Preserving Community Along the Mexico Border

The City of Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, lies about 40 miles or so north of the Mexico border. It sits in the high Chihuahuan desert at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. The 9,000 foot Organ Mountains loom over the city. The cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico side appear to form one seamless metropolitan area. Together with nearby Las Cruces there are about 2.2 million people.

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Organ Mountains and irrigation canals

I had never been to this part of New Mexico before. We were visiting cousins who operate a small pecan farm in the Mesilla Valley that’s irrigated by the Rio Grande, when it isn’t dry. (This is desert, water is scarce and pecans are a big business.) They have 3 dogs and a bunch of large, friendly goats who enjoy eating the pecan husks.

Not surprisingly, the influence of Mexican culture and Mexican immigration is quite prevalent here. But Las Cruces is very American and prosperous from all appearances. Just over the mountains is the White Sands Missile Range and Spaceport America, the first commercial space port in the US.

My cousin, Anna, has worked for the Las Cruces Public Schools as a school nurse for many years and still fills in. Both she and her husband are retired air force officers.

In the course of our conversations around their kitchen table I was surprised to learn that Las Cruces has been a sanctuary city for many years and that the folks here were not actually aware of it. They weren’t aware of the terminology.

The “sanctuary city” thing, while not official, has emerged as a function of public schooling and aspects of Federal education regs that provide reimbursements to public school systems based on the population of eligible pupils. 

For a long time members of families who reside in Mexico have migrated back and forth across the border to go to school (and no doubt jobs too). Their kids attend school while living with friends and family members on the US side during the school year and going back home to Mexico during the summer. Enrollees typically provide proof of residency, birth certificate and immunization records. Apparently the Federal regulations do not distinguish whether a child is documented in determining eligibility for federal reimbursements. The enrollment of Mexican kids benefits the schools with increased federal dollars. In return, many youngsters from Mexico and other undocumented kids benefit from an American education and, as it happens, medical care available to students, as well as learning English and American culture.

The local school system doesn’t have a need to query students about their citizenship status. That’s actually no big deal. There’s nothing unusual about this. I’m no expert on this, but even in Maryland, schools do not ask about documentation. All that a public school needs is an address of record for the pupil. 

Today, with the national brouhaha over sanctuary cities being fomented and wholly mischaracterized by the Trump Administration and the U.S. Attorney General, the folks in this part of New Mexico realize they are providing sanctuary. 

Sure, I guess one could make the case that American taxpayers are being ripped off or the taxpayers of Las Cruces are being burdened in some way. That’s not how Anna sees it. She says it is a privilege to be able to help these immigrant youngsters who she’s gotten to know in a personal way. 

My cousin’s husband flew tankers in Desert Storm and now volunteers as a pilot for the local Civil Air Patrol. He loves to fly. He does this work to assist the U.S. Border Patrol to both help interdict illegal drug trafficking and to find and rescue border crossers who are lost and stranded in the desert. He takes pride in his work. 

On top of this, he also goes to Ciudad Juárez from time to time to meet with community leaders on the Mexico side to address immigration and social issues. Juárez has seen a drastic drop in crime over the past eight years.

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pecans ready for harvest

Whether my family members would label themselves as conservatives or progressives is really not important. Those terms seem rather meaningless here. The reality is that they live in one large community made up of Americans (however one defines the term) together with Mexicans living, working and getting educated together.

The difference between where we live in the greater Washington area is that we have state boundaries; here they also have an international boundary. Imagine building a wall along the DC/Maryland border. Imagine the chaos, inanity and stupidity of such a thing.

Yes, there is illegal immigration along the border, probably a lot of it. It needs to be minimized. The Border Patrol is trying to do its job. But, it’s abundantly clear there is no room or need for Trump’s wall to be built along this border. All it would do is destroy a community and cripple a viable economy. 

We were in the El Paso / Las Cruces area three days. It was a family visit, not a fact-finding mission. So I can’t pretend to offer more than these simple observations. It didn’t take long, however, for nuances of a cross-border community to become apparent.

I do know that a border wall will not help matters, and that a wall will never be built along this border because the two million people here won’t stand for it. 

I find myself wondering why Las Cruces feels like Takoma Park, despite the obvious differences. There’s the sanctuary aspect, the rich diversity of residents, a strong sense of community, a spirit of openness and welcoming, the heightened awareness of sustainability due to the scarcity of water, and a reverence for the land and its ecology. Maybe also because New Mexico is a “blue” state in a part of the US where there’s not a lot of blue.

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