EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The leaders of two border communities still coping with a migrant crisis met on Wednesday, determined to build on their economic success and unwilling to let recent acts of violence define them.
The second joint meeting of the city councils of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, yielded binational commitments to improve communication, foster tourism and investment, and deal with common problems such as wait times at ports of entry and how to help thousands of migrants stuck in limbo while the U.S. weighs their asylum requests.
The meeting came three months after a gunman killed 22 people (eight of them Mexican citizens) and injured two dozen at an El Paso Walmart, and just days after a drug cartel unleashed a wave of terror that left as many as 30 dead and 25 vehicles ablaze in Juarez.
“When Juarez succeeds, El Paso succeeds and vice versa,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said. “We must work together and educate (others) on the strengths and the positives of the border community. Our region experienced great loss this year, but it is our unity that has helped us heal and made us stronger.”
The “positives” Margo mentioned include a strong manufacturing base that sustains a quarter of a million jobs in Juarez and more than 50,000 in El Paso, as well as trade activity measured in the tens of billions of dollars. Projects in the works include a $9 million renovation of Juarez’s Downtown area accompanied by a $3 million “corridor of lights” on the main pathway to El Paso. On the El Paso side, officials have started a digital tourism initiative in major cities in Mexico.
Prior to the meeting at the El Paso convention center, officials stressed to reporters that their cities are safe.
“We’ve been the safest city over 100,000 (people) consistently over the past 10 years in America. This is about focusing on opportunities that exist within our communities and not let anybody define us or any acts define us,” El Paso City Rep. Peter Svarzbein said.
Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada, whose city has recorded 1,300 murders this year, insisted that the violence has rarely touched those outside the drug trade.
“I invite El Pasoans to continue visiting our city. Those who regularly come to our restaurants or night clubs can attest to a safe and comfortable environment,” Cabada said. He added that the violence that rocked the city last week was caused by a drug gang that authorities were trying to rein in.
“It was a reaction to the actions of government. We intervened in a prison where the criminals were issuing orders (to others) in the outside to commit homicides. It is not a matter that can be resolved in a few days, but we are focusing on those criminal groups,” the Juarez mayor said. “The violence is clearly linked to the criminal groups involved in drug trafficking that operate in Juarez. It is not a widespread, social problem.”
Migrant crisis persists
Officials in Juarez say that thousands of Cubans, Central Americans and others remain in the city, either waiting to file a claim for asylum or having been returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In addition, some 800 Mexican families are living on the sidewalks next to the Paso del Norte Bridge, in the Juarez Chamizal Park south of the Bridge of the Americas and near the Zaragoza International Bridge. Most of them are intent on seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing drug violence in towns in West-Central Mexico where drug cartels are at war.
Earlier, Cabada said that his city has spent more $500,000 providing for food, utilities, security and other needs at church-based shelters housing many of the migrants. In the last couple of days, amid falling temperatures, the city and Juarez nonprofits have been challenged by the urge to provide blankets and warm clothes to migrant families who refuse to leave the bridge areas so as to not lose their place in line for an asylum hearing.
Margo said El Paso has also been hit hard by the migrant crisis that started in October of last year. Commerce took a hit when U.S. Customs and Border Protection reassigned 200 bridge inspectors to process migrants elsewhere, and shelters and immigration assistance offices were overrun.
“Things have dropped off dramatically since last year. I’m not sure if that’s temporary or long-term. The point is our NGOs, especially Annunciation House and all of those, did one heck of a job,” Margo said. “But we wouldn’t be dealing with this if our federal government, our Congress and our Senate, both houses, both parties, got together and did something about immigration reform to begin with.”
The El Paso Mayor said it’s “ridiculous, it’s ludicrous” that no one in Congress has been able to lead an effort for successful immigration reform.
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