during 2006–2011 and 2,825 of them were granted (Table 1
México and Colombia Asylum Statistics from U.S. Immigration Courts, 2006–2011.
México and Colombia Asylum Statistics from U.S. Immigration Courts, 2006–2011.
|YEAR||RECIEVED||GRANTED||DENIED||ABANDON, WITHDRAWN, & OTHER||PERCENT GRANTED|
When applying for asylum two main issues arise—defining persecution and social group [51
]. The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) does not define “persecution” and therefore it is up to the courts to determine if the level of harm experienced by the applicant constitutes persecution. Even when satisfied with the level of persecution the petitioner must not be victim of indiscriminate violence unless they are singled out for membership in a particular social group [51
]. This presents another hurdle for Mexicans. In Delgado-Ortiz v. Holder
, for instance, the Ninth Circuit court denied review of a petition from Mexican citizens who claimed to be the victims of crime associated with Mexican drug cartels because the court decided that “Mexicans” as a proposed social group is too broad [51
Due to the difficulties in meeting the definitions of prosecution and social group, the delay in processing the applications (in El Paso about three years), the cost of hiring an attorney, and fear of being detained, denied, and/or sent back to their sending community many Mexicans are not
applying for asylum (also see [10
]). Since the U.S. is not reevaluating the processing of Mexican political asylum claims, human rights organizations and legal advocates along the U.S.-Mexican border are advocating for this issue. For instance, the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, a NGO dedicated to help migrants, the homeless, and the poor, started a petition to get Mexicans who were fleeing the violence to be considered for political asylums in the U.S. Human rights organizations argue that the reason why Mexican nationals are being denied credible asylum consideration is attributed to the politicized nature of the asylum process. Despite formal laws outlining who can qualify for refugee/asylum status, states continue to exercise considerable discretion in implementing those definitions [36
]. Indeed, the Annunciation House compares the Mexican case to that of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees who were denied asylum on a “wholesale basis” that resulted in the landmark case of American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh
that mandated the U.S. Department of Justice and Immigration Naturalization Services to restructure the political asylum process [10
]. We also suspect that if the U.S. widely recognizes the high levels of violence it would have to focus on its role in the trafficking of arms from the U.S. to México and/or it would be a direct critique against a nation that they consider a friend. As for the discourses from the local Mexican government, the mayor of Juárez has publically called those fleeing the violence by migrating to El Paso as traitors to México, although paradoxically he lives in El Paso [52
Consequently, the Refugees without Status in our study face some of the same traumas as political refugees but are not recognized as political refugees and are largely not granted or not applying for political asylum. As such, the typology of Refugees without Status represents those who migrated to the U.S. to escape the violence in México, but have no authorization to live and work in the U.S., which limits their opportunities to financially support themselves and their families. Being without status also means they live in constant fear of being deported back to the violence that they are escaping in México.
The Refugees without Status (RWS) differ from other undocumented Mexican migrants in the U.S. The first difference between RWS and other undocumented immigrants are the motives for migration. As opposed to economic reasons or family-reunification based migration, which are the two primary reasons for Mexican migration to the U.S., RWS migrants are escaping violence. Second, even though RWS are subjected to the same social and economic exclusion as other unauthorized migrants, if RWS migrants are deported their lives are in physical danger given that they are escaping violence. Thus, the fear of deportation is intensified for the RWS. These two issues differentiate the RWS from other authorized Mexican migrants in the U.S.
While popular media has painted a picture of Mexican migrants crossing illegally into the U.S. border in mass, it is important to acknowledge that this is not the case for the Juárez exodus. The RWS are mostly people with a border crossing card (BCC) which provides them with the necessary documentation to cross through the port of entry into the U.S. As such, those with a BCC do not have to worry about crossing the border without authorization to escape the violence. Moreover, the BCC is valid for a time period of 10 years and is only within a 25 mile radius from the border, which includes El Paso. Even though the BCC authorizes the RWS to cross the U.S. border they may or may not have overstayed the legally mandated amount of time permitted—72 hours. This is another example of Menjívar’s [53
] concept of liminal legality
, characterized by an ambiguous citizenship status where one is in “neither an undocumented status nor a documented one.” As such, the BCC allows one to be in the U.S. for 72 hours, but the person can cross back into Juárez and return to the U.S. and they will be in status again. Perhaps, more importantly when you return to México your return is not registered, as such it is difficult to ascertain whether a BCC holder has violated the 72 hour rule. It is important to note that the BCC does not authorize individuals to work in the U.S. Therefore, most of the RWS in our study live in El Paso but work in Juárez or live with and are financially supported by relatives who live and work along the U.S. side of the border.
