Along the dry, rocky desert of El Paso, Texas, a brown fence stretches for miles. The fence marks the southern U.S. border that separates El Paso from its Mexican sister city, Juarez.

Twenty-two-year-old Antonio Villaseñor-Baca was born and raised in El Paso. His hometown is part of a huge “borderplex,” where three cities — El Paso, Texas; Las Cruces, N.M.; and Juarez, Mexico — converge. Villaseñor-Baca has an uncle in Juarez, and while growing up, his dad would take him back and forth over the border a lot.

To Villaseñor-Baca, Juarez doesn’t seem like another country.

“If you wanna go out and party, you go to Juarez. A lot of people work in El Paso. You have family in Juarez, but you live in El Paso, or vice versa. It really seems like just a huge hassle to go through all of this stuff at the border,” he says.

For young people like Villaseñor-Baca, life on the border isn’t just about the momentous crossings we read about in the news. Commuting between two countries is a part of everyday life. There are even kids with dual citizenship who live in Juarez with their parents and cross the border to go to school.

“It’s really weird, because growing up as a kid, there’s just other kids in your school,” Villaseñor-Baca says. “You don’t really tend to label them or divide. And it’s not until you get older that you start seeing, well, it’s the kids who speak Spanish who are doing the daily commute. And it’s when the terms like American and Mexican and Mexican-Americans start coming into place.”

Every day, many people and goods flow between El Paso and Juarez. The culture and economies of both cities rely on each other. Kenia Guerrero, 23, is a part of that flow. She grew up in Juarez but just finished college in El Paso, and she crosses the border into Texas daily to help out at her parents’ cowboy boot shop. She commutes via the Santa Fe Bridge, which leads to central El Paso. Depending on the line on any given day, she says the trip from Juarez to El Paso can take from 30 minutes to three hours.

To ease her commute between the two cities, Guerrero purchased a SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) pass, which allows her to drive in an express lane that cuts down the time it takes for her to cross the border.Thousands of people in the El Paso-Juarez region pay fees and go through background checks to obtain a SENTRI card.

Guerrero says she feels equally at home in Juarez and El Paso.

“My first 15 years, I didn’t know about borders,” she says. “I live in Juarez, but I would buy my clothes and would by certain foods [in El Paso]. It was pretty normal.”

But life on the border is changing, she adds. These days, she says, “You are sometimes afraid.”

Now, Guerrero is extra careful whenever she crosses, because she says agents have gotten stricter since President Trump took office. If she’s caught with a prohibited item — like even an apple she packed for lunch and forgot to throw away — Guerrero could lose her fast pass.

Recently, she had a close call.

“I had a crushed candy in my cup holder, and the agent asked me: ‘Is that cocaine?’ And I got nervous — not because it was cocaine, but because it’s just a question — like, how can he think I’m bringing cocaine? I just told him something along the lines, ‘No, but if you want to try it, you can,’ ” Guerrero says.

The agent passed on Guerrero’s offer to try the candy and let her cross.

As security and media attention at the border increases, Guerrero and Villaseñor-Baca are trying to hold onto their sense of hometown normalcy.

“Yeah, it’s a border, and anywhere else in the country will see it as such. But for us, it’s just two cities, divided by a fence,” Villaseñor-Baca says.

For the time being at least, he and Guerrero will keep crossing that fence. Because for the people who live and work here, these two cities — El Paso and Juarez — really do feel like one.

This story was produced by Youth Radio

Copyright 2018 Youth Radio. To see more, visit Youth Radio.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The conversation on family separation is at a high pitch right now. Youth Radio’s team covering the border spoke with young people from El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, who grew up never seeing the border as a dividing line. Billy Cruz reports.

BILLY CRUZ, BYLINE: Along the dry, rocky desert of El Paso, past all the food chains and shopping malls, a brown fence stretches for miles.

Is this giant fence that we are looking at right here – is that the border?

ANTONIO VILLASENOR-BACA: Yeah. So this freeway right here, like, going, like, in two different directions is I-10. And then you go down, and then there’s the actual border. And then you’re in Juarez.

CRUZ: Antonio Villasenor-Baca is 22. He was born here in El Paso, a huge borderplex that spans the Rio Grande River. But he has an uncle in Juarez. And growing up, Antonio’s dad would take him back and forth a lot.

VILLASENOR-BACA: You know, like, you want to go out and party, you go to Juarez. You have family in Juarez, but you live in El Paso, or vice versa. It really seems like just a huge hassle to, like, go (laughter) through all of this stuff at the border.

CRUZ: For young people like Antonio, life on the border isn’t just about the momentous crossings we read about in the news. Commuting between two countries is a part of everyday life. There are even kids with dual citizenship who live in Juarez with their parents and cross the border to go to school.

VILLASENOR-BACA: It’s really weird because growing up as a kid, there’s just other kids in your school. And it’s not until you get older that you start seeing, well, it’s the kids who speak Spanish who are the – doing the daily commute. And it’s when the terms like American and Mexican and Mexican-American start coming into place.

CRUZ: Many people and goods flow between El Paso and Juarez every day. The culture and economies of both cities rely on each other. Twenty-three-year-old Kenia Guerrero is part of that flow. She grew up in Juarez but just finished college in El Paso. And she crosses the border every day to help out at her parents’ cowboy boot shop.

KENIA GUERRERO: Yeah, so we are at the Santa Fe Bridge. This is in the central part of El Paso. As you can see, like, cars are coming in from Juarez. It usually takes about half an hour to three hours to cross to El Paso.

CRUZ: To make her commute easier, Kenia got something called a SENTRI pass, which cuts down the time it takes to cross. Thousands of people in the El Paso-Juarez region pay the fees and go through the background checks to get one. Kenia says she feels equally at home in Juarez and here in El Paso.

GUERRERO: My first 15 years, I didn’t know about borders. Like, I live in Juarez, but I would buy my clothes here and would buy certain food items here. It was pretty normal. And now it’s not like that anymore because you’re sometimes afraid.

CRUZ: Now Kenia has to be extra careful whenever she crosses because she says agents have gotten stricter since President Trump took office. If she’s caught with a prohibited item like even an apple she packed for lunch and forgot to throw away, Kenia could lose her fastpass. Recently she had a close call.

GUERRERO: Had a crushed candy in my cup holder. And the agent asked me, is that cocaine? And I got nervous not because it was cocaine but because it’s just a question. Like, how can he think that I’m bringing cocaine? I just told him something along the lines, no, but if you want to try it, you can.

CRUZ: The agent passed on the candy and eventually let her cross. As security and media attention at the border increases, Kenia and Antonio are just trying to hold on to their sense of hometown normalcy.

VILLASENOR-BACA: Yeah, it’s a border, and anywhere else in the country will say it as such. But for us, it’s just two cities that’s divided by a fence.

CRUZ: For the time being at least, Antonio and Kenia will keep crossing that fence because for the people who live and work here, these two cities El Paso and Juarez really do feel like one. For NPR News, I’m Billy Cruz in El Paso, Texas.

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