It is important to note that the BCC is increasingly difficult to attain. For example, Mexican nationals must show proof that they have minimal desire to settle in the U.S. This is usually established by evaluating the Mexican national’s connections to social institutions in México and their income. As such, the most destitute residents in Juárez do not have the resources to attain the BCC. The RWS then represent individuals who have some status in Mexican society, since U.S. authorities will deny a BCC to any person who does not have adequate financial means. It is also expensive to apply for the BCC. The cost is even beyond the means of some Mexican professions. For example, a teacher in Juárez states “My visa expired and now I can’t cross. It expired last year and I don’t renew it because they charge too much.” Indeed, the impoverished Juarenses in our study stated that they had never even been to the U.S. or that it had been over ten years since their visit. The only resource to cross into the U.S. for impoverished Juarenses is to cross clandestinely without authorization, however, this is not too common among those fleeing the violence to our knowledge.
The families more likely to escape the violence also have social capital in the form of family ties in the U.S. side of the border. It is common for families at the Mexican-U.S. border to have family members on both sides of the border, this in turn eases migration. Paula, for example, illustrates how widespread the violence is and that helping her family to migrate is a viable solution to escape the hostility:
I don’t understand why they would think my mother has any money, she is a humble woman. She was scared, she is a 72 year-old woman and my brother is 32 years-old. They were threatened two consecutive times and that’s the reason that I had to rescue my mother and bring her to live with me [in El Paso].
It is common knowledge that while the violence initially involved those who had some sort of connection to the drug trade, it now affects everyone. For instance, Paula stated that even her elderly mother has been threatened. Furthermore, having social ties to someone in the U.S. can literary save the lives of the victims by enabling their migration across the border. This finding can contribute to the unresolved discussion on the role of social networks among Mexican migrants that originate from urban centers—some stating that urban-origin migration is structured by social networks [26
] while others disagree [54
]. At this border, it is not uncommon for people in El Paso to rescue their family members in Júarez as Paula does.
4.2. A “Stepsister” Relationship? Initial Settlement Attempts of the Mexican Exodus
As mentioned previously, the cities of Juárez -El Paso are frequently referred to as “sister cities” due to their shared history, culture, and geographic space as neighboring border cities. As frequent border crossers Mexican fronterizos
(those who live along the border such as the residents of Juárez) are likely to prefer to migrate to cities along the U.S. side of the border, such as El Paso, given their physical proximity to their home country and their shared history and culture. Thus, the question arises, is settlement easier for Juarenses who are familiar with their sister city of El Paso? Juarenses frequently travel along the U.S. side of the Mexican-U.S. border for shopping, entertainment, and to visit family. Juarense, especially those who have the resources to cross the border, know El Paso relatively well and perhaps more importantly their family members who stayed in México are geographically close by. Daniel, a doctor who has LPR status in the U.S. but was living in Juárez, explains how the violence encouraged his migration and why he migrated to El Paso:
I had to move. The violence was one of the motivating reasons. Ten years ago I would have never thought of moving here [El Paso]. I was living well, I’d come shopping here [El Paso] and buy what I wanted. These are the social and economic dynamics at borders with a political division, even though geographically there is no division between us, it is one community. We need to see things from this point of view, as communities that interact with each other [Juárez-El Paso] it is difficult to close its doors and to say, you cannot cross anymore. It is like a family who closes the door to one of its members and tells them you cannot come in.
Daniel describes the border culture and the connection between Juárez and El Paso alluding to their status as “sister cities.” As such, Daniel questions, how can El Paso close its door to Juárez?
Despite this common references to having a “sister city” relationship between Juárez and El Paso some of the migrants in our study experienced hardships in their settlement processes. These hardships are especially evident among the migrants that returned to Juárez even though the violence had not subsided. Given the extreme forms of violence that many had directly experienced, such as being kidnapped, being held for ransom, or losing a family member, their return migration is surprising. Thus, in these cases settlement did not refer to long term settlement (of at least a year) rather it is more representative of an attempt to settle. Alternatively, rather than an attempt to settle this migration is perhaps only a reflection of transnational movement at this U.S.-México border.
We find that one of the main reasons why settlement is difficult is because of the family members that are left behind in Juárez. While one can argue that leaving family behind is a burden on most migrants, this is especially the case when those who stay behind are subjected to daily forms of violence. This is also magnified for Latina/os who culturally have strong family connections and who prioritize the need of the family over the individual. This is described through the concept of familism
in the literature [55
]. Susie, a RWS, for instance, misses her family a lot and despite fearing for her own safety she frequently visits Juárez to see them. When asked about how strong her connection is to her family, she said:
Very strong, actually I lived there (Juárez) just a few months ago. I keep going… right now more often… because I miss them, and I get a sad feeling that they are there alone. But well, that is why I decided to rent a place in El Paso, because for example today, I got out of school late, I would be scared to go back to Juárez alone, I am very afraid.
With a student visa, Susie would commute from Juárez to El Paso. Due to the violence, she decided to move to El Paso and now only returns to Juárez to visit family. While Susie has not migrated back to Juárez, others have mentioned missing family as a primary reason for returning. For some, this is complicated by legal constraints that impede some family members from crossing the border. Nancy, an LPR of the U.S., explains:
Families and friends are left behind [in Juárez]. They can’t leave because they don’t have the ability to. No money, housing, or the mobility and so families are separated.
For Nancy migrating to El Paso means leaving behind family members who lack the financial resources necessary to be granted a BCC to cross the port of entry into the U.S. into a much less violent environment. Indeed, El Paso ranks as the safest city in the U.S. among cities with a population of over 500,000.
Another obstacle towards settlement in the U.S. is that Mexican education and training credentials do not easily transfer over to the U.S. and middle-class migrants miss the jobs they held in Juárez. When we asked our respondents if they considered migrating the common sentiment for those who remain in Juárez is, “of course, but one can’t leave because of work.” Mexican professions in our study had a difficult time retaining the socioeconomic status they enjoyed in México. Fernando, a U.S. citizen who lived in Juárez and recently migrated to El Paso, explained:
…my kids, for example, don’t go to Juárez for nothing. Now I have to go because I have no other choice, my business is over there, my source of income is there… but my wife is going to retire shortly and when that moment comes that’s the time we will come over here [El Paso].
Fernando is a U.S. citizen who lived in Júarez most of his life. When he migrated with his family because of the violence, his family lived in El Paso but both he and his wife continued to cross the border to Júarez to work. Even though Fernando and his wife are both U.S. citizens their source of employment is in Juárez and their educational credentials are from México so they felt that they were trapped by that economic arrangement.
The Mexican Business Elites have status in comparison to other Mexicans who cannot migrate to the U.S. to escape the violence, but they still experienced a change in socioeconomic status by migrating from a developing to a developed nation. Alejandro, a Mexican Business Elite that relocated himself and his accounting business to El Paso, claimed “‘I am in exile’ my presence here in El Paso is precisely to flee the violence.” When asked about his experiences in El Paso as a migrant versus a visitor he explained:
Well before I came as a tourist and before you only spent your 100 dollars and you returned back happy (laughs), and now if you can’t afford it you don’t buy it…This is the cost, the price you have to pay to be at peace. Because over there in México you are not even safe in your own house, they still come and bust down the door... like in war times... without worrying about the police. You have to go to sleep with the rifle in the hand and on the couch…We had a hard time when we came over here [El Paso], that was when the U.S. made its flips with its economy and it ruined everyone. I have seen a lot of businesses go bankrupt.
Keep in mind that the average weekly cost to feed a family of four in Júarez is approximately $50 USD [43
] and Alejandro recreationally spent twice that much in shopping in El Paso in a day. While Alejandro reminiscences about his life as a middle-upper class Mexican, he considers the change in class after his migration to El Paso as the price he has to pay for safety.
Another telling story is that of Roberto, a RWS. At first Roberto had no desire to move away from Juárez, but this all changed after he was kidnapped for ransom. Immediately after being released from the captors, Roberto moved his entire family to El Paso. However, he only remained in the U.S. for approximately two months before making the decision to move back to Juárez. In a follow-up interview Roberto stated he returned to Juárez because he missed his extended family that remained in Juárez and also the complication of transferring credentials from México to the U.S. Surprisingly, despite the common reference to Júarez—El Paso as “sister cities,” Roberto felt culturally estranged in El Paso. Indeed, he felt he received a less than friendly reception.
This brings us to another obstacle towards settlement claimed by our respondents—cultural estrangement. Juárez migrants felt culturally estranged and discriminated against in the U.S., even in El Paso. Martha, a RWS, for instance, describes the insecurity she feels in El Paso:
…before everything started happening in Ciudad Juárez (violence), I was afraid here in El Paso. I’ve fear being stopped by the police, in case that I did not put my blinker on, if I changed lanes incorrectly, if I did not have insurance for the car, but now with what is happening in Ciudad Juárez (violence) far from being afraid, well I feel a peace of mind. When I cross here to El Paso, I feel a huge difference, very peaceful to be here in El Paso.
Martha feared the criminalization in El Paso, signifying that Juárez may be more like a “stepsister-city” [56
] or not exactly having the same connection that is allured to with the common metaphor used for this region as sister cities. When the violence started escalating in Juárez, however, her reference point changed and she started to feel more secure in El Paso than in Juárez.
Similarly, others are afraid of the criminalization of Mexicans in the U.S. Post 9/11 attacks, the U.S. domestic response included the intensification of the criminalization of immigrants and militarization of the border, in particular the Southern border with México, causing blatant violations of citizenship and human rights against Latina/os [57
] and other racial groups. When asked if the violence will eventually impede her from crossing into the U.S. Lilia a Mexican national stated:
I believe so because the United States is trying to be careful about who enters their country, and at some point, all Mexicans will be suspected of being criminals perhaps. So I think that in the future they won’t want to give visas in order that not a single Mexican is in their country.
As such, Lilia believes that the violence associated with the war on drugs will give Mexicans a bad reputation, which will consequently lead to political motive to further exclude Mexicans from entering the U.S.
We find the issue of cultural alienation is so strong that it discourages migration and encourages return migration to Juárez. Laura, a U.S. citizen who resided in Juárez stated:
My parents live in constant fear and they want to bring my sister and me to the U.S. My mother has called me many times very scared because they see all the news about what happens in Juárez. I have seen her very frightened and at times frustrated because we don’t want to leave. So yes, it’s like there’s a block because there’s what we want and how we see things and how they see things.
Laura eventually did migrate to Arizona, U.S. with her children to live with family members after her and her co-workers were threatened at work. Specifically, she migrated after a co-worker had been kidnapped for ransom and additional threats were made against her. Yet, despite being U.S. citizens, Laura and her children had difficulties accommodating to life in the U.S. so they returned to Juárez.
Unfortunately, a year after her return the police misidentified Laura and her children as criminals and started shooting at their car wounding her son. The police then escorted them to a hospital, but upon arrival they detained Laura and prevented her from accompanying her son into the hospital. Laura was placed in a jail cell while police tried to make a case pinning all responsibility of the shooting onto her. Fortunately for Laura, since she is a U.S. citizen as well as her children, the U.S. consulate and U.S. federal officials became involved leading to her eventual release. She has since migrated back to the U.S. and decided never to live in México again.
We argue that rather that a “sister city” relationship between Juárez and El Paso our study suggests that Júarez it is becoming more of a “stepsister” due to the difficulties that Juarenses experience with being incorporated into El Paso. Others have also criticized references to these cities as “sister cities.” Lorena Estala [56
], for example, explained how the postcards of the Mexican Revolution painted Mexicans as impoverished, socially disorganized, and dehumanized them in contrast to the images of American soldiers and civilians, leading to the suggestion that Juárez is more like El Paso’s “stepsister” than “sister” city. Similarly, in our study, we argue that Júarez is more like a “stepsister” than a “sister” given the struggles that Juarenses undergo to settle in El Paso. Yet, a caravan for peace representing the Mexican exiles has been traveling around the U.S. providing testimonies of their victimization and exodus due to the Mexican drug war presented their cases to El Paso’s city hall. Although they did not find a supportive resolution to all of their demands, i.e. the legalization of drugs, the city of El Paso did endorse a voluntary code of conduct for responsible firearm dealers that are promoted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Perhaps there is still a chance for Juárez and El Paso to remain sister cities